The balance between adaptability and optimisation in building design

Grantham Scholar Harry Watt researches the trade-off between initial and whole life material usage in the construction industry. 

Background to project

In a circular economy there is an aspiration that materials are kept at the highest value possible. For construction materials, the highest value is to retain buildings for as long as possible. To facilitate this, buildings need to be adaptable to changing needs over time. The structure is critical to this, as adaptability needs to be considered and designed in to maximise future possibilities, for example: future occupiers may have different demands on the space – in layout or use type, or desire a larger floor area on the same building footprint and thus wish to vertically extend.

Failure to design these in could result in the early demolition of the building, and then replacement, resulting in considerably higher environmental impacts. It can thus be argued that a level of adaptability should be incorporated into building, and particularly structural design in order to maximise the potential lifespan.

However, to minimise environmental impacts there is another school of thought that suggests that structural designs should be optimised, using as little material as possible for their intended use. There is clearly a trade-off that needs to be struck between these two strategies.

The project

It is this trade-off or balance in initial and whole life material usage, and environmental impact that Harry’s PhD will explore; focusing on steel frames, which are well suited to adaptability, eventual deconstruction, and reuse.

The material demand, and environmental impact of different adaptable strategies will be investigated, exploring the most efficient use of materials to deliver these strategies, and comparing them to typical material use in equivalent non-adaptable structures. The potential scale of deployment, and scenarios for the long-term reduction of material demand due to adaptable, long-life buildings will be modelled for UK construction. Wider consideration of adaptable building design to support this approach will also be considered, including floor decking and the potential of adaptable facades – to changing use and climate.


The research project is co-sponsored by Tata Steel UK Ltd and Mott MacDonald Ltd.

Social media

You can find Harry Watt on LinkedIn.


Dr Danielle Densley Tingley

Department of Civil and Structural Engineering


Prof Buick Davison

Department of Civil and Structural Engineering

Peter Hodgson

Tata Steel