A few years ago, General Electric Canada asked us to review and revamp a corporate campus from the 1980s. GE is a very different company than it was 20 years ago, and their workforce is different, too. As GE moved further into the tech-heavy software and data fields, they needed to become more nimble and competitive with prospects that were considering jobs at Facebook and Google. At first, they believed that included updating their 30-year-old suburban campus.
After the research and visioning process we asked GE to consider a new option. We advised GE Canada to sell the campus and lease space in the city instead. No matter how chic and accommodating they could make the facility, it was still too distant from the diverse, culturally rich, urban environment that would appeal to the talent that GE Canada wanted to draw for their expanding tech divisions.
This experience required a paradigm shift in how we think about longevity. In what feels like the blink of an eye, so much can change, and the purpose for which a building was built might no longer exist. These changes happen quickly. It’s impossible to gauge where they might lead in the future.
So, how do we address longevity alongside the need for fluidity in creating new buildings and redesigning spaces in older ones? Even when their original purpose is long gone, we must find ways to ensure that the spaces we create can be reinvented for the future. We have a favorite phrase: “don’t solve a 5-year problem with a 50-year building.”
Anticipating the Future
Work can be done anywhere and at any time. The highest value office spaces in the future will be built for collaboration. They must be created to inspire the collision of concepts, ideas, and people so they can spark new ideas.
Creating these spaces requires a new way of thinking and a willingness to tackle unknown complexities. These challenges require a team-based approach. All stakeholders have an important viewpoint that must be considered and incorporated into a comprehensive plan for how to approach the project.
Longevity vs. Fluidity
Despite the complexities of building in a world undergoing an exponential rate of change, buildings still (and will always) need to be built. Clients still want customized spaces built for their specific needs. There’s an important caveat, however. What a client thinks they need is more often a reflection of what they already have or have been accustomed to in the past, and not what might serve them best.
Our frame of reference is an understanding of the current state of their field, which typically doesn’t consider the break-neck changes that are already occurring. As organizations change, their physical environments stick around. What happens then?
Knowing that significant change is inevitable — not just over a generation, but within a few years — it doesn’t make sense to build spaces as though their purpose will remain static for decades. Programs and client requirements have become more fluid, more subject to interpretation and adaptation. We need to create buildings with elements that can provide elegant, effective flexibility for years to come.
Lessons from History
In the past, architects have often worked from a place of absolute control. Whether it’s control over the aesthetics of a building or the interpretation of the program, they’ve expressed creativity in very specific and defined ways. It has seemed reasonable for someone — whether an architect or their client — to say, “we need this much land and this much building for this many people,” and then proceed to spend tens of millions of dollars on it. This rigid, singular approach is no longer effective.
Consider the urban lofts in New York City’s Tribeca neighborhood. They’re currently some of the most coveted residential real estate properties in the US, but they once housed artists’ workshops, textile warehouses, and produce markets. When a building is first commissioned it can be hard to imagine it serving anything but its intended purpose. But a building is simply a vessel for any human activity, and can serve any number of purposes over its lifetime.
Some older buildings help teach us how well-planned spaces can continue to work seamlessly over decades and even centuries of use and changes in occupancy, balancing longevity vs. fluidity with grace. Reinventing an existing structure or space, instead of constructing an entirely new one, is an approach that is often more practical and cost-effective over time.