Last month on a business trip to Washington, I noticed a billboard as I left the airport. It read: “When this airport was built, the average life expectancy was 65. Today, it’s 78.” I’m sure the marketers who designed the ad intended for it to prompt a reconsideration of my investment strategy. But the billboard had a slightly different impact on me. Beyond the fact that retirement seems a long way off, I began thinking about all of the other demographic shifts that have taken place since the terminal at National Airport opened its doors in 1941—aging, globalization, mobility, technology—and what those shifts mean for the built environment we design.
A building designed today might live 25, 50, or even 100 years or more, as we see in structures like airports or office buildings. But the interior spaces survive for only 5 to 10 years. So for me, the longevity of a space depends on two things: adaptability and impact.
The pace of change we see in our world today drives the short life span of interiors. In workplace, healthcare, hospitality, and even educational environments, function and aesthetic desires evolve quickly—sometimes even during the course of a project. And as we learn more and more about the spaces we design through evidence-based research, post-occupancy evaluation, and the implementation of ongoing metrics, there is a growing push for spaces that can adapt to needs over time. But as we promote design solutions that are geared toward flexibility, I find myself asking, how elastic are they really? Can one really rearrange and update the aesthetic without much demo and rebuild? Is it possible through innovative product design and thoughtful construction to embrace continual change? I believe it is.
From moveable walls and lighting systems to embedded power and carpet tiles, product manufacturers are responding to shifts in the industry in powerful ways—many of which allow for the flexibility the market demands. And, having just returned from NeoCon, I’m excited about trends for the future.
Beyond product design, the marketplace is responding with new business models. ASID’s headquarters staff is exploring collaborative work through a membership with WeWork while it builds out a permanent office space. Corporations are partnering with companies like Liquid Space to eliminate underutilized spaces and replace long-term leases with flexible workplace solutions. And corporate real estate firms like JLL are rethinking plug-and-play solutions with shorter term leases for clients craving flexibility.
But sometimes a full remodel is the only way. That’s where impact comes into play. As a profession, it’s imperative we design short-term spaces in ways that maximize benefits for the users of a space while limiting the impact they have on the environment throughout their lifecycle—including their end of life. From take-back programs and product leases to products designed for deconstruction, we’ve seen some progress over time. But, at the end of the day, do we have sufficient tools and material choices to design for deconstruction and reuse? Are construction teams willing and able to deconstruct for salvage when project schedules are compressed and budgets tight? How does the tension between biodegradability and durability play out over time? If everything was reusable would clients be okay with “used” materials? As designers, would we?
And then there are the people. There is no question the average life expectancy is increasing—over the next 35 years we are going to live even longer without even taking into consideration the new technologies designed to assist in longer life. My hope is that we’ll continue to push for quality of life as well. Interior design can help—not only to functionally accommodate all ages but to nurture the aesthetic appeal of each environment and inspire users in meaningful ways.
There is no doubt these are all complex issues to consider, with few answers readily available. But with a healthy dissatisfaction with the status quo, a thoughtful approach to design (and a little bit of courage to try new things), I’m confident our profession is ready to meet the challenges of our changing world.
Rachelle Schoessler Lynn, FASID, CID, LEED Fellow, is the national president of ASID and a senior associate with MSR in Minneapolis. ASID can be reached at (202) 546-3480 or [email protected], and on the web at asid.org.