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Flexibility and Adaptability

"I think that neither a home nor any facility can indulge in the luxury of being unchangeable. Evolution is something which I feel is indepensable. It is only ignored for bureaucratic reasons or for reasons of taking responsibility for the final result."

Renzo Piano

The Hong Kong Bank

As part of the limited competition for the design of the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank Building in Hong Kong, was the requirement for "the best building in the world".

Foster Associates were selected as Architects for the project and the building was completed in 1986.

With profiles of the building appearing in almost all major architectural magazines as an indicator of the calibre of the finished design, the bank may have received their wish.


As Chris Seddon, a Director of Foster Associates, suggests, the key to winning the competition was the perceived need for FLEXIBILITY.

Whilst a recognition of a higher than usual cost was understood by the bank.

Although in practice this cost appeared to be recovered in the early stages of planning that allowed for frequent changes to the occupancy strategy.

Similarly, fine tuning of the entire building is possible through such a flexible approach.

50 Year Lifetime

The site had previously housed 2 previous Hong Kong Bank buildings, each lasting 50 years.

Continuing this pattern, the design brief also called for a building with a 50 year lifespan.

This clearly established the context of the design process. The durability of materials was not an issue over this timeframe and mechanical and finishes were selected relative to this goal.

The flexibility question was firmly directed at 3 major issues:

1 Planning

Possible changes in future planning regulations were catered for.

Consequently, the subsequent design allows for a 30% expansion of floor space to cater for possible future relaxation of site denisity ratios.

One method of achieving this goal would be achieved through infilling mezzanine spaces.

2 Ability to cater for Technological Change

In particular the rapid development of Electronic Technology posed a serious issue relative to flexibility.

Early planning provided for different ratios of computer numbers per desk leading to the eventual push toward a ‘paperless office’.

This was important relative to the effects of cabling with shifts from coaxial to fibre optic cables expected in the near future.

Further allowances for technological change were faced in terms of mechanical services from air conditioning to fire services and assistance with servicing and replacement of each of these systems.

3 Ability to cater for Change

The growth and changing direction and organizational strucutres of the banking group also needed to be addressed.

The ability to totally reorganize the internal layout of the building from cellular office space to total open plan was part of the design response.

Internally this was provided with a 100% demountable system capable of being reassembled ‘in-house’ and providing alternatives in performance of lighting and acoustic properties.

Similarly, the need for 24 hour operation created the demand for total independence of all services, from power to fire pumps.

Key Point

As one of the premier building of the 1980’s, the Hong Kong Bank’s character derives from its deliberate focus on flexibility, responsiveness to change and the process of assembly.

Yet, despite this, it is expected to have lifespan of no more than 50 years. Where does this place other buildings with less emphasis on flexibility?


• Initial Quote: Dini, Massimo; Renzo Piano: Projects and buildings 1964-1983; Page 89.
• The Hong Kong Bank: Chris Seddon; "Search for Flexibility"; Architect; October 1986. Originally published in Architecture and Urbanism, June 1986; Reprinted in Architect; Pages 10-1.

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Flexibility and Adaptability: We propose three questions to ask about Flexibility and Adaptability in architectural design.
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