Architecture needs a ‘rinse and repeat’ approach

We should move away from the idea of architecture as a finite product and instead embrace ongoing maintenance for our creations, argues Toko Andrews 

Architects are deadline junkies – addicted to hitting milestones and habitually working under pressure. We are taught to work towards a specific, tangible moment in time, moving on to the next one once we’ve reached it. The idea that a project has a definitive end point is ingrained in each of us and so it’s not difficult to see why maintenance can be difficult for architects to embrace.

Maintenance is an act of repetition, in between construction and preservation, that has no fixed deadline or point in time. So, while not a taboo, maintenance will often be forgotten or undervalued and, almost certainly, not put in the same regard as form or function. Yet we want our buildings to last well into the future and to avoid the bulldozers; maintenance is an architectural tool we can use to help achieve this.

The majority of the building’s life is ignored and so we undervalue how its longevity will be achieved

Aside from being at odds with our completionist nature, architects are often at the mercy of clients who want a ‘low-maintenance’ building. After investing large sums of money, clients want their buildings to last for a long time (and rightly so), but that desire has led to a ‘materials first’ policy that puts the idea of permanence on materials rather than maintenance. We specify materials that are highly processed in order to make them low maintenance but, as nothing lasts forever, these high energy materials will require further energy input to replace, recycle and/or repair when they do eventually fail. What clients want is perpetuity but this should be achieved through maintenance and not through materials; think active permanence vs passive permanence.


It is not all the fault of the client, however. As a profession, we are guilty of often failing to look beyond the short term. Visual culture is deeply ingrained in architecture and we will treasure and parade the final image of a completed building. The idea of endless architecture may seem wrong but, as Hilary Sample puts it, ‘architecture is a receiver of weather, nature and elements’ and a building is always changing and developing. Architecture never stops (terrifying I know).

We will often only see renders showing buildings as they will be on handover, or at best a few years on with mature landscapes. More often than not there are no images beyond this, either conceptual or realised, and so the majority of the building’s life is ignored and, as a byproduct, we undervalue how that longevity will be achieved. Ongoing care of a building can be a way to echo the architect’s original concepts. We should move away from the idea of architecture as a finite product, seeing it rather as a continual back-and-forth.

If a building is easy to maintain then it should last for as long as it needs to. If it's sustainably designed then, arguably, as soon as the maintenance stops the architecture should naturally degrade and leave no trace of its existence. As mentioned during a recent ACAN lecture, this is already done by communities around the world and has been for centuries. Well known examples include Hakka Houses, Shibam Hadramawt and the Great Mosque of Djenne. These are all buildings that the community continually maintains. As soon as the maintenance stops, the buildings return to their original forms; mud and other natural materials. The Great Mosque of Djenne is on its third or fourth iteration, and requires yearly upkeep via a communal festival, otherwise it will be washed away by rain and thermal stress. Communal involvement such as this breeds a deep connection to the built environment and also theoretically provides a democratic way to develop the public realm.

So we should welcome the repetition of maintenance as an architectural mantra and celebrate the new architecture that it creates. Engage clients to wrestle with the idea of the death of their buildings and help design an active plan to prevent it. Create architecture that eventually wants to return to nothing but reluctantly carries on through the active input of the people that use it, instead of the high-energy initial construction we have come to rely on.

Toko Andrews is an architect at Tunbridge Wells-based Kaner Olette Architects


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