We’re challenging our Midwinter Meeting attendees to think hard about adaptability. One statement from the “Starting Point” (pre-reading) document caught my eye:

In a capital-intensive industry that produces long-lived assets, innovation and adaptation are challenging. With rapid, transformational changes in technology, shifts in supply and demand forces, and complex demographic changes, more flexible, adaptable products and processes are needed. The real estate and land use industry must more easily accommodate innovation.

This got me scratching my head . . . how do you design and build a physical structure that’s resilient and useful for many years to come, and still make it adaptable to changing needs and market forces?  Then, totally by chance, I noticed a recent article in Urban Land that speaks to this very issue: “Universal Structures as Long-Term Sustainable Assets.”  The article describes a Boston project in which the convention center authority is replacing a 1,350-space surface parking lot with parking garages. But rather than design the garages as conventional single-use parking structures, they’ve chosen to design them as universal structures that can be used not only for parking but also for a variety of denser, higher-value uses.

Think of the heavy concrete slabs that form the ramps of a parking garage, located on the interior.  How disruptive would it be to demolish those, even if the support columns of the building were conducive to some other use?  Now imagine those same ramps made of steel, and located around the perimeter of the garage.  Much easier to remove in the event that a different use is called for.

One hundred years ago, more of these versatile structures were in place, according the article, because single-use zoning was not yet the norm.  What’s the potential to revisit this model today? It takes the idea of mixed-use even a step further.

ULI’s recent panel recommendations for the Houston Astrodome also included a mix of permanent uses with seasonally adaptable spaces.

Although it requires a bigger upfront investment, this idea of universal structures offers the promise of fewer cycles of demolition and rebuilding over the long haul.  I’d be interested to know where else ULI members are applying this concept today, and where it makes sense in the future.