Flexible Spaces

New Residential

What are Flexible Spaces?

Flexible spaces and flexible design principles enable future changes and extend the life of a building.[1] Flexibility allows for individual choice over space arrangements and intended uses to support a variety of activities and preferences. Control over the layout of a space can help an occupant manage privacy needs as well as opportunities for health and well-being, social interaction and changes in household characteristics such as growing or aging households. Disassembly, deconstruction, and demolition are essential considerations for managing resources and the waste stream when creating new building environments (see Construction and Demolition Waste Reduction). Building upgrades and significant renovations should emphasize reusable parts and easy access to infrastructure, plumbing, and wiring as well as planning for recycling or reuse of leftover materials.[2]

How to Implement Flexible Spaces

Implementing flexible spaces requires integrated design and planning spaces for change and movement (see Integrated Design Process). The width and height proportion of the home can help guide interior wall locations, as can the location of weight-bearing walls. The width of the home affects the amount of natural light and natural ventilation.[3] Elements such as half walls, moveable walls, mini-offices or computer stations help create multifunctional rooms. Building niches or recessed areas into rooms can offer increased opportunities for various space management in large as well as small living spaces.[4]

Moveable Components – Mixing heavy furniture with light moveable pieces allows the occupant to reconfigure the space over time. Placing moveable interior, non-structural walls within a home can help increase the efficiency of the room according to the use needed for that space. For example, during the morning and daytime of a winter season, a wall can be moved to create a larger, open space so natural sunlight can reach spaces further into the home instead of just the spaces around the windows.

Connection to Outdoor Environment – Installing overhead rolling doors or sliding doors with glass panels allow spaces to extend outdoors.[5] This strategy allows for more integration between the outdoor environment and the ease and comfort of the interior space. Incorporate operable windows to allow natural light and passive ventilation throughout the home, resulting in less energy use and increased cost savings (see Daylighting, and Natural Ventilation).

Lighting design is an integral part of a flexible design that supports different activities in the space. Lighting should support areas where focused work occurs (e.g., kitchen counters for food preparation) as well as background or ambient lighting. Lighting is most flexible when switching corresponds to the needs and activities of the space so that lighting not needed in some areas of the space (e.g., near windows where daylighting is available) can be controlled separately from lighting elsewhere. Dimmers also contribute to flexible lighting strategies.

Home Office Design – Many individuals create home office spaces, and flexible design is helpful to support activities in both areas. Consider the activities in a space such as clients coming into the office or group meetings. Make separations between public and private areas of the home and provide an easily accessible bathroom for visitors.[6] Similarly, create spaces that provide for individual work areas as well as areas to meet with others and a “break” area. Technology for the homeworker can be as important as in the office. Provide daylighting where possible but control for glare on computer monitors by measuring sun angles during different times of the year. Manage glare by providing window treatments that can be managed and respond to the geographic ordinates, especially east and west orientation which create different angles of sun exposure (see Daylighting). Strategies such as flexibility for accessing power, voice, data, and internet, and moveable furniture, and storage on wheels can increase the adaptability of the home office.

Universal Design – Universal design is an essential aspect of design to consider when planning for flexible spaces that increase opportunities for a better quality of life for all. Adaptability and low or easy maintenance are elements of universal design.[7] Accessibility creates living spaces that adapt over time to the changing needs of households throughout life stages. Visitability is a concept applied to single-family housing that encourages affordable, sustainable, and accessible design that can be a residence for anyone and be accessible to everyone.[8]

Design for Disassembly – Other considerations for creating flexible spaces within the home includes careful planning of the floor systems and providing ease of access to mechanical, electrical, and plumbing systems. Design should also build-in flexibility for repair to these systems in such a way as to not require damage to materials or products in the vicinity of the repair. Design for Disassembly (DfD) provides for replacement or removal of components in a way that minimizes damage to the component or adjacent materials. Through this process, materials can be salvaged for reuse, conserving resources and reducing expenses (see Construction and Demolition Waste Reduction). [9]


The Charlotte Vermont House

This project sought to create a house that maintained the amenities of a conventional home with minimal environmental impact. The house achieved LEED platinum certification, earned the NESEA Net Zero Energy prize and is 5+ star Energy Star rated. The home’s design incorporated flexibility to allow for it to change over time as occupants’ needs change. An integrated design process and the diverse collaborative team helped contribute to achieving these goals.[10]

Figure 1 – The Charlotte Vermont House (Source: Whole Building Design Guide)

Figure 1 – The Charlotte Vermont House (Source: Whole Building Design Guide)


Strategically designed flexible and adaptable spaces create efficient and comfortable homes. Flexibility supports changing technology and provides the chance to personalize homes while minimizing waste and cost. Optimizing natural light and ventilation, easy access to mechanical and electrical systems and connection to the outside environment increases efficiency and health and well-being. Throughout the life of the home, remodeling might occur to accommodate different stages in the homeowner’s life, such as the addition of family members or career changes. Incorporating flexible spaces in the early stages of design can help reduce the waste of materials and cost and make future changes easier.


Designing flexible spaces can minimize costs associated with reconfigurations for the needs of the occupants as they change over time. Designing for disassembly can reduce material, labor, and disposal costs associated with making repairs to surfaces beyond the problem area and can provide materials for salvage and recycling.


A design approach that prioritizes flexibility and includes flexible spaces allows building occupants to adapt to short and longterm change.[11] Flexible spaces provide opportunities to manage privacy needs and social interactions as well to adapt to changes in life stages, all which contribute to health and well-being and the ability of the occupants to function during and recover from disruption.


[1] Whole Building Design Guide. Green Principles for Residential Design. https://www.wbdg.org/resources/green-principles-residential-design (accessed January 24, 2019).

[2] US EPA. Sustainable Materials Management. https://www.epa.gov/smm/best-practices-reducing-reusing-and-recycling-construction-and-demolition-materials#design (accessed January 20, 2019).

[3] Whole Building Design Guide. Green Principles for Residential Design. https://www.wbdg.org/resources/green-principles-residential-design (accessed January 24, 2019).

[4] Urban Land. Bringing Flexibility Home. https://www.wbdg.org/resources/green-principles-residential-design (accessed January 24, 2019).

[5] Design Share. Flexible Spaces. http://www.designshare.com/index.php/design-patterns/flexible-spaces (accessed January 24, 2019).

[6] Sherry B. Ahrentzen, “A place of peace, prospect, and… a P.C.: The home as office”, Journal of Architectural and Planning Research, 6(4) (1989): 271-288.

[7] Whole Building Design Guide. Beyond Accessibility to Universal Design. http://www.wbdg.org/design-objectives/accessible/beyond-accessibility-universal-design  (accessed January 24, 2019).

[8] Jordana L. Maisel, “Toward Inclusive Housing and Neighborhood Design: A Look at Visitability,” in Universal Design and Visitability. From Accessibility to Zoning, edited by Jack Nasar and Jennifer Evans Cowley, 31-44. 2007, Columbus, OH: National Endowment for the Arts. The John Glenn School of Public Affairs, 2007.

[9] Cradle to Cradle Product Innovation Institute. What is Design for Disassembly? https://www.c2ccertified.org/news/article/what-is-design-for-disassembly (accessed January 24, 2019).

[10] Whole Building Design Guide. Charlotte Vermont House. https://www.wbdg.org/additional-resources/case-studies/charlotte-vermont-house (accessed January 24, 2019).

[11] Resilient Design Institute. The Resilient Design Principles. https://www.resilientdesign.org/the-resilient-design-principles/ (accessed January 24, 2019).