Future Focus

In spring 2020, architecture and interior architecture students at the University of Tennessee worked together with Professor Rana Abudayyeh, architecture firm Gensler and others to study how to reimagine obsolete structures — including a parking garage in Miami Beach and a shopping mall in Los Angeles — for the future. The student teams took into account changing demographics, climate change and other issues of resiliency as they worked on plans to adapt and reuse the structures. We spoke with Abudayyeh about the work and what it could mean for cities in the South.


This project focused on Detroit, L.A., Miami and N.Y.C. What’s the thinking about designing for the South? What are new high-level design and architecture thoughts emerging that will feature in the Tennessee of 2040 and beyond?

The impact of our changing climate applies to every place. During the early part of the project’s development, each team researched the major climate issues in each specific city assigned. The methods and tools that the students use to study these cities and implement their designs are skills that apply to any locality. In the South, from an environmental standpoint, increased flooding has been an issue due to global warming. Tragically, we have seen this occurring in real time these last couple of days. Such pressing issues are the challenges to which the next generation of designers must respond. Despite such challenges, our region is rich with design opportunities, building on its cultural heritage and spirit of innovation.

Regarding high-level design and architecture in Tennessee, many more architecture firms are committing to sustainable strategies for their projects. Of course, this is an industry-wide movement, but the impact in our region will likely be seen in the coming years. Beyond sustainability, there is the matter of resilience; designing smart, adaptive and community-oriented places that cater to wellbeing, diversity and inclusion is central to the future narrative of cities everywhere.   

Why were the different structures — an abandoned shopping mall, a parking garage, etc. — chosen?

We considered these specific program types as models of our existing building stock that we will likely see changing and becoming somewhat obsolete structures in the coming years. We are already witnessing this with indoor shopping malls, and the ongoing pandemic is shedding new light on the future of work and, by extension, office buildings. One primary strategy concerning resilient design is the adaptive reuse of existing structures, which has a significant impact on reducing the carbon footprint for the construction of buildings.

Your students considered shifting demographics in Detroit, air quality and pollution in New York and Los Angeles and rising sea levels in Miami Beach. What other issues are facing American cities?

Although not necessarily universal, these issues are common across all American cities. Other challenges facing American cities will certainly vary depending on the specific climate region, which is extremely diverse. In the West, the drier climates are seeing issues with water, wildfires and higher temperatures. The coasts will be dealing with the rising sea levels. In our region, higher temperatures appear to have a higher impact on the amount of rain, which requires more mitigation strategies for flooding.

Your students worked with Gensler on this project. How do you make forward-looking resiliency efforts financially viable in the private sector, outside of academic circles?

Making forward-looking resiliency efforts financially viable in the private sector requires not only the vision of the designer but also the support of clients and investors, along with an active community engagement. Due to global warming, we will likely see the building and codes address these concerns.

However, it’s important to understand that meeting code begets the lowest threshold towards sustainability and resiliency for construction projects. It will be up to the designers, engineers and contractors to educate clients that the long-term value may require higher first costs. This is the benefit of pursuing these themes in academia so that the next generation of designers are more prepared with these ideas when they enter the professional world.

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