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A critical review of the developments in building adaptability

Oliver Heidrich (School of Engineering, Newcastle University, Newcastle upon Tyne, UK)
John Kamara (School of Architecture, Planning and Landscape, Newcastle University, Newcastle upon Tyne, UK)
Sebastiano Maltese (Department of Architecture, Built Environment and Construction Engineering, Politecnico di Milano, Milan, Italy)
Fulvio Re Cecconi (Department of Architecture, Built Environment and Construction Engineering, Politecnico di Milano, Milan, Italy)
Mario Claudio Dejaco (Department of Architecture, Built Environment and Construction Engineering, Politecnico di Milano, Milan, Italy)

International Journal of Building Pathology and Adaptation

ISSN: 2398-4708

Article publication date: 14 August 2017

Issue publication date: 14 August 2017




This paper provides a critical review of developments in the adaptability of buildings. The purpose of this paper is to determine the current “state-of-the-art”, describe current thinking and trends in research and practice, and identify issues and gaps that further research can address. It provides a basis for a scientific and practical understanding of the interdependencies across different design criterion. This paper increases the awareness of architects, engineers, clients and users on the importance of adaptability and its role in lowering impacts over the lifecycle of buildings as part of the infrastructure system.


This paper draws mainly from the literature as its source of evidence. These were identified from established databases and search engines (e.g. Scopus, ISI Web of Knowledge and Google Scholar) using keywords such as adaptability, adaptable, adaptation, and flexibility. Over 80 sources including books, journal papers, conference proceedings, research reports and doctoral theses covering the period 1990 to 2017 were reviewed and categorised. An inductive approach was used to critically review and categorise these publications and develop a framework for analysis.


The concept of adaptability includes many dimensions which can broadly fall into two categories: changes to buildings and user adaptations to buildings. However, previous research has mostly focussed on the former, with many attempts to identify building attributes that facilitate adaptability, and some considerations for its assessment. Key areas that have not been adequately addressed and which require further research include: user/occupant adaptations, cost, benefits and implications of various adaptability measures, and the development of a standardised assessment methodology that could aid in decision making in the design stage of buildings.

Research limitations/implications

The adaptability strategies considered in this review focussed mainly on building components and systems, and did not include the contribution of intelligent and smart/biological systems. The coverage is further limited in scope due to the period considered (1990-2017) and the exclusion of terms such as “retrofit” and “refurbishment” from the review. However, the findings provide a solid basis for further research in the areas identified above. It identifies research issues and gaps in knowledge between the defined needs and current state-of-the-art on adaptive building for both research and practice.


This paper is a review of research into a highly topical subject, given the acknowledged need to adapt buildings over their lifecycle to environmental, economic or social changes. It provides further insights on the dimensions of adaptability and identifies areas for further research that will contribute to the development of robust tools for the assessment of building adaptability, which will enhance the decision-making process of building design and the development of a more sustainable built environment.



John Kamara and Oliver Heidrich were funded by the Institute of Sustainability at Newcastle University, UK; Oliver is also supported by UK EPSRC iBUILD: Infrastructure Business models, valuation and Innovation for Local Delivery (Ref.: EP/K012398/1) and EU-FP7 RAMSES: Reconciling Adaptation, Mitigation and Sustainable Development for Cities (Contract Ref.: 308497). The authors want to thank the two anonymous reviewers for the insightful and helpful critique which has helped to improve the content and understanding of the paper. The authors also want to thank Dr Stephen Blenkinsop of the School of Engineering at Newcastle University for proof reading the paper.


Heidrich, O., Kamara, J., Maltese, S., Re Cecconi, F. and Dejaco, M.C. (2017), "A critical review of the developments in building adaptability", International Journal of Building Pathology and Adaptation, Vol. 35 No. 4, pp. 284-303.



Emerald Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2017, Emerald Publishing Limited

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