Arup Thoughts: Design buildings for the future

Cities across the globe are facing increasing demand on the resources they need to function.

By Martin Shouler, Arup May 2, 2016

Cities across the globe are facing increasing demand on the resources they need to function. However, technology is playing an important role in providing more efficient systems that reduce the impact of the built environment. For example, there has been a massive change in lighting: moving from tungsten bulbs to LEDs, which has generated considerable energy and cost savings. These lamps are reasonably easy to install, as the existing electrical supply systems can be used.

We design buildings with lifetimes that far exceed the speed of change in the technology used to service them. When engineering a new building, as well as considering what technology is available now, we should also consider how the development of technology might result in new solutions that could be retrofitted within the lifetime of that building.

As engineers, we need to keep an eye on new advances in technology. Sometimes, we encounter a new technology that may not be immediately suitable. This might be due to its readiness, cost, or the client’s perception of risk. (Many clients do not want to be the first to adopt new solutions.) The ease of retrofitting a new technology is often a barrier to its adoption in existing buildings, but with some forethought, there can be simple and less costly ways to accommodate it.

One example is the increasing demand for potable water in cities. By 2050, it’s predicted that London will to need to find an additional 132 million gallons of water each day, and that water charges will continue to rise. One technological solution would be to reuse nonpotable water, such as rainwater and greywater, for purposes that do not require high-quality water. However, long payback periods make these systems unattractive for now.

One barrier to the adoption of water-reuse systems will be the complexity of retrofitting them to existing buildings. For buildings under construction today, it’s possible to include infrastructure, such as nonpotable water pipework routing, and set aside space for treatment and storage equipment at a much lower cost than retrofitting nonpotable water systems at a later stage.

As water becomes more expensive and water resources become scarce, foresight will allow us to have buildings ready to accept these systems in a cost-effective way. This is already happening in San Francisco as well as the desert city of Tucson, Ariz., where all new housing was effectively mandated to include provision for future greywater reuse.

We need to consider low-cost ways to enable easy retrofitting of new technology that can be reasonably anticipated but may not be ready yet, allowing buildings to be "fitted for, but not yet fitted with." By giving thought to futureproofing our buildings, we will make our cities more resilient.

Martin Shouler is Arup’s global skills leader for environmental services engineering and works on a wide variety of projects related to water and wastewater systems. This article originally appeared on Arup Thoughts. Arup is a CFE Media content partner.

Edited by Ksenia Avrakhova, production coordinator, CFE Media,