Main Feature

Jul-Aug 2014


by Dr Forrest Meggers

Rome is a city with longevity. Walking through Rome, experiencing its ancient buildings and structures, one cannot help but imagine the people of the city living and interacting in those very same spaces 2,000 years ago. The vaulted space of the Pantheon, the spectacle of the Coliseum, and the organisation of the Roman Forum all connote the life of the city through its buildings.

Now imagine someone 2,000 years in the future looking back on our cities. Unfortunately the lifespan of modern building materials and practices will prevent them from being experienced in two millennia. We rely on materials, and more importantly composites, which have very finite lifespans. This is not a call to design buildings for their very distant legacy, but rather a frame for the larger context of lifespan and longevity in the materialisation of our built environment.

We do not need to return to materials that can last 2,000 years, but we do need architects to be more aware of longevity in design. It goes far beyond simply designing things that last. In this article, I will touch upon numerous concepts and tools that have been developed to facilitate a more informed materialisation of the built environment. These include simple studies in renovation, preservation and adaptive reuse of existing structures, and a discussion of initial flexible programming of space in new building to encourage continued use when programming changes. With respect to materials, concepts such as industrial ecology, natural capitalism, life cycle analysis and cradle-to-cradle help to place value and metrics on the use and lifespan of materials. The built environment is in a unique position to address climate change. It can adapt to change and mitigate emissions simultaneously through improvements in its materialisation and longevity, thereby becoming both more resilient and more sustainable. This is only possible by understanding how the longevity of the built environment itself places risks on the longevity of the very society it supports.

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