The way that cities, workplaces, communities and homes are designed continues to change as a result of a number of global, digital, political and technological shifts. As an architect, it’s not always possible to design a building that will still be fit for purpose and useful well into the future. There are, however, a number of things that architects and design professionals can consider when thinking about the long-term sustainability and appropriateness of the projects that they are involved in.

Architects should be proposing visionary ideas for the future
Chinese architect and founder of Beijing-based practice MAD, Ma Yansong, is of the opinion that architects have become too close to the commercial side of the business. Instead of cosying up to developers and clients, they should be proposing visionary ideas for the future.

“Architecture in society today is too collaborative with the commercial world. We should be more critical and be more visionary,” said Ma at the RIBA International Conference, which was held in London in July 2017.

Ma says that architects have a major role to play in addressing the challenges that the world currently faces, such as urbanisation, the future of cities, and climate change. Instead of focusing on the visionary ideas that many architects had during their days as architecture students, many of them get caught up in the day-to-day practicalities of their jobs. Politicians alone can’t create a better future.

“In the past, young, talented architects worked together to form a strong social agenda and communicate with a larger audience. That’s what today’s architecture community should be doing. In these issues [politicians] cannot be the leaders. Every four or five years they change. They need to hear from architects as visionary people. We need to be brave and tell the politicians what a better future could be. We need architects to be visionaries,” says Ma.

Ma adds that there is too much dialogue in between architects and developers, or capitalism and authorities. Instead of simply creating what you think a developer wants, an architect has a duty to put forward more ambitious plans for the future.

“Architects should be visionary,” says Ma.

Consider how workspaces are changing
Corporate interior design and office furniture is a prime example of a sub-sector that has changed vastly over the past decade. Remote workers, the need for increased collaboration and a much larger focus on the well-being of employees has led to a complete overhaul of many office spaces and an increased need for ‘hot desks’ where employees aren’t assigned specific seating spaces. Changing workspaces are also changing the way that architects are designing new corporate offices.

Apple’s new USD$5-billion campus in Cupertino, California can accommodate about 14,000 employees and it is striking to see in drone flyover videos available on YouTube. The campus stars a massive circular building that resembles a spaceship, but it actually has more space for employees to park their cars than office space for them to work. For 14,000 employees, 11,000 parking spaces have been built.

While Apple also has a programme that provides free rides to thousands of staff members to and from work on shuttle buses, it’s still quite a lot of space that has been dedicated to parking. When the campus’ architect, Norman Foster, was asked at the WIRED Business Conference in June 2017 if he’d like to change anything about the headquarters, he said he would have to think for a moment.

“The only hesitation I have is in terms of the changing patterns of transportation. Maybe the conventional garage needs to be rethought and rethought now. Maybe if I had a second time around I’d be putting a lot of persuasive pressure to say, ‘make the floor-to-floor of a car park that much bigger’, so if you’re not going to be filling it with cars in the future you could easily retrofit it for more habitable space,” says Foster.

Flexibility is more than designing open-plan layouts
Foster recalls the late Apple CEO, Steve Jobs’, unrelenting attention to detail, saying that Steve had a very clear vision about what he wanted and he dictated everything from door handles and materials to the ultra-tight tolerances required throughout the building. While one assumes that strict adherence to a client’s vision would stifle flexibility, Foster says the opposite is actually true.

“The best buildings require a strong point of view. They must be thoughtfully designed to adapt to the ways humans and society will inevitably change, and that requires more than just building open-plan layouts,” says Foster.

Future-proofed buildings will take into account the deep-rooted needs of the people who occupy the space. Instead of designing sections where people will work or live, they will help people connect with each other and with nature. As architects, a deep understanding of the desires of the client’s client will help to future-proof a building.

Thanks and acknowledgement are given to www.tcdesign.co.za, www.inkhazi.co.za, www.dezeen, www.wired.com and www.businessinsider.com for some of the information contained in this article.