Form over function

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Reflecting on the decline of the standalone video rental storefront, Steve Patterson directs our attention to the importance of building form over any given use:

It is interesting to see all these changes in the video market, something that didn't exist 30 years ago. Many storefronts, often built for these places, are left scattered around the landscape. Some will remain vacant while others will find new uses. This is yet another reason why the building form should be a higher priority over the use of a structure. The use will likely change over the years but the building form remains in place as long as the building remains standing. As a society, we cannot afford to change buildings for each and every change of use.

People are amazingly creative in the reuse of buildings, but buildings designed for multiple small storefronts seem to be the most flexible. This is evident as you look at the history of Cherry Street or Brookside. What was built to house a small grocery might become a used bookstore and then a restaurant. It's possible to combine several small spaces for a larger use, but it's much harder to take a building designed for one large tenant (a big box) and split it up in a practical way for many small tenants. Part of the problem is the depth of the building. How would you take a 100,000 sq. ft. building, like a small Wal-Mart, and split it practically into spaces of 1,000 to 2,000 sq. ft.?

It's my impression -- commercial real-estate experts correct me if I'm wrong -- that the bigger the space, the harder it is to find a tenant.

UPDATE: In the comments manasclerk mentions the book How Buildings Learn by Stewart Brand. I haven't read it, but I'm impressed by what I read in this Wikipedia entry about one of the concepts discussed in the book: Shearing layers.

The Shearing layers concept views buildings as a set of components that evolve in different timescales; Frank Duffy summarized this view in his phrase: "Our basic argument is that there isn't any such thing as a building. A building properly conceived is several layers of longevity of built components."

The layers that make up a building are, in descending order of longevity from eternal to ephemeral: site, structure, skin, services (electrical, HVAC, plumbing), space plan (walls and partitions), and stuff.

According to the Wikipedia entry, Brand says that traditional buildings are more adaptable because they "allow[] 'slippage' of layers: i.e. faster layers (services) were not obstructed by slower ones (structure)." New construction (and by "new" I mean anything built since World War II) generally doesn't allow slippage -- the structure, skin, systems, and space plan are too tightly coupled, probably because that's a less expensive way to build.

No time to elaborate, but here's a comparison for your consideration -- two Tulsa hotels that once catered to VIPs, the Mayo and the Camelot.

TRACKBACK 2007/11/29 from the Planning Commissioners Journal Planning Quote of the Day blog, which I am now adding to my Newsgator page.

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manasclerk Author Profile Page said:

We had a large empty multiplex movie theater here in the Northend that went empty for years. They had people interested in renting it (mostly Willow Creeky churches) but had a very steep asking price.
It was finally torn down and now a Tractor Supply graces the area.

Did you ever read Brand's book on How Buildings Learn?

Harry Rockefeller Author Profile Page said:

I've often thought about churches and their buildings. Why, for example, does a church build their "sanctuary" so it is useful for only it's intended purpose (well, usually weddings too)? With better design in staging and better seating instead of pews, for example, it could be used as a multi-purpose auditorium. Members say they want to outgrow their building but, let's face it, their building is only useful as a - church. Why aren't more church buildings like school buildings and actually used 6-7 days out of the week for both purposes?

manasclerk Author Profile Page said:

Wow. After I wrote this, I then just figured that you had already read it. Brand's an odd fellow, but you and him would see eye to eye on architecture, reuse and zoning.

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This page contains a single entry by Michael Bates published on November 7, 2007 6:25 PM.

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