How Does Architectural Form Influence Economic Diversity?

Figure 1: Comparison of building floor adaptation: 1926 (left) and 1981 (right). Source: Kayatekin (2021)
Figure 1: Comparison of building floor adaptation: 1926 (left) and 1981 (right). Source: Kayatekin (2021)

New research shows how building design influences the economic diversity of a neighbourhood

New evidence based on a longitudinal study (1930-80) by C S Kayatekin “Architectural form: flexibility, subdivision and diversity in Manhattan loft buildings” examined the intricate relationship between the built environment and economic aspects of a city. With detailed analysis at the individual building-level, Kayatekin analyses the relationship between the physical and economic fabric of the Midtown Garment District of New York City. Different aspects of building design are identified for their positive and negative impacts on the business tenants occupying the space over time. This novel analysis of change over time offers insight into the potential flexibility of buildings, and its implications for economic robustness: responsiveness to changing tenant needs and economic conditions. These findings have clear value for clients, investors, planners, practitioners and researchers looking to understand how to create a resilient built environment.

The economic specialisations of the tenants were identified (all related to the garment industry), and used to measure the density of economic diversity. This metric was calculated as the number of tenants of different economic specialisations listed in a building divided by the building’s gross floor area. The author suggests that a high performing building (in terms of flexibility and diversity) consistently supports 10 or more different specialisations per 10,000 ft2 of gross floor area, for each year.

Six building characteristics are identified as important for supporting higher density of economic diversity:

  • Asymmetrical core placement and design
  • Unified communal corridors
  • Smaller building size
  • Regular rhythm of walls and windows in the facade
  • Greater access to light and air
  • Southern exposure on the street front

Thus, buildings with these features are more likely to support a higher degree of flexibility in ability to accommodate different tenants, and also greater diversity in the types of tenant. Economic benefits arise for the landlord (higher tenancy rates, increased income) and for the tenants (ease of expansion and contraction).

This investigation of building parameters and how they influence the ability to change over time provides much-needed insight into designing for adaptability. In particular, a robust economic argument is made for creating adaptable buildings: they can provide financial resilience as economic circumstances change over time.For example, if a large organisation occupying a whole floor of a building vacates the space, an adaptable building can be easily subdivided to accommodate multiple smaller organisations to enter and fulfil the tenancy. Thus, design decisions of key characteristics (i.e. cores, corridors, facades, light and air) have economic impacts. This emphasises the need for clients and planners to stipulate design for adaptability. In turn, architects and construction firms could use the findings presented here to develop a series of rules for ensuring that their buildings are flexible and resilient.

The research findings negate the assumption that larger buildings would support higher density of economic diversity. Instead, smaller buildings were found to support greater density of economic diversity. This leads the author to suggest that large scale buildings designed using the parameters found in smaller scale buildings could support increased economic diversity and inclusivity.

In particular, asymmetric cores (placed back from the street front and to the side of the floorplan) and unified communal corridors (rather than, for example, two separate corridors) can support greater mix in unit sizes and flexibility over time. For example, Kayatekin finds that unified communal corridors can allow for further sub-division without hindering access to two means of exit (as required by planning codes) (see Figure 1).

With regard to building facade, the paper finds that regularised increments of walls and windows could allow for a greater degree of internal wall rearrangement and thus support greater diversity over time. Kayatekin highlights two key reasons for this:

  • the walled portions of a façade provide space for internal walls to latch onto as they are constructed to rearrange internal space.
  • the facades studied were composed ubiquitously of brick, which allow for internal walls to butt up against them without any high-end customised detailing.

The topics of adaptability and flexibility in building design will be further explored in a forthcoming Buildings & Cities special issue on Housing Adaptability (due for publication mid-2022).

Reference

Kayatekin, C. S. (2021). Architectural form: flexibility, subdivision and diversity in Manhattan loft buildings. Buildings and Cities, 2(1), 888–906. DOI: http://doi.org/10.5334/bc.140

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