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New buildings are huge carbon hogs. Here’s how to design them to last for centuries

The threat of climate change calls for architects to design buildings for reuse, adaptation, and unexpected futures.

New buildings are huge carbon hogs. Here’s how to design them to last for centuries
[Images: IakovKalinin/iStock/Getty Images Plus, panimoni/iStock/Getty Images Plus]

Some buildings have withstood the test of time. After centuries or even millennia, they’ve remained structurally sound, revered as inhabitable spaces of human history and innovation. Some are still even in use today, many lifetimes after their original designers died.

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These buildings, either on purpose or by accident, were designed to last. It’s an increasingly relevant concept. The construction and operation of buildings is responsible for a worrying amount of carbon dioxide emissions. The embodied carbon that results from the production of building materials and construction adds up to an estimated 11% of all global carbon emissions. According to a new book on long-lived buildings, designing buildings to stay standing much longer—and survive the various twists and turns that come with these longer lifespans—is a new imperative for architects.

“Buildings are an enormous investment of energy, material, human capital, and money,” says David Fannon, a professor of architecture at Northeastern University and coauthor of The Architecture of Persistence: Designing for Future Use. “We pour all these resources into making them. It seems like it would be good if those things served their purpose for as long as possible.”

Cowritten with fellow Northeastern University architecture professors Michelle Laboy and Peter Wiederspahn, the book profiles buildings across history that have managed to stay in use, even as the needs of their users have changed. There’s the grain market turned museum, the church horse stables turned residences, even the parking garage that can one day become a space for humans instead of cars. These structures all share common design approaches that make them more easily adaptable over time. As the book explains, there are three main ways buildings can be designed from the start to have such long-lasting relevance: being designed with materials that will help them stand strong over time, being capable of hosting uses beyond their original intent, and being designed with the future in mind.

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[Photos: urfinguss/iStock/Getty Images Plus, Chasseur de Couleurs/Getty Images]

Designed to last

Building to last means building with the right materials in the right way.

“Our working hypothesis was that to build more durable buildings that could be reused and last a long time was going to mean a lot more material, better material, more expensive and energy-intensive construction,” Fannon says. “But what we learned over and over again from the buildings we studied and from the people we talked to, that’s not necessarily true. It actually has more to do with how well or badly the building was designed than the materials themselves.”

That can mean paying attention to the tiny details, and ensuring buildings are properly maintained. A building can have all the strongest exterior materials and the most durable floors and walls, but if a sealant around its windows wears away in 20 years, the inevitable leaks will slowly destroy the building through mold and decay. “The failure of that one short lift component reduces the life of the entire building,” Fannon says.

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One example is Arnold Print Works, originally built in the 1860s in North Adams, Massachusetts, now home to the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, known colloquially as MASS MoCA. For decades, the buildings housed one of the country’s leading producers of printed textiles before the company closed in the 1940s. Next, an electric company bought the site, making extensive modifications to the interiors to convert the former textile mill into an electronics plant. Initially fueled by the demands of World War II, the plant morphed over the decades, later producing electrical components for the consumer electronics market until the mid-1980s when competition from lower-priced operations abroad shuttered the business. By this time, the region had shifted away from its industrial roots. The arts community was thriving, and the large halls, high ceilings, and factory floors of the facility made it an ideal space for exhibiting large works of contemporary art. Spearheaded by museum directors and a collection of renowned architects, MASS MoCA eventually opened there in 1999.

The original factory facility has been able to house all these different purposes because it was built to have strong, nearly maintenance-free exteriors, well-distributed natural light, and a structure of timber and cast iron that has remained strong for more than 150 years.

Designed to change

Flexibility is key to making a building adaptable, even as times, technologies, and economics change.

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Fannon points to the development of the National Health System in the United Kingdom. As its facilities were being designed, the planners of the system intentionally left room for hospitals and labs to expand. Knowing that medicine and science are in a constant state of evolution, the facilities were designed to see their campuses grow as times changed.

In the U.S., there’s another famous example. The Salk Institute in La Jolla, California, is a revered piece of modernist architecture, designed by Louis Kahn in 1965. The oceanfront property has a sawtooth arrangement of buildings oriented around its famous fountain, which lines up perfectly with the sunset over the ocean on the spring and fall equinoxes. Less photogenic but perhaps more important is the facility’s flexible design. Its lab spaces were designed to expand or contract based on the work being done there. Acknowledging the changing demands of science, Salk designed the labs as column-free spaces that could flex as needed.

“People can see enough into the future that they know things are going to change,” Fannon says.

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Designed for the future(s)

In Salt Lake City, a U.S. Courthouse designed by Thomas Phifer and Partners and opened in 2014 has a long-time horizon. Anticipating a future when more courtrooms and judges’ quarters would be needed, the courthouse’s fifth floor was designed with the floor thicknesses, ceiling heights, and support structures able to accommodate these spaces if and when they’re needed.

It’s an emerging example of a building designed with an expected future in mind, Fannon says.

He and his coauthors have been teaching a course at Northeastern for about 10 years on what they call “future use architecture.” It’s a mix of architectural design and scenario planning, in which possible futures are used to guide how a building takes shape, often using the Northeastern campus and surrounding neighborhood as a site.

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“So if the future is like the zombie apocalypse and your building can be a fortress, great,” Fannon says. If the future is more like a hyper-commercial urban development, he says, it might be useful if the building could easily convert into an office building. Or, if population growth is projected to skyrocket, it might be better if the building can one day turn into housing.

Buildings should also be designed so that they aren’t too defined. “I might make you a building that’s well detailed, keeps the water out, is structurally sound, and lasts through earthquakes. But if you can’t fit modern needs into it, if it’s some weird design, if the spaces are too big or too small, if I can’t run a wifi router in it because the walls are all blocking the signal, the building might get torn down,” Fannon says. “It becomes obsolete economically long before it becomes a failure structurally or materially.”

Mostly, Fannon says, the buildings that can have second or third lives are the ones that are most tuned to the actual needs of human users, with good daylight, comfortable rooms sized to the physiology of the human body, and with the safety and social elements that human psychology seems to prefer.

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Humility check

Designing buildings for unexpected futures, though, is a change of pace for many architects. Fannon says architects may be hesitant to design a building for one use, only to have its purpose completely change down the line, perhaps without their input. “How can I say this delicately?” he says. “As an architect, I’m going to say that architects are not famous for being a humble profession writ large.”

But given the scale of the climate change problem and the importance of reducing carbon emissions immediately, Fannon says architects should put their egos aside and consider ways in which their projects can leave a legacy that can survive generations, long after they’re gone (and forgotten).

“There’s a mental shift,” Fannon says. “It’s not the way we’ve conventionally thought about buildings, and it requires us to think about buildings—and maybe ourselves—a little differently.”

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