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Evolvable Design

5 min read

When the Ukrainians begin rebuilding their bludgeoned eastern cities and returning to their damaged homes, among the dysfunctional Soviet legacies they must address is a deeply embedded, invisible one: their national building code. 

The Soviets believed in industrial housing production, prefabricated building components (manufactured in plants and trucked to site as needed), standardization, and what today we might call micro-units. They didn’t believe in autonomy, agency or market evolution. The building codes they dictated for Russia and for the ingested republics are compendia of prohibitions (no elevators in 1950s buildings, deemed too expensive) and mandates (heat via cast-iron radiators using steam piped from mammoth central power plants). That command-and-control legacy of property remains, and if a decades-old Khrushchyovka or Brezhnevka block is structurally damaged, under current Ukrainian code it must be rebuilt largely as long-dead Nikita or Leonid decreed.   

By specifying now-tech, the Soviets ended up mandating petrified-tech and prohibiting better-tech, because they violated the design principle we often forget: Design for evolvability.  

All technology changes society and it demands improved accommodations. Disruptive technology disrupts society, and a disrupted society demands disrupted living accommodations now. Although the explosive growth of work-from-home was triggered by a transitory event, the preference cascade it wrought is irreversible, and after a few weeks of miserably embarrassing dining-table laptop-camera Zoom calls, the formalized home office permanently commandeered the dining room, the second bedroom or the basement, and evicted its previous users. 

Dwelling environments are exoskeletons that protectively encase the households inside them. Households evolve and their needs evolve, and as they do, so too should their accommodations, and the more evolvable an apartment is, the higher its rent and the longer its structural life. Yet many new affordable housing properties are designed based on mandatory minimum room sizes, and virtually all have fixed floor plans and immovable interior walls.   

Acknowledging that evolvability depends on being able to adapt to disruptive technology suggests that in both new construction and substantial rehab, developers and architects should reflect on these hypothetical design principles: 

1. Assume future residential costs-per-square-foot, power consumption and information demands will continuously rise for a decade or more. Smaller means cheaper, and as long as it’s adapted for both home and work use, it also means higher value per square foot. 

2. Wherever possible, use modular components, including cabinetry, so that when fashions change or technologies increase, only the unit needs to be changed, not its mount or its connections. 

3. Enable both wireless and wired communications in every room. Make allowance for unexpected improvements in broadband speed remaking best-tech. 

4. Allow large wall spaces to accommodate mounted ever-bigger, ever-lighter high-resolution video screens. Screens keep getting larger, brighter and more prevalent, and the endgame will arrive only when a screen gives as good a view as a window. 

5. Wire for higher electrical loads that you can imagine the property will ever need. They will be needed; the only question is when. 

6. Soundproof more than ever before, including intra-apartment soundproofing. Five years ago, it wasn’t essential; now it is. 

7. Minimize load-bearing walls, which are the bane of any rehab developer’s existence. One day soon it will be possible to have inter-room panels that can be notched or cranked to widen or narrow one room or the other.

8. Use standard increments for room dimensions to enable low-cost reconfigurations. When a room’s interior walls are non-load bearing, and its length and width are in (say) six-inch quanta, apartment reconfiguring (or even changing room counts) will be available upon turnover, opening up new vistas of income and use-mixing.4  

9. Use sandwich-panel technology for walls and ceilings/floors, with standard joins at corners and vertices, and standard power/information outlets. An apartment assembled out of manufactured components that connect in reliable and interoperable ways can be rapidly delivered on-site, and even more rapidly repaired.   

10. Run channelized tubes through sandwich panels to provide easy snakeways for present-day and potential future information networks. Preferably cylindrical tubes wide enough to accommodate the likely mini pipe-crawlers that will soon be engineered. 

11. Build programmable airflow apertures into interior and exterior walls to allow for routing and re-routing air into or out of the building, and to enable negative pressure rooms in at least one room, possibly more.   

12. Liberally distribute outlets and sockets, ideally universal-purpose or USB. No one moving in ever complained about too many plugs. If using standardized sandwich panels, embed them at regular intervals.  

And, to make this a baker’s dozen, one final evolvability principle: 

13. Re-read your state or local building codes to see what Soviet-style mandates or prohibitions have been left behind, and campaign to get them remade for evolvability.  

To architects or developers, an apartment is a finished product that they create, and someone then buys or rents. To a household, an apartment is an impersonal box that becomes a home only when we have not simply occupied it, as a family we have rearranged it to suit our evolving selves and our evolving families. That makes all of us, credentialed or not, designers. 

David A. Smith is founder and CEO of the Affordable Housing Institute, a Boston-based global nonprofit consultancy that works around the world (60 countries so far) accelerating affordable housing impact via program design, entity development and financial product innovations. Write him at [email protected].