Flexibility in Design
Architect Christopher Grotton on the need for spaces that can grow and adapt along with their occupants
Change is inevitable both in life and in our built environment. Seasons shift, jobs fluctuate, children are born and then grow up, and we experience decreased mobility with age. As our needs evolve, we can try to adapt to our existing spaces, but more often than not it is our environment that must be altered, says Christopher Grotton of Phi Architects in Rockport, who believes we should design and renovate buildings with more flexibility in mind. We must create homes that can accommodate a young family now and a pair of retirees later, layouts that reflect an owner’s plans for the future, and rooms that serve as extensions of the outdoor space in summer and can be closed off to save heat in the winter. This forethought allows people to live comfortably and affordably in one place; it also allows buildings to remain more useful for longer periods of time, mitigating the environmental impact, and cost, of new construction. MH+D asked Grotton to tell us more.
Q. How did you become interested in design flexibility?
A. The certainty of spatial change is something I grew up with. Although I was born in Maine, I was an army brat and my family lived in various places all over the world. I later spent three years as a cavalry scout in the United States Army, and another eight years as a technical engineer in the National Guard. These experiences gave me the sense that moving every couple of years and recreating my home base was normal. It wasn’t until I moved back to Maine in my 20s that I realized the benefits of permanence and the importance of place. Architectural design has been my outlet for experiencing a variety of spaces without having to continue my past nomadic lifestyle. I understand that not everyone has the same need for change that is ingrained in me, but I truly believe that a certain amount of change is healthy for everyone. To me it is natural to think about what happens next, and that question is one that I explore deeply with clients as we talk about how their spaces will adapt over time.
Q. How can architects design buildings more flexibly?
A. As with any form of creative problem solving, you have to ask hard questions, look from different angles, and push beyond what only makes sense right now. As architects we also need to recognize that our clients have access to more design resources than they did in the past, giving them an increased knowledge of the materials and level of customization available. We must be open to incorporating their input and stay informed ourselves. Good architecture provides a solution; great architecture provides a range of solutions borne out of collaboration.
One feature I try to work into all of my designs is an “away room” on the first floor with windows for natural light and preferably a closet and bathroom, or access to plumbing, nearby. This space can serve as a den or kids’ playroom today and be transformed into a bedroom suite later, allowing the owners to comfortably age in place. A living area that gives way to a screened porch also facilitates flexibility, enabling the owners to open up the spaces for summer entertaining and seal them off to conserve heat at other times of the year.
In the future I would like to see more small spaces built around moveable parts and pieces. We can save a lot of money and resources by living smaller and being more engaged with our surroundings. A wall that can be pushed out and retracted to make a room larger or cozier, much like a pop-out on an RV, would bring tremendous flexibility to a space. Furnishings such as Murphy beds, tables that fold up against walls, and rolling bookcases also increase the functionality of close quarters. As occupants, of course, we must be willing to perform these types of manipulations on a regular basis—a shift in mindset that will likely take some time to get used to.
Q. Can you provide an example of the adaptability concept in practice?
A. I am currently designing a modest home for a young couple who plan to start a family in the next few years. The front half of the house encompasses an open kitchen-living-dining area and a stairway that leads to a basement. In back is a bedroom and bathroom of equal size. I have also drawn up plans for a second phase of the project—an addition with two more bedrooms situated to one side of the home—and a third phase: an owners’ bedroom, accessed via a deck on the other side of the home. At this point, the bedroom in the core structure could be converted into a bathroom giving the occupants on either end of the house their own dedicated space. This phased approach allows the couple to have a home they can afford now, and one that can accommodate kids—and maybe even grandkids—later.