Focus topics

  • flexibility and future adaptability
  • risk assessment
  • resilience
  • passive survivability

Adaptability, resilience, and reuse are essential to good design, which seeks to enhance usability, functionality, and value over time.

  • How does the project address future risks and vulnerabilities from social, economic, and environmental change?
  • How is the project designed for adaptation to anticipate future uses or changing markets?
  • How does the project address passive survivability and/or livability?

With this measure, we can expand our thinking beyond one immediate commission. By looking back and looking ahead, we recognize the value of existing buildings from an earlier time—and the potential of new projects over their full lifespan into the future. Buildings are great resources that require immense effort, investment, and materials to construct. In addition to operation and maintenance impacts, the construction process represents a large portion of a building’s total impact on global climate change.

Flexibility and future adaptability

  1. Place structural elements for maximum flexibility. Consider how structural columns, lateral systems, and floor-to-floor heights can accommodate different arrangements of the same use, and be adapted for different uses in the future. An example is to provide a new parking garage with 12-foot rather than 9-foot floor-to-floor slabs so it can one day be converted into a space for people.
  2. Design for disassembly. A few strategies include using bolted (rather than welded) connections, making interior demising walls non-bearing, and detailing gypsum wallboard partitions to be reconfigurable or reusable.
  3. Design for flexibility so spaces can adapt to other functions as conditions change. Assume that during the lifespan of a building, each space will be used for programs other than what they were designed for. This is the idea of Loose Fit: Interchangeability (the flexibility to easily reprogram a space designed for one function with a different one), which provides economy.
  4. Plan for future different building use. The future program of a building might not even exist today. High ceilings and clear spaces without interior bearing walls will provide maximum flexibility for new programs.
  5. Plan for changes in technology. Rapidly changing systems such as audio/visual might be outdated soon after a building is completed. Ensure that these systems are easily accessed so they can be replaced as technology changes.
  6. Adaptable HVAC systems might have an exposed distribution network and a flexible system for altering supply and return locations. Underfloor air distribution systems (UFAD) are an option for an easily adaptable system.
  7. Hospitals pose unique challenges. Strategies may include: planning for changes over time as methods of care evolve; designing movable nurses’ stations; creating patient care rooms of flexible room sizes; providing the possibility of outside air ventilation; and ensuring the ability to function during times of crisis.

Risk assessment

  1. Anticipate the major risks that the building is likely to face over its lifetime and determine strategies to prepare for them. Examples include hurricanes, earthquakes, floods, wildfires, utility disruptions, hail, war, etc.
  2. Base design and performance analysis on predictive climate modeling instead of historic data. The climate is changing and data from 30 years ago might no longer be relevant.
  3. Design for higher temperatures and more extreme weather events than the region is currently experiencing. Five hundred–year storm events should be treated like 100-year storm events; designing for 1,000-year storm events should be considered.
  4. Designate safe zones within the building that are appropriate to the risk the building faces. For example, a tornado shelter might be in a basement, but a hurricane shelter would not be, due to flooding potential.
  5. Design for rising sea levels when building along the coast. Determine the first-floor height by potential storm surge levels, rather than base flood elevation.
  6. Anticipate power outages. Determine which systems require backup power, and use passive strategies to ensure comfort without electricity.


  1. Each building supports people in different ways during and after emergencies. Define what “maintaining function” means for a specific project. For critical services, this could mean returning to typical operations quickly. Immediate use of a community building may simply depend on passive survivability.
  2. Resilience depends on both the building and the community. A building might or might not be resilient in the face of disruption, but its recovery will ultimately be determined by the strength of the community. Ensure that a building contributes to and strengthens its community. (See Measure 2: Design for Community.)
  3. Consider phased recovery. Incorporate strategies for both immediate assistance during a disruption (such as use of a community shelter) and for an eventual return to normal (e.g., using durable materials that need little maintenance).

Passive survivability

  1. Natural daylight allows circulation through buildings during the day. Communities could plan to have small lanterns available to see by at night.
  2. Provide natural ventilation via operable windows. Without natural ventilation, buildings without power in hot climates will become uninhabitable.
  3. Areas of stable temperature within expanded habitable range can be maintained with a strong building envelope (good air tightness and insulation combined with high- performance windows and thermal mass).
  4. Ensure access to potable water without a municipal power grid.

Additional information

This publication is designed to provide accurate and authoritative information in regard to the subject matter covered.It is published and distributed with the understanding that the publisher is not engaged in rendering professional services.  If professional advice or other expert assistance is required, the services of a competent professional person should be sought.

Image credits

Federal Building and US Courthouse_Kevin Reeves_WElevation

Kevin Reeves

11-finished exterior

John Williams Architects

NOAA-exterior1_rlm edited

Alan Karchmer Photography

3 - Renwick

Kevin Reeves