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Future-proofing is the process of anticipating the future and developing methods of minimizing the effects of shocks and stresses of future events. Future-proofing is used in industries such as electronics, medical industry, industrial design, and, more recently, in design for climate change. The principles of future-proofing are extracted from other industries and codified as a system for approaching an intervention in an historic building.
What is future-proofing?
In general, the term "future-proof" refers to the ability of something to continue to be of value into the distant future; that the item does not become obsolete.
The concept of future-proofing is the process of anticipating the future and developing methods of minimizing the effects of shocks and stresses of future events. This term is commonly found in electronics, data storage, and communications systems. It is also found in Industrial Design, computers, software, health care/medical, strategic sustainable development, strategic management consultancy and product design.
Study of the principles behind “future-proofing” both within the AEC industry and among outside industries can give vital information about the basis of future-proofing. This information can be distilled into several Principles which can be applied to a variety of areas.
Principles of future-proofing
Based on the sources reviewed above, there are several principles of future-proofing that can be determined. Future-proofing means:
- Not promote deterioration – do no harm. It is natural for all materials to deteriorate. Future-proof structures and products should not accelerate the deterioration of existing materials.
- Stimulate flexibility and adaptability. Future-proof interventions should not just allow flexibility and adaptability, but also stimulate it. Adaptability to the environment, uses, occupant needs, and future technologies is critical to the long service life of a historic building.
- Extend service life. Future-proof interventions in structures and products should help to make the building usable for the long-term future – not shorten the service life.
- Fortify against extreme weather and shortages of materials and energy. Future-proof interventions should prepare structures and products for the impacts of climate change by reducing energy consumption, reducing consumption of materials through durable material selections, and be able to be fortified against extreme natural events such as hurricanes and tornadoes.
- Increase durability and redundancy. Future-proof interventions should use equally durable building materials. Materials that deteriorate more quickly than the original materials require further interventions and shorten the service life.
- Reduce the likelihood of obsolescence. A future-proof structure or product should be able to continue to be used for centuries into the future. Take an active approach: regularly evaluate and review current status in terms of future service capacity. Scan the trends to provide a fresh perspective and determine how your historic building will respond to these trends.
- Consider long-term life-cycle benefits. Embodied energy in existing structures and products should be incorporated in environmental, economic, social, and cultural costs for any project.
- Incorporate local materials, parts and labor. The parts and materials used in future-proof structures and products should be available locally and installed by local labor. This means that the materials and manufacturing capabilities will be readily available in the future for efficient repairs.
Electronics and communications
In future-proof electrical systems buildings should have “flexible distribution systems to allow communication technologies to expand.” Image-related processing software should be flexible, adaptable, and programmable to be able to work with several different potential media in the future as well as to handle increasing file sizes. Image-related processing software should also be scalable and embeddable – in other words, the use or place where the software is employed is variable and the software needs to accommodate the variable environment. Higher processing integration is required to support future computational requirements in image processing as well.
In wireless phone networks, future-proofing of the network hardware and software systems deployed become critical because they are so costly to deploy that it is not economically viable to replace each system when changes in the network operations occur. Telecommunications system designers focus heavily on the ability of a system to be reused and to be flexible in order to continue competing in the marketplace.
In 1998, teleradiology (the ability to send radiology images such as x-rays and CAT scans over the internet to a reviewing radiologist) was in its infancy. Doctors developed their own systems, aware that technology would change over time. They consciously included future-proof as one of the characteristics that their investment would need to have. To these doctors, future-proof meant open modular architecture and interoperability so that as technology advanced it would be possible to update the hardware and software modules within the system without disrupting the remaining modules. This draws out two characteristics of future-proofing that are important to the built environment: interoperability and the ability to be adapted to future technologies as they were developed.
In industrial design, future-proofing designs seek to prevent obsolescence by analyzing the decrease in desirability of products. Desirability is measured in categories such as function, appearance, and emotional value. The products with more functional design, better appearance, and which accumulate emotional value faster tend to be retained longer and are considered future-proof. Industrial design ultimately strives to encourage people to buy less by creating objects with higher levels of desirability. Some of the characteristics of future-proof products that come out of this study include a timeless nature, high durability, aesthetic appearances that capture and hold the interest of buyers. Ideally, as an object ages, its desirability is maintained or increases with increased emotional attachment. Products that fit into society’s current paradigm of progress, while simultaneously making progress, also tend to have increased desirability. Industrial design teaches that future-proof products are timeless, have high durability, and develop ongoing aesthetic and emotional attraction.
In one region of New Zealand, Hawke’s Bay, a study was conducted to determine what would be required to future-proof the regional economy with specific reference to the water system. The study specifically sought to understand the existing and potential water demand in the region as well as how this potential demand might change with climate change and more intense land use. This information was used to develop demand estimates that would inform the improvements to the regional water system. Future-proofing thus includes forward planning for future development and increased demands on resources. However, the study focuses on future demands almost exclusively and does not address other components of future-proofing such as contingency plans to handle disastrous damage to the system or durability of the materials in the system.
Climate change and energy conservation
The term “future-proofing” in relation to sustainable design began to be used in 2007. It has been used more often in sustainable design in relation to energy conservation to minimize the effects of future global temperature rise and/or rising energy costs. By far, the most common use of the term “future-proofing” is found in relation to sustainable design and energy conservation in particular. In this context, the term is usually referring to the ability of a structure to withstand impacts from future shortages in energy and resources, increasing world population, and environmental issues, by reducing the amount of energy consumption in the building. Understanding the use of “future-proofing” in this field assists in development of the concept of future-proofing as applied to existing structures.
In the realm of sustainable environmental issues, future-proof is used generally to describe the ability of a design to resist the impact of potential climate change due to global warming. Two characteristics describe this impact. First, “dependency on fossil fuels will be more or less completely eliminated and replaced by renewable energy sources.” Second, “Society, infrastructure and the economy will be well adapted to the residual impacts of climate change.”
In the design of low energy consuming dwellings, “buildings of the future should be sustainable, low-energy and able to accommodate social, technological, economic and regulatory changes, thus maximizing life cycle value.” The goal is to “reduce the likelihood of a prematurely obsolete building design.”
In Australia, research commissioned by the Health Infrastructure New South Wales explored “practical, cost-effective, design-related strategies for “future-proofing” the buildings of a major Australian health department.” This study concluded that “a focus on a whole life-cycle approach to the design and operation of health facilities clearly would have benefits.” By designing in flexibility and adaptability of structures, one may “defer the obsolescence and consequent need for demolition and replacement of many health facilities, thereby reducing overall demand for building materials and energy.”
The ability of a building’s structural system to accommodate projected climate changes and whether “non-structural [behavioral] adaptations might have a great enough effect to offset any errors from… …an erroneous choice of climate change projection.” The essence of the discussion is whether adjustments in the occupant’s behavior can future-proof the building against errors in judgment in estimates of the impacts of global climate change. There are clearly many factors involved and the paper does not go into them in exhaustive detail. However, it is clear that “soft adaptations” such as changes in behavior (such as turning lights off, opening windows for cooling) can have a significant impact on the ability of a building to continue to function as the environment around it changes. Thus adaptability is an important criteria in the concept of future-proofing” buildings. Adaptability is a theme that begins to come through in many of the other studies on future-proofing.
There are examples of sustainable technologies that can be used in existing buildings to take “advantage of up-to-date technologies in the enhancement of the energetic performance of buildings.” The intent is to understand how to follow the new European Energy Standards to attain the best in energy savings. The subject speaks to historic buildings and specifically of façade renewal, focusing on energy conservation. These technologies include “improvement of thermal and acoustic performance, solar shadings, passive solar energy systems, and active solar energy systems.” The main value of this study to future-proofing is not the specific technologies, but rather the concept of working with an existing façade by overlapping it rather than modifying the existing one. The employment of ventilated facades, double skin glass facades, and solar shadings take advantage of the thermal mass of existing buildings commonly found in Italy. These techniques not only work with thermal mass walls, but also protect damaged and deteriorating historic facades to varying degrees.
Architecture, engineering and construction
Use of the term “future-proofing” has been uncommon in the AEC industry, especially with relation to historic buildings until recently. In 1997, the MAFF laboratories at York, England were described in an article as “future-proof” by being flexible enough to adapt to developing rather than static scientific research. The standard building envelope and MEP services provided could be tailored for each type of research to be performed. In 2009, “future-proof” was used in reference to “megatrends” that were driving education of planners in Australia. A similar term, “fatigue proofing,” was used in 2007 to describe steel cover plates in bridge construction that would not fail due to fatigue cracking. In 2012, a New Zealand based organization outlined 8 principles of future-proof buildings: smart energy use, increased health and safety, increased life cycle duration, increased quality of materials and installation, increased security, increased sound control for noise pollution, adaptable spatial design, and reduced carbon footprint.
Another approach to future-proofing suggests that only in more extensive refurbishments to a building should future-proofing be considered. Even then, the proposed time horizon for future-proofing events is 15 to 25 years. The explanation for this particular time horizon for future-proof improvements is unclear. This author believes that time horizons for future-proofing are much more dependent on the potential service life of the structure, the nature of the intervention, and several other factors. The result is that time horizons for future-proof interventions could vary from 15 years (rapidly changing technology interventions) to hundreds of years (major structural interventions).
In the valuation of real estate, there are three traditional forms of obsolescence which affect property values: physical, functional, and aesthetic. Physical obsolescence occurs when the physical material of the property deteriorates to the point where it needs to be replaced or renovated. Functional obsolescence occurs when the property is no longer capable of serving the intended use or function. Aesthetic obsolescence occurs when fashions change, when something is no longer in style. A potential fourth form has emerged as well: sustainable obsolescence. Sustainable obsolescence proposes to be a combination of the above forms in many ways. Sustainable obsolescence occurs when a property no longer meets one or more sustainable design goals. Obsolescence is an important characteristic of future-proofing a property because it emphasizes the need for the property to continue to be viable. Though not explicitly stated, the shocks and stresses to a property in the future are one potential way in which a property may become not future-proof. It is also important to note that each form of obsolescence can be either curable or incurable. The separation of curable and incurable obsolescence is ill defined because the amount of effort one is willing to put into correcting it varies depending on several factors: people, time, budget, availability, etc.
However, the most informative realm within the AEC industry is the concept of resiliency. A new buzzword among preservationists and sustainable designers, resiliency has several clearly identified principles. In its common usage, “resilience” describes the ability to recoil or spring back into shape after bending, stretching, or being compressed. In ecology, the term “resilience” the capacity of an ecosystem to tolerate disturbance without collapsing into a qualitatively different state. The principles of a resilient built environment include:
- Local materials, parts and labor
- Low energy input
- High capacity for future flexibility and adaptability of use
- High durability and redundancy of building systems
- Environmentally responsive design
- Sensitivity and responsiveness to changes in constituent parts and environment
- High level of diversity in component systems and features
One reasonable approach to future-proof sustainable cities is an integrated multi-disciplinary combination of mitigation and adaptation to raise the level of resilience of the city. In the context of urban environments, resilience is less dependent on an exact understanding of the future than on tolerance of uncertainty and broad programs to absorb the stresses that this environment might face. The scale of the context is important in this view: events are viewed as regional stresses rather than local. The intent for a resilient urban environment is to keep many options open, emphasize diversity in the environment, and perform long-range planning that accounts for external systemic shocks. Options and diversity are strategies similar to ecological resilience discussed above. This approach again points out the importance of flexibility, adaptability, and diversity to future-proofing urban environments.
The design of interventions in existing buildings which are not detrimental to the future of the building may be called “future-proofing.” Future-proofing includes the careful consideration of how “sustainable” alterations to historic structures affect the original historic material of the structure. This effect is significant for long service life structures in order to prevent them from deteriorating and being demolished. This effect is especially significant in designated structures where the intent is to do no harm to the historic fabric of the structure.
Historic buildings are particularly good candidates for future-proofing because they have already survived for 50 to 100 years or more. Given their performance to date and appropriate interventions, historic building structures are likely to be able to last for centuries. This durability is evident in the buildings of Europe and Asia which have survived centuries and millennia. Extension of the service life of our existing building stock through sensitive interventions reduces energy consumption, decreases material waste, retains embodied energy, and promotes a long-term relationship with our built environment that is critical to the future survival of the human species on this planet.
Future-proofing of designated historic structures adds a level of complexity to the concepts of future-proofing in other industries as described above. All interventions on historic structures must comply with the Secretary’s Standards for the Treatment of Historic Properties. The degree of compliance and the Standard selected may vary depending on jurisdiction, type of intervention, significance of the structure, and the nature of the intended interventions. The underlying principle is that no harm is done to the structure in the course of the intervention which would damage the structure or make it unavailable to future generations. In addition, it is important that the historic portions of the structure be able to be understood and comprehended apart from the newer interventions.
- Product data management
- Digital preservation
- Digital media
- Digital Preservation Coalition
- Backward and forward compatibility
- Planned obsolescence
- Year 2000 problem
- Year 2038 problem
- Year 10000 problem
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- Shah, Sunil. Sustainable Refurbishment. Hoboken: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012. Print.
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- Applegath, Craig, et al. "Resilient Design Principles and Building Design Principles." ResilientCity.org 2010. Web.
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- Weeks, Kay D. "The Secretary of the Interior's Standards for the Treatment of Historic Properties : With Guidelines for Preserving, Rehabilitating, Restoring & Reconstructing Historic Buildings." Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service, Cultural Resource Stewardship and Partnerships, Heritage Preservation Services, 1995. Print.
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