The Greenest Building Is Flexible, Adaptable, and Universal

CRTKL is developing a template for a building that can serve many functions.

parking structure converted to office
A parking structure converted into an office.


British architect Robert Adam's article in Building Design has a brilliant title: "The Elefante in the Room." It is a reference to the famous statement by American architect Carl Elefante back in 2007: “The greenest building is the one that already exists." It's been quoted many times on Treehugger so it goes without saying we are in agreement. Adam suggests it should be adapted when planning new buildings as well, something like:

"The greenest development is the one that can be re-used in the future. Unfortunately, the only thing you know about the future is that you don’t know exactly what it will be. But the principle that buildings that last a long time are intrinsically sustainable is fundamental. This is the real elephant in the room with new building design."

This is a concept that American architectural firm CallisonRTKL (CRTKL) is addressing with its concept of The Universal Building. It says it is "a building that, when designed properly upfront, can regenerate over time—adapting to the needs of today as well as the foreseen needs of tomorrow." It adds: "A hybridized, adaptive typology that can transition between residential, workplace, hospitality and senior living—with common building systems and structures positioned to meet changing demands."

CRTKL talks about sustainability and environmental impacts, but much of its rationale is economic, noting that post-pandemic real estate developers have to be a lot more flexible.

"The last year has shown us how vital it is for investors, developers, owners and designers to quickly pivot in a way that brings the most return on investment, a sustainable building solution and a socially safe environment. What was once a fully occupied office building, residential tower, hotel or retail plaza may now look completely different. Rather than demolish (with the accompanying costs and environmental impacts associated), why not consider how to re-adapt?"
Daun St. Amand
Daun St. Amand.

 David Whitcomb

Daun St. Amand, senior vice president and leader of CRTKL's residential sector, describes to Treehugger how they designed a prototype building that had a tower sitting on a parking structure that could be converted to uses that were appropriate for large floor plates, like retail or certain kinds of offices.

parking garage conversion


"In the middle of that parking structure, we have a center ramp that can be pulled out to become an atrium, bringing natural light into the core," says St. Amand.

podium conversion
Podium conversion.


The tower is designed in a way that can adapt to a number of different uses, with a grid, floor plate, and ceiling height that can adapt to residential, office, or hospitality.

3 uses for tower


Office buildings in North America often have big square floor plates, but there are a lot of advantages to the thinner, rectangular plate that CRTKL is showing here. In other countries, like Germany, office workers have to be within 25 feet of a window to have access to natural light. They also promote natural ventilation with operable windows. These are going to be nicer offices.

I point out that with offices looking more like coffee shops, Airbnb making hospitality look residential, and with our apartments turning into offices with people working from home, it's getting harder to tell all these uses apart anymore. St. Amand says it's also getting harder to plan for which use is the most appropriate.

"With approval and construction, it could be five years from start to finish, and what developer can say 'I know what the market is going to look like five years from now,'" says St. Amand. "It also might have multiple uses; there might be office space, there might be live-work units, we may have residential, we may have we-work style shared offices, maybe even a hotel component. We may not know now what it will be in five years, but then you can decide at the end of five years: What is the demand right now?"

There is not only a need to be adaptable for uses but also for climate change and resilience. According to the brief: "It’s been said that the most sustainable building is the one that you don’t have to build."

“Of course, this is not completely true, but reusing an existing building is definitely a sustainable solution,” said Pablo La Roche, Principal and SustainableDesign lead in CRTKL’s Los Angeles office in the brief. “Building reuse almost always yields fewer environmental impacts than new construction when comparing buildings of similar size and functionality.”

The brief also noted: "Embodied emissions in buildings, which are mostly in the envelope and the structure can account to a large portion of emissions in from buildings. In a building that is reused, these emissions stay in the building; new emissions are not generated to create new buildings."

La Roche tells Treehugger how CRTKL uses data projections and is modeling future weather conditions. "The Universal building needs to adapt to these changes, a flexible solution that will adapt to the specificity of the climate," says La Roche. "Shading, thermal mass, natural ventilation, and operable windows, are all strategies we are considering. Passive strategies first, and architectural strategies that are built-in or can be added."

So, as the sketches show, the facade of the building can be modified as required. St. Amand says there are "embeds in the structure so we can bolt on appurtenances as necessary."

It used to be so much easier: The client gave you a program and the architect designed it. Today, nobody really knows what people will need in five years, how they will get to work, or what offices will actually look like. Making a universal building makes total sense in today's world and tomorrow's. or to quote Adam in the U.K., "If we care about making our buildings sustainable, we must care about their future."

View Article Sources
  1. Marriage, Guy, et al. Tall: The Design and Construction of High-Rise Architecture. 2019, p. Ch. 8.