Whole life to longer life: the way we build buildings must change

By on 21/06/2022 | Updated on 21/06/2022
Photo by Dmitry Vechorko on Unsplash

Midway down Chancery Lane in London sits the 430-year-old Staple Inn. It acts as a reminder that with a fair wind, buildings can last a long time. Whilst this building has undoubtedly had different elements repaired and replaced over the years, it uses have remained similar over the years: ground floor retail with offices above.

For the UK to achieve a zero-carbon future, sustainability must be at the heart of our approach, bolstered by a robust circular economy. When thinking about our infrastructure and methods of construction, the longevity of this building is a clear reminder that we must think well beyond simply avoiding demolition (where the original purpose has been superseded) or maximising recycling. To reduce carbon more assertively, buildings need to last longer. Much longer.

At the most basic level, this means building foundations and structural frames that can last 150 years or more. For example, WSP recently designed a building in Birmingham, where the structural frame was reused, and another in Kensington, which saw construction of a new frame, around the existing one. These projects underline that developers and investors increasingly understand the low carbon and cost benefits of these approaches. But more is required.

Buildings are frequently refurbished with new light fixtures and façades, and cladding can be easily removed with new greener systems installed, so the biggest challenge to designing longer-life buildings is the building’s core. To be truly effective this needs to be flexible to facilitate new uses or to adapt to the changing needs of tenants.

For example, in healthcare, new technologies are changing the way healthcare is delivered, from virtual consultations to less invasive surgery: speeding up recovery times, reducing the need for inpatient beds and allowing some departments to become mobile. As a result, a hospital building may be capable of facilitating many uses beyond medicine over its lifespan.

The interior of a hospital is different to that of a hotel, so how can the two co-exist while avoiding demolition? A truly flexible building would be resilient to different uses and ensuring different components of a building can adapt as required needs to be an essential consideration of any project currently under development.

The other consideration is the fit-out inside the building. Easily adaptive interiors that allow reuse of internal components will be crucial in the future. Drywall may be easily demolished but is not reusable. As the infrastructure industry moves from on-site construction to prefabrication, building design needs to be revisited to enable greater reuse of internal materials and mobilise long-term flexibility.

Individual components also need to be redesigned for easier replacement. In a building or skyscraper, where entire floors may need to have their electricity unplugged or replaced, a new electrical system might be required to simplify maintenance and reduce operational costs.

Here, digital twins could also be the solution. Digital twins are virtual models, which simulate and predict how a building’s system may work – for example, whether a part is faulty or whether a building is energy efficient. Right now, replacement is only possible by crawling under a sink. However, digital twins can assist with identifying components and giving maintenance teams instant guidance on how to replace them.

At the end of the nineteenth century, building design saw a wave of innovation, from the Bessemer process which enabled inexpensive mass production of steel, to the invention of electric light bulbs and passenger lifts. In the future, designing for longer life will be paramount to ensure carbon reduction.

Whether it is through digital technologies, reusable materials, or more efficient business models which optimise performance, a new era of innovation is required to mobilise net zero building design. Ultimately, as we adapt and design the places and spaces we will live and work within in the future, there is much to be done and plenty for the world’s innovators to get their teeth into.

Author: Dale Sinclair, Head of Digital Innovation for Property & Buildings at WSP, the leading engineering professional services consultancy.

To find out more about how WSP is helping to design a net zero future, or to get in touch, please visit our Net Zero Buildings webpage here.

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