How can I help design a building which is not only robust, but antifragile? This is a term created by Nassim Taleb in his current book Antifragile. It is about designing all sorts of things to be not only be robust in the face of unknown future stressors, but actually improve in changing environments. A building seems to be, by its being created out of fixed solid things like concrete, steel and wood, a non-adaptable thing, standing rigidly fixed against a changing world. To build an old fashioned robust building would mean to build a structure that can endure through harsh stress. It would be resistant to fire, weather, vandalism, heavy use, and still maintain its functionality. A robust building is tough.
Most buildings are reasonably robust in the physical sense, but the function that really matters in the long run is to be adaptable to new uses, and that is called antifragility. A building that is overbuilt to perform a single function becomes degraded in usefulness when that function changes ever so slightly. If the use changes a lot, the building fights against its new use. But people using an antifragile building, as opposed to a robust one, learn new uses to which it can be easily adapted because the possibility for new uses was built into it from the beginning.
To build an antifragile building means to make it in such a way that as various uses and stressors come and go, the building not only functions well but benefits from the changing times. It becomes known as fully functional for the new uses as it was for the past ones. A factor that makes a building grow in potential is for it to develop a reputation for providing a venue for different kinds of activities. The antifragile building can change in a minute to a wholly new function. As people discover new uses for the building, and it is used in different ways, and it grows in potential usefulness and has even more uses. Some of those new uses could never be anticipated when originally designing the building. The well designed building gains usefulness as it ages because as unknowable disorder comes along the people using the building easily adapt it to the new problems. The building now has added a new usefulness to its existing repertoire, and thus it is an even better building. These qualities can be built into the original building, but may be impossible install later. The more functions a building can perform well the more likely it will succeed.
One way of changing roles is to have lighting that is easily controlled to go from bright and sunny to totally dark, and everywhere in between, quickly, easily even automatically. To achieve that lighting flexibility means having walls and curtains that are totally adaptable and closeable to the outside. There needs to be a totally dark theater when desired, even in the daytime. That gives the building more varieties of use. When the room is totally darkened from outside light, then the building needs to have multiple ways of lighting the rooms for different functions, by turning on different lights and changing their direction. Easily aimable spot lights, variable soft lights, controllable indirect lighting systems, overhead lights and side lights, and perhaps edge lights built along the floor. The lighting changes the feeling and use of the room. Variable lighting makes the room more adaptable and more antifragile. This aiming and other controls on the lighting system could be set to computer controlled specific defaults – church, movie, dance, dinner and many more. These days and certainly in the future this could be remote-controlled by computer if the lights themselves were aim-able by motors controlling their direction. For example, creating a soft lighting when pointed at the ceiling and a spot lighting when pointed at the stage. An infinite set of possibilities could be easily set into the computer memory and set the whole building into a totally new feeling, and thus function in a few seconds.
Another role-enhancing attribute is to be able to change the use of a room from one activity to another by having variable walls. That can be achieved with closet doors that swing open 180° exposing the inside of the closet door and the inside of the closet. These closets could be quite shallow; perhaps as little as a foot deep. Two three-foot doors with their touching edges swung open this way would provide twelve feet of wall with variable function. If four of these alternate double-door closets were set along a wall, it would form a twenty-four foot changeable wall. A unique new room, with a new function, could be created in a minute by closing one alternate set of doors and opening the others. And by closing all the closet doors a third room would appear, with whatever decorations on the outside of the doors would seem appropriate to a third function. If opposite sides of a room had these forms of closets the room would have the possibility of six dedicated functions requiring only a minute to change from any one function to any other one. Typically there are ten minutes between functions in a school setting, and that would be ample time to totally change the functions of a room or of a whole building built like this.
Yet another way to totally change the feeling and use of a large room, even the whole building, would be with large vertical Venetian blinds-like pivoting sections. Make these vertically pivoting sections six feet long horizontally, extending floor to ceiling, and pivoting vertically at their centers, top and bottom. These would be set out three feet from a glass exterior wall and pivot around their centers for 170°, going from one touching closed position to another. These could be different in appearance from one side to the other, such that the visible surface of the wall would be totally changed in its qualities by reversing the visible audience-facing surface. Several other important features could be had at intermediate positions. When perpendicular to the windows there would be good visibility out the window to the audience. When pointed at 45° at the stage there would be controllable daytime lighting on the speakers and choir. When pointed 135° the back of the auditorium would be illuminated in daytime, but give a forward outside view to the audience. Another function of this wall is that it would form a hidden passage to and from the stage to the back of the room when the slabs were in either of the closed solid-wall positions.
We can not know all the future uses of the rooms and therefore empty pipes should be installed into the poured concrete or rammed earth walls in likely locations. These pipes would be open at each end, but covered in their present locations, and presently empty. About 4 inch diameter plastic would work well. That would permit future electrical, fiber optic or even liquid piping, or other unknown uses to be inserted, with easy but invisible access at the ends and little or no access along the exposed surfaces, until the function required a drilled in installation.
Another example of antifragility is to have a variety of chairs, tables, and equipment that are easily wheeled into the rooms from a large horizontally located storage area. The larger items like tables, benches, podiums should be foldable and have their own lockable wheels.
To make a building useful it must be maintained at a comfortable temperature. If the building isn’t thermally comfortable it isn’t used much by people, and becomes little more than an empty storage container. The price of heating becomes critical and if the building can’t be heated for an acceptable cost it won’t be used, and it will fail. Heating it by using coal, oil, gas, electric or solar means in the long run only solar can maintain a near zero annual cost. Of course the sun’s input is variable on a daily basis, but over the course of a year it is stable and over many years is totally stable. The suns free energy can be used, but only if its energy can be stored over time. A floor installed with a radiant heat system is easily installed and is typically powered with purchased energy, and that should be available but only used as a back-up. The longer term source of heat energy should be with solar water panels. They could be placed on the roof heating a large insulated tanks of water, located at ground level or below. That hot water is then pumped through pipes laid a few inches under the slab floor of the building. This would give a couple hour heating response to a very evenly warmed room. A second and vastly greater source for store of heat energy could be easily and cheaply supplied on an annual basis by laying a second set of pipes about four feet below the floor. These would be supplied with heat only when there was an abundance of solar heated water, generally available during the summer. This huge chunk of earth would take months and perhaps years to bring up to 70° F, but it would eventually reach that level and from then on the expense of heating of the building to perfection, even in the winter, would drop toward zero.
These are examples of how to make a room and a building more flexible in its future use. We can not anticipate every possible use the building will perform over the next hundred years and hopefully many more years. Some functioning churches in Europe are over a thousand years old. The Pantheon and Santa Sophia are almost two thousand years old, so it is reasonable to think very long term for our building. Their human occupants have changed a hundred times, for those old buildings and their specific use has changed many times too, but a well-built structure can last longer than the local civilization, and still function well. This is especially true if the building is constructed to be antifragile.
For our building to be highly functional in situations we can not foresee requires that we pre-adapt it with easily changeable functionality. Above are several suggestions as to how we might make our building more functional. We should and can find more ways to create more flexibility and usefulness.
I choose to believe our journey has just begun, and we need to build with permanent materials, and with antifragile qualities.