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Last edited 15 Sep 2017
Future proofing construction
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 What is future proofing?
Future proofing is a broad term that can encompass not only buildings and infrastructure but also communities, cities, countries or the whole planet. It has adopted different meanings within these different contexts, ranging from resilience to climate change to demographic change and resource security.
It is sometimes confused with sustainability issues, life-cycle costing and even well being. Whilst these may be relevant areas of consideration, here they are part of a more specific assessment process.
In relation to buildings, future proofing is an assessment process aimed at maximising whole-live value in the face of unpredictable, ongoing change.
 Historic precedent
New College, Oxford, founded in 1379 has a large dining hall like other Oxford colleges. This is constructed using large oak beams. In 1859 it became clear that the beams needed to be replaced – a difficult and expensive undertaking given the size of the timbers required. It was discovered however that replacement oaks had been planted in the college estates, and these were cut for use in the hall. It has been suggested that these trees were expressly planted for the hall – in effect, the hall had been future proofed against the possibility that the resources necessary to repair it would become (or remain) difficult to obtain.
 Design assessment
Future proofing a building requires careful consideration of likely future scenarios:
- What changes are might happen in the life of the building?
- How likely are those changes?
- How serious would the impact of such a change be?
- What is the cost of future proofing against that change?
Assessment is a very complex process, and there is a danger that a building will adopt future-proofing solutions that might fail:
- The scenario might not happen.
- The solution adopted to cope with the scenario might fail or might not be implemented.
- An unforeseen scenario might render the solution ineffective.
This means that whilst literature often suggests that future-proofing a building is always beneficial, and is inherently ‘environmental’, in fact, future proofing against the wrong scenarios can be a significant waste of resources.
 Future proofing consideration
Some issues that might be considered in assessing the most appropriate strategy for future proofing a building are presented below. It should be noted that many of these go well beyond simple consideration of the fabric of the building to include long-term market assessment and business planning:
The flexibility of a building or elements of its design can allow it to continue to be used efficiently despite changes in operational requirements, whereas an inflexible building might become unusable.
Flexibility might include active flexibility, such as moveable partitions, but can also include the provision of features that are inherently flexible, such as multi-use spaces, open plan as opposed to cellular offices, large floor-to-ceiling heights and high-capacity service voids. It might also include broader characteristics such as the room's ability to expand or to use a range of different energy sources.
However, there are many buildings throughout the world with very expensive designed-in flexibility that has never been used. The requirement for change may never emerge, building occupants can be intransigent and avoid change, or occupants may simply be unaware of the possibility to change their building.
An example of poor adaptability is many UK hospitals with spaces for equipment and plant that has since downsized, and been made portable. The government minister, Francis Maude, said hospital buildings could be built “as sheds around people and equipment that can be reconfigured very quickly in 10 or 20 years’ time when needs change. We need to build in flexibility. We need to have a shell that’s capable of being reconfigured. At the moment, we’re building in obsolescence.”
 Resource use
The cost of energy is likely to continue to rise, and energy security is not certain. This might put a development at risk. Reducing future energy consumption or finding alternative sources of energy can therefore help to future proof a building.
This also applies to other resources that might be required such as water or raw materials for manufacturing.
In some circumstances, this may be sensible, but for example, flood wiring a building to allow for future flexibility may become unnecessary if wireless and mobile technology advances. Similarly, whilst long-life technological solutions might appear in the first assessment to give the most future proof solution, in practice, rapid technological advances might render a solution inefficient or even redundant within its useable life, and planning for regular replacement can be more efficient.
 Resilience to climate change
What would happen if weather patterns were to change? Will a building still function satisfactorily if temperatures rise, or rainfall increases, or the climate becomes more extreme? Is a proposed building in an area that might be at risk from flooding in the future?
Can the building be adapted, or should resilience be built in?
There have been a great many legislative changes in recent years with much more stringent regulations being introduced and a continually changing policy landscape. Whilst on the whole, these tend to impact on new buildings, retrospective changes can affect existing buildings.
For example, the requirement to make existing buildings accessible, or regulations requiring that when an existing building is changed, it must must be adapted to comply with newer standards (for example the application of Part L of the building regulations when an existing building is modified). This can make inflexible buildings unviable.
 After use
Businesses may need to consider what they would do with their building if it became inappropriate for their requirements. Will the building or any of its components have resale value? Can it be adapted to other uses? Is it designed for deconstruction? Does it have inherent disposal costs?
Under certain circumstances, it may be more appropriate for a client to use a short-life, temporary or re-useable building than one that is long life.
 Social attitudes
A building that appears fashionable today, might become unfashionable in the future. This applies particularly to rented accommodation, where if a building does not have a ‘timeless’ style, or is unable to adapt, it may become unviable.
In addition, building users tolerance can also change over time. Issues such as privacy, noise pollution, light pollution or air quality that are now considered acceptable, might in the future be perceived as a problem.
 Wider considerations
An analysis of the predicted development of a geographic area or an industry is likely to impact on the selection of a site for a particular use. For example, will the business be able to attract and retain appropriately qualified staff? Will the business have access to universities? What is the quality of local area, the standard of local schools, the cost of local housing, the quality of the local transport infrastructure?
Will the building be able to respond to the needs of an ageing society, or a move to home working?
On a fundamental level, our numbers on the planet have more than doubled since 1950. There are now estimated to be seven billion people living on the planet. Although forecasters predict the increase in numbers will tail off by 2050, the likely impact of such high numbers on the planet may need to be considered.
NB for more information see Changing Lifestyles.
Alex Gordon RIBA, proposed 3L principle: Long Life, Loose Fit and Low Energy buildings as early as the 1970's in his report on the subject. loose fit describes the buildings as being a loose fit for their purpose so easily adapted for future uses.
 Related articles on Designing Buildings Wiki
- Changing lifestyles.
- Buildings that help rebuild lives and communities.
- Business plan.
- Cost plans.
- Design flexibility.
- Designing resilient cities: a guide to good practice (EP 103).
- Environmental plan.
- Environmental policy.
- Hurricane design considerations.
- Managing and responding to disaster.
- Risk assessment.
- Risk management.
- Smart cities.
- Structure relocation.
- Two steps towards a more resilient world.
- Whole life costs.
 External references
- Bill Gething: Design for Future Climate: opportunities for adaptation in the built environment.
- UK Climate Change Risk Assessment (CCRA).
- Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) National Adaptation Programme (NAP).
- The Environment Agency: Climate Ready support service.
- 9th Brunel International Lecture by Jo da Silva, 2012: Shifting agendas: response to resilience - the role of the engineer in disaster risk reduction.
- http://www.building.co.uk/minister-favours-%E2%80%98sheds%E2%80%99-for-hospitals/5021967.article - Francis Maude "Hospitals should be sheds"
- http://ojs.ecsdev.org/index.php/ejsd/article/viewFile/186/178 - Alex Gordon 3L quote
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