Gamer Changer: Adaptable Architecture, theory and practice

Karin Krokfors
27 Apr 2017

Adaptable Architecture, Theory and Practice by Robert Schmidt III, Senior Lecturer in Architecture and Simon Austin, Professor of Structural Engineering, both at Loughborough University, brings to the fore an essential aspect of sustainability, namely its spatial context. Discussion of sustainability has tended to focus on energy and buildings materials, while spatial solutions have played a very modest role. The adaptability of architecture – the range of design objectives, design strategies for adaptability, and how to assess the different solutions –has not before been tackled in such depth in a single book. Although adaptability and its role in sustainability have been recognized in research, the focus has usually been on either practical design strategies for adaptability and flexibility as such, or promoted adaptability as a general goal for sustainable building without studying how it can be applied in practice. Therefore, not only for theoreticians, but also for practicing architects, engineers and other professionals linked to building and planning who want to expand their knowledge, this book is an interesting presentation of the different viewpoints.

Schmidt and Austin emphasize the importance of the durability of the building stock largely from the point of view of social sustainability, which adaptable architecture promotes. The availability of natural resources is not sufficient to maintain a path of continual rebuilding. Adaptability, like flexibility in general, is often considered both highly technical and expensive. However, as the authors argue, it does not always demand extra resources but rather conscious intention in design. This is particularly true if adaptability is linked to the multi-functionality of spaces, which demand little or no transformation to be flexible.

Schmidt and Austin review the different strategies and features of adaptable architecture that enable the continual usability of buildings. Not all flexibility and adaptability work towards these objectives, so the authors also seek evaluate the different solutions of adaptability and their objectives. Dividing the booking into themes, they try to answer the questions of what adaptable architecture is, why it is necessary, and how it could be attained through design. Their aim, as they say, is to bring clarity to the concept of adaptability and to define the factors that give rise to different levels of adaptability. This is seen as important because there are many different interpretations of adaptability and flexibility, and some even contradict one another.

The book opens with a brief review history of adaptability, and continues with the study of the theoretical approaches to it. The theory part gives a very good overview and interpretation of the topic for a reader who is not familiar with it, providing several case studies of diverse building types from housing to public space. Building on the existing theories Schmidt and Austin introduce their own views on adaptability and how it could be promoted through design.

Image 1: Herman Hertzberger’s 1971 Diagoon housing

They frame their argument around the works of several theorists and architects. The most practical, and still applied, are Dutch architects’ N.J. Habraken’s open building and Herman Hertzberger’s understanding of polyvalent multi-functional space. These very different approaches to adaptability and flexibility have diverse background assumptions, moving between transformability and multi-usability. Their ideas, and those of others, have been developed further by architect Bernard Leupen in his book of Frame and Generic Space (2006). Biologist Stuart Brand, through his seminal How Buildings Learn (1994), and architect Frank Duffy’s research from the 1980s and 1990s have also been important ‘game changers’ that have advanced the understanding of building as a process. According to Brand and Duffy all buildings are comprised of several layers that age at different rates and are continually evolving, while those unable to evolve usually vanish. However, seeing the building as a custom-made product is still very persistent, especially in the field of housing production, and amendments are hardly ever considered in the design phase. It is very difficult to change the existing housing design and production paradigms, which Schmidt and Austin also emphasize. Too often adaptable architectural applications have been one off experiments that have had no real impact beyond their particular examples. The authors argue that this has also been affected by the fact that flexibility is often considered as expensive and an (unnecessary) extra cost to building construction. They indicate that widening the scope of adaptability would yield solutions that are neither more expensive and nor more technologically oriented.

The ambitious scope of the book is both its best asset and its weakness. It contains a massive amount of information that would have benefited from more explanation and better definition of the key concepts of adaptability and flexibility. However, the wide coverage is understandable because so many issues are concurrently at work in the design and production of adaptable architecture, and the theme is extremely diverse. The processes from planning to implementation are affected by regulations and policies as well as the diversity of interlinked aspects within the existing overall building culture, which is tuned to a very different kind of mindset. Although general policies already tend to be conducive to adaptability, the practical solutions and the path to them are paved with obstacles which hinder adaptability becoming a key part of design in everyday building production. 

The whole process of producing the built environment, particularly housing, undermines all kinds of innovation and risk taking, which are needed for adaptable and flexible solutions to emerge. In building construction the focus is mostly a timeline of 20 years, whereas for adaptability this can be several decades or even hundreds of years.  Promoting adaptability does not really benefit the builders, particularly if they are only building to sell and are not managing the real estate afterwards. All profits have to be made through production. The long-term view embedded in adaptable architecture, both as means and ends, is very easily buried under the short-term aspirations of developers and other contracting bodies. The wicked problem of how to change from a short-term to a long-term view, which is an essential part of resilient development, is the key to attaining adaptable architecture. The whole housing production system is nonetheless tuned to making the dwellings more effective spatially, which have led to smaller dwelling sizes in general. However, adaptable and flexible spatial configurations usually require more spacious solutions and a change to seeing buildings as continually evolving entities rather than replaceable purpose-built products.

The wide focus of this book, which tackles structure of the building, building characteristics, industry standards, typology, costs, policies, planning, economics and as well as the different aspects of sustainability and so on, shows how profound changes are needed in production and in the mind set of all stakeholders connected to production of the built environment, to be able to promote the development of adaptable buildings. However, the wide scope in the book, even dealing with passive housing solutions, has been the very reason it has been difficult to make a coherent and easily comprehensible theoretical approach towards adaptable architecture. Clearly, a single book can only scratch the surface by clarifying the different aspects linked to adaptable architecture but by laying the gamut of interlinked aspects in front of us in the quest for adaptable architecture, is the essential essence of the book. At its best the book can inspire further research and even steps to the implementation of adaptable design.

Because the information load in the book is so great, it is challenging for the reader to comprehend all the different dimensions of adaptability and how they are linked to each other. This might limit its use as a design tool. Further, in some instances the parameters portrayed in the wide range of diagrams and tables also seem to lack comparability. In fact they work best if you know what you are looking for, or if you use the book as some kind of checklist for what should be taken into consideration in designing adaptable architecture. However, design is never solely a problem solving operation in which good solutions are put together. Holistic view of design is always needed to understand how different issues are connected in adaptable architecture and how they relate to each other at different scales and from different viewpoints.

The authors take the systems responsible for the production of the built environment very much as given and are not openly critical of the processes per se. In their conclusions, however, which they present as a manifesto for adaptability in architecture, they state that both the industry and stakeholders need new ways of thinking and a new production logic. This is the key to being able to promote adaptability and flexible solutions in general. The main points – and their manifesto for adaptability – stated in a nutshell are:

  • There is a need for broadened scope of adaptability.
  • There is variety of ways to accomplish adaptable architecture for different objectives.
  • There is a need for simplicity and familiarity for people to understand how it can be easily applied.
  • Understanding the buildings as processes.
  • And above all, changing the erroneous logic of short-determinism of the industry and understanding changing needs of people inhabiting buildings.

In the end it is the people’s (unpredictable) behaviour in the coming decades (or centuries) that will decide whether the built stock will be durable or not.



Brand, S. (1994). How buildings learn. What happens after they are built. New York: Penguin books.

Habraken, N.J. (1972). Supports, an alternative to mass housing. Translated into English by Valkenburg, B. London: The Architectural Press.

Hertzberger, H. (1991). Lessons for Students in Architecture. Rotterdam: 010 Publishers.

Leupen, B. (2006a). Frame and generic space. Rotterdam: 010 Publishers.



Image 1: Herman Hertzberger’s 1971 Diagoon housing, which epitomize polyvalence. (Source: David Kasparek at Flikr CC BY-SA 2.0


As ever we welcome further Built Environment blogs & tweets on this theme!