Wrigley Field.

+ Designing buildings to last is the best option, both financially and environmentally.

In the end, all buildings are temporary. A poorly conceived or badly constructed building will quickly need to be replaced, with all the financial and environmental costs that brings. So designing our buildings to last as long as possible benefits both the people who use them and the environment.

As designers, we should always ask our clients: “What’s the expected lifespan for this building?” We should then aim to help exceed this lifespan.

In North America, sports stadiums are examples of buildings that can enjoy long and useful lives if they are well designed. Unfortunately, they also show what can happen when designers, planners and architects don’t get things right.

Most of our outdoor stadiums are for baseball and (American) football. Multi-purpose stadiums designed to house both sports became very popular between the 1960s and 1980s – as a means to save money. By 1989, 16 of the 30 major league baseball teams were housed in multi-purpose stadiums with their local football counterparts. 

Of those 16, only two – Oakland and Toronto – are still in use for both sports. Nine have already been demolished; another is scheduled to be demolished in the next few years; two are still used for football but not for baseball; and the remaining two are used for neither. Their average lifespan stands at only 35 years. Obviously this is much shorter than the intended lifespan, which in some cases was as much as 1,000 years.

There are several reasons this strategy didn’t work. Firstly, baseball and football fields are shaped differently (baseball is played on a diamond and football on a rectangle). So the field had to be configured for both.

Secondly, football players prefer an all-grass field whereas a baseball field has more dirt on it. And thirdly, football players’ spikes tear up the turf. Baseball players don’t like that and it leads to conflicts.

But the biggest issue was probably the way that the revenue stream has changed. At the time multi-purpose stadium construction was popular, most of the income came from fans’ gate receipts, so these stadiums were built with huge seating capacities. That shifted so that most of the revenue started to come from boxes and suites. However, most multi-purpose stadiums didn’t include enough of these. Recently, it’s changed again with the money coming from TV rights to screen the games.

So in most cases it would have been better to build separate stadiums from the outset – both financially and from a sustainability point of view. Demolishing a stadium means huge amounts of concrete and steel going to landfill, and there’s a high carbon cost too.

Chicago is a great example of a city that got its stadiums right. The baseball stadium, Wrigley Field, is celebrating its 100th year in 2014. And its 1924 football stadium, Soldier Field, is still going strong.

Soldier Field and Wrigley Field demonstrate perhaps the most important factor in maximising the lifespan of a building: making sure it works well for the end users, in this case the players and fans.

Wrigley Field, for example, is a neighbourhood stadium. Fans stand in the street and try to catch a home run ball. People across the street sit out on their roof and watch the game. That local neighbourhood experience makes it special.

If more buildings could create such special experiences for their end users, do you think they would they last longer?