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Purpose Built Design

© Robert Benson Photography
By Chad Wisler, PE, LEED AP BD+C
November 21, 2017

Does this article title take you back to the days of exacting space programming and subsequent test fits and final design documentation based upon specific people and processes in a client’s company? It wasn’t that long ago actually. Then we had a revelation that flexibility and adaptability perhaps was more attractive to clients (to win projects) or better yet… may support their operational mission and desired company culture.  This became a wave of change in workplace design starting with the Dot-coms, High-Tech, Life Science, GSA, and Academia. 

Over the past couple of years, we’ve seen a shift back towards less open offices and more defined working spaces (either as collaborative spaces or the infamous dedicated office). This change of workplace philosophy is healthy and at a minimum promotes the discussion with our clients. Learning from history, we know the ‘current’ best practice workplace design philosophy will continue to cycle.  Knowing this is true – how can we minimize the risk to the project?  How can we support flexibility and adaptability of the building to support this cyclical change in workplace?

While it’s nearly impossible to design a project for ultimate flexibility, there are several key strategies that can be employed to reduce these risks during the design-construction phases and subsequent occupancies for the next 20, 50, 100 years.

Limit Constraints: The structural system and the cadence of columns, beams, floor-to-floor heights, and the building core won’t change over the lifetime of the building. Once these ‘design’ variables are set… they’re set.  Study the optimization of these core attributes. A column grid of 20’x20’ to 30’x30’ will increase the load capacities of the columns and potentially increase the horizontal structural system.  Similarly, increasing the floor-to-floor heights often increases the project first costs due to the added facade area. However, each of these project variable are counterbalanced by added adaptability and flexibility of the ‘building’ for years to come.  Determining the right balance of these variables is a true investment.

Plan for Change: The MEP distribution systems are comprised of a wide variety of items ranging from ductwork, conduit, cable tray, piping, terminal boxes, coils, valves, supports, sensors, etc.  That’s a lot of items that will need to re-routed or replaced over the life of the building or worse yet – for each individual renovation. Knowing this, there are strategies that can be employed at the design phase to reduce changes.  These include sizing distribution for blocks rather than individual zones, treating distribution systems as floor-level resources to be ‘tapped’ as needed and organizing the distribution in classical above ceiling zones.  Consider the use of wireless thermostats, controls and sensors. Additional strategies include planning floor plate zones for future vertical distribution to support sinks and core equipment. Standards for interior partitions (demountable) and systems are key at the floor-level to facilitate change as well as maintain design levels of daylight penetration.

Communication: Engage the owner, not simply about the current trends, but rather looking forward and strategizing together on the project-specific options to make sure the solutions are appropriate.  Engage the consultants; each have a wealth of experience and knowledge, not purely in their discipline, but often across the built environment. Communication includes planning for change and documenting capacities, provisions for system isolation and maintaining building design and record documentation.  

Design is interactive and founded on study. A building designed for flexibility and adaptability for an owner, over the lifetime of the building is truly a “purpose built” design.

Published in High Profile's January 2018 Edition