Guest Post by Steve Kendall: Great urban buildings are adaptable or “open”, and sustainable

[Thanks to Steve Kendall, founder of Infill Systems, for providing this guest post.]  Visit any great historic urban neighborhood and you will see stability and coherence, as well as gradual, fine-grained change.  The neighborhood's inhabitants relate to their buildings as we have for centuries: we alter, improve, and embellish them outside and in.  The townhouse fabric of Paris, Amsterdam, Boston, Philadelphia, or Alexandria are examples of such resilience, old but constantly renewed. Our new urban buildings often lack these qualities.  Why?  One answer is the advent of "functionalism".  Since the late 19th century, we have changed how we think about design.  We began to design buildings and spaces for specific uses, known as "functional" design, gradually creating rigid categories of buildings.  We forgot how to build "open" buildings designed around general goals like pleasant light and air, with a range of spaces like "parlor", "front room", and "attic", whose names don't prescribe just one activity.

Another equally-important answer is that we now tangle our buildings with utilities.  Pipes, wires, ducts, and conduits are entwined within walls and floors so inextricably that function or use is fixed.  This entanglement becomes apparent when we repair a bathroom, forcing us to rip out the ceiling below.  Even adding an electrical or data outlet requires removing drywall and finishes, making a mess, and spending too much time and money.

The solution to functionalism is clear: we should build beautiful, strong, energy-efficient shells, and then, in a second move, fit them out with everything needed to make them habitable.  This strategy takes the idea of urban infill and applies it to the buildings themselves, the "infill" or fit-out of interiors.

Just as fixed utility lines under the street serve changing buildings, so a shell's main utility lines (e.g. for water or wire) will enable variable connections for different uses and floor plans.  Capable of adaptable layouts to suit occupants that change of over years and decades, the next wave of small, open buildings will once again enable the fine-grained, gradual, timeless evolution that characterizes our most beloved neighborhoods.

We should stop trying to forecast how occupants want to inhabit space.  Instead, we should invest in open buildings that restore the relationship in our urban neighborhoods between stability and variation, and between our buildings, ourselves, and our future selves.