Concepts of Change

A short commentary on change and architecture

Change is perhaps the only constant we as humans can expect. In architecture and many other forms of design, change is an accepted reality that will force designers to increase flexibility and understand the dynamics that are in play for components of the objects which we create.  As the chief technical operators, designers are behind the dark curtain shielding the public from the fragile thought-processes that drive many of the things that are made and the reasons for making them.  While architects and designers embrace change, the general public has a much different perception of change and whether it is a necessity – especially when it comes to something as large as a new building.  What may be found after closer examination is that most of the clients designers are employed by are stolidly against change – at least change that may be significant in nature.  Change is not necessarily seen as progression as much of the population tends to lean toward the notion of ‘if it’s not broken, why fix it?’.  While designers are seen as the visionaries in society today, very little of them get to execute their true ideologies and dreams due to a lack of acceptance that the world we are living in is constantly changing and that everything we use, consume or make must rapidly adapt to our capricious society.

Change for many is a hard reality to accept.  Consistency, pattern and rhythm are important aspects of many animals and species – not only humans.  Change is an invasive constant that insists upon insertion at what seems to be the most inopportune times.  A constant that many are toiling with recently is the rapid onset of ‘global warming’ (more recently and accurately coined Climate Change).  This cyclic occurrence which has been scientifically shown happening more than once over the course of the existence of the planet earth has been expedited by human activities – namely vehicular activity and building operations – yet it is near impossible to get the entire population to firmly come to terms with the instability that exists within our own world.  The automobile industry has under strict stipulation from President Barack Obama reduced emissions and increased MPGs while effectively increasing vehicular efficiency in both design and energy consumption.  Meanwhile, the building industry has addressed the problem through feeble attempts, most notably USGBC’s LEED program that is seen more as a political device than a ‘green’ program by architects.  Our ideological shift to sustainable buildings has certainly begun to be reflected in some structures while we continue to build formally unnecessary structures and imbibe upon our “endless” supply of atmosphere-polluting materials. 

Truthfully the transition to sustainable building hasn’t been quite as cohesive as it needs to be and our earth continues to exhibit the harm humans impose upon it.  While the facts and natural disasters don’t quite sway the skeptics – the need to change is opposed by more than political affiliations and a lack of scientific understanding.  To many, a building is seen as an absolute entity; a rectangular enclosure with some glass, some brick and concrete and steel.  Anything besides that is foreign and instantly becomes a blemish in the consistency that has existed for hundreds of years – a consistency our conservative society continues to support while resisting drastic change.  A great example is the Tall Wood project ongoing in Canada where architect Michael Green is seeking to replace a portion of steel construction with lumber.  Backing numerous reports, TED talks and even actual built case studies – he continues to meet hostility primarily because wood has always been used for one to four-story construction – how can it be employed in anything else?  Even industry cohorts have swayed their acceptance of this project simply because of their inability to consider change and the importance it has on the lens we use to view the world.

Architects utilize their concept of change to address many things from programmatic restrictions to climatic impacts on a new structure.  An interesting yet underutilized concept that still deals directly with change is the one of how a building will actually evolve over time.  The way in which it weathers, expands and contracts, operates and aesthetically ages all are important things to consider. When working with any size project how many firms anticipate the appearances or operations fifty years from now?  Are architects thinking of the built environment incorrectly and focusing only on the immediate impacts of a building pushing aside the obvious age-factor an edifice imposes? If we design and construct buildings to address more of these issues that fall under the categories of change, will our sustainability inadvertently increase?  Currently, the biggest issue about buildings may not even be about materiality, lifespan or effective programming – it may be the outdated thought-processes the purveyors of the profession employ.  Instead of instantly assigning a building to be a 50-75-100-year structure – let’s remember that these structures should be first thought of as timeless.  Change will inherently impact our manifestations but doesn’t have to eradicate them.  Architecturally thinking of structures that readily adapt will increase sustainable aspects of our structures and allow our environmental scars to gradually fade more over time.  Buildings that last longer take greater advantage of materials’ embodied energy and can decrease the amount of raw material that must be extracted to replace such structures. 

Change is constant.  The only variable we can constantly include in our understanding of the world as we know it is change.  Building to accommodate such shifts in theory, climate or use allows both environments we inhabit to efficiently evolve over time.  At this time, society continues to struggle with the idea that things will not always remain the same.  Stability is something humans tend to take advantage of and far too often designers forget is only temporary.  Designing buildings or products alike, artists should always consider what their immediate and eventual impacts will be.  Something designed for now very well may be obsolete tomorrow – or it could last for much longer pending the choices made.  The unknowing nature of our creations is dynamic yet inspiring to create something that is flexible yet resilient.  When unleashing a creation upon the earth, designers must remember there will always be an additional variable involved that can never be accurately calculated.  The best way to plan for change is to understand the ways in which we think, do and make must never be fixed but instead malleable.  When time comes to change, our products mustn’t be unprepared or else the cyclical entrapments will steadily consume our creations dooming them to a fixed end-point forcing a massive restart in our efforts.