Salvador Rivas
Director General
S*ARC
/
Expert Contributor

Adaptability of the Built Environment in Times of Change

By Salvador Rivas | Mon, 01/10/2022 - 11:02

“The Only Thing that is Constant is Change.” These words from the Greek philosopher Heraclitus from 500 B.C. are as current today as they were 2,500 years ago.

This is something we all experienced in the last couple of years as everything we thought was certain in our lives radically changed one way or another as a result of the COVID pandemic, and perhaps even more permanently than we all initially thought would be the case. In that sense, as an architect, I have been asking myself for more than 20 years now, how can the Architecture, Engineering and Construction (AEC) industry better adapt to our current and future challenges, like that which we are currently experiencing?

This is something that I explored early in my career during my postgraduate studies at the Bartlett School of Architecture, University College London, when our Master in Architecture Course Director, Prof. Peter Cook, gave us a task to develop a project that represented ourselves. There I was, a young Mexican architect, trying to come up with an innovative design solution, which was certainly no small feat, considering the skills of my colleagues.  

At that point, I had to carefully assess my surroundings and come up with an original idea. As is well known, I confirmed that London’s weather was a constantly changing environment, regardless of the season. Within minutes, it would change from rainy to sunny and then back to rainy again. And what was most interesting is that umbrellas were not really serving their purpose as many broken ones littered the streets of the city, unused and discarded.  

Applying what I had learned from my academic and professional experience in Mexico, I used my model-making skills and built an “adaptive poncho.” This unusual solution resulted from designing a portable “sombrero” that would conceal a waterproof cover to be utilized in any weather condition. As I used it, to the amazement of bystanders and the delight of Prof. Cook, it was then and there that my passion for adaptive design solutions was born.

For more than 20 years, I have had the opportunity to collaborate at some of the most important architectural practices in the world, working on different projects in Mexico and other countries. During this time, I have witnessed that, regardless of the project type, scale and location, most of them pose the same cost, time and quality challenges for clients and users. It always makes me wonder, how can these projects, which are designed and built to last an average of at least 60 years, adapt to the constant changes in our environment?

The “vulnerability” of our buildings to unexpected change has become evident in the past two years as the world has experienced some of the most important transformations on how we live, work and play.[1] Despite the best efforts from governments around the world to promote the “return to normal,” more lockdowns have been recently announced, thus limiting again the activities that were already taking place across different real estate segments.

This is having a significant impact in our AEC industry, which for many years has experienced challenges on how to remain efficient and competitive in comparison to other industries. According to McKinsey, the industry faces limited performance on project execution, insufficient skills, incomplete design processes and underinvestment in skills development, R&D and innovation. The AEC industry’s productivity has a 1 percent annual growth, compared to 2.8 percent for the world economy and 3.6 percent in manufacturing.[2]

This study provides a series of recommendations to increase the industry’s productivity in a variety of key areas, rethink design and engineering processes and improve procurement and advanced automation, among others. There is a key focus on constructability, pushing for repeatable design elements, thinking of it as a production system, and developing off-site manufacturing. “The potential of a mass-production system offers the chance of a dramatic step change in productivity in some segments of the industry.”[3]

Modular Construction

So, what does this really mean for our industry and what are the most viable and immediate options available? Despite its past limitations of market acceptance, product development and limited flexibility, modular construction is an appealing solution as it has many proven advantages in comparison to traditional construction. Estimates suggest that it can accelerate project timelines by 20-50 percent and provide 20 percent construction cost-savings and result in an overall improvement in the cost, time, and quality of building projects.[4]

Some regions in the US, UK, Australia, Japan and Germany are experiencing the emergence of modular construction with significant benefits, such as reduced building costs, accelerated build schedules, greater certainty on both build times and costs, improved building quality and better energy performance. There is also a wide range of opportunities for modular building applications in different building typologies.[5]

As an example, the UK is promoting modular construction not only to make the AEC industry more efficient but also to solve problems stemming from the COVID pandemic and better design, build and maintain buildings. As the construction industry generates 5 percent of the UK’s CO2 emissions [6], modular construction is also more sustainable, with 67 percent less energy consumption, 90 percent fewer delivery expenses and 40 percent less waste to produce a modular build. This also aligns with UK government initiatives on Modern Methods of Construction (MMC) to achieve net zero by 2050. [7]

This also provides great opportunities for the development of new initiatives in emerging economies, like the Latin American market, where the challenges of the AEC industry and housing shortage are even greater. At recent real estate forums, the conversations have been around which real estate sectors will have a faster recovery and how to overcome the under-utilization of some building typologies, like office spaces, by converting them into other uses, such as residential.

But what if at this moment in time we could overcome these pressing and future problems by re-thinking the way we design, build and maintain our buildings from the outset? As Charles Darwin noted: “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent, but the one that is most adaptable to change.” Nature and its systems are constantly changing and providing us with lessons on resilience, flexibility and adaptability and this can be an exciting blueprint for new trends in technology and sustainability, leading to more Adaptive Building Systems.

From all this, we can consider that the challenges that we are facing are the great opportunity for lessons learned that we have been waiting for to approach our built environment differently and create more adaptable, efficient, and sustainable building systems, which can have a greater responsiveness to change, the only thing that is constant, as noted by Heraclitus many centuries ago, in our present and future lives.

 

[1] Coronavirus and Real Estate: What Happens to Malls, Offices, Commercial Buildings in 2021 (bloomberg.com), October, 2020

[2]  Reinventing construction through a productivity revolution | McKinsey February, 2017

[3] Reinventing construction through a productivity revolution | McKinsey February, 2017

[4]  Modular construction: From projects to products | McKinsey June, 2019

[5]  Modular construction: From projects to products | McKinsey June, 2019

[6] Climate change - UKGBC - UK Green Building Council

[7] Modern Methods of Construction - GOV.UK (www.gov.uk), January 2020

Photo by:   Salvador Rivas