S. Claire Conroy, Editor-in-Chief
Eli Kaplan S. Claire Conroy, Editor-in-Chief

In a few short weeks, my company will demolish my office space. No, I’m not being singled out for the wrecking ball, our entire editorial department, which supports multiple magazines, will undergo a radical reconfiguration. We’re moving to an open office plan, and removing most of the private offices and cubicles in favor of streamlined, shared workspaces. Benihana tables, I call them.

I joke with my next door neighbor, Ned Cramer, editor-in-chief of Architect, about purging our pack-rat hoard. (We never met an architecture book we didn’t want to keep.) But it’s no joke that all of us will contend with a huge cultural shift and disruption to our personal work habits. I hear headphones help, no pun intended. I keep thinking of Susan Cain’s Quiet: The Power of Introverts, and wonder how our contemplative constituency will fare when thrown into the lion’s den with our more voluable colleagues.

Well, it’s the current vogue in office environments, and a model many architectural firms have used for years. It’s worth a try, in service to our goal of breaking down silos and collaborating more across all of our media enterprises. My concern is, what if we spend a bunch of money doing this big remodel and then discover it’s a disaster? Do we spend another chunk of money to reinstate our once-divided state?

The larger problem we and others face is the inherent inflexibility of conventional architectural design and construction. Right now, changing our minds means more demolition and reconstruction. But the only certainty is change, as they say. We—or someone else—will want to change the space again in the future. And again. And again.

What a waste.

Going forward, we can ill afford fixed ways of thinking and building, neither economically nor environmentally. Architects and builders must plan beyond current program requirements and take into account occupants they may never meet.

One way to go about this is to shift the paradigm. Instead of approaching a design problem as a one-off, specific response, a systems solution could do the trick. Flexible, transmutable elements can shape a new space—and then reshape it again in the future. Recognizing that design knowledge and material performance may change substantially over time, we should probably add “easily removeable” and “easily recyclable” to our list of systems criteria. And I mean easily recyclable—not through some incredibly convoluted means of collection, deconstruction, and reconstruction that will never, ever happen.

We see plenty of glimpses of this futuristic vision right now. Turn to our case studies—White Street Loft, Leather District Loft Renovation, and Spring Street Loft—and you’ll see some fine experiments in mutable spaces. Although largely built-in solutions, they are clever first steps in enabling space to transform. And perhaps these spaces may endure just a little bit longer than more static solutions.

By devising systems rather than custom solutions, I think architects may also discover greater relevance and reach in the housing industry. Just imagine the bright designer who invents a great component system for updating split-level houses.

The possibilities are limitless. And homeowners are hungry for your good ideas.