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How Layered Modularity Changes the Way You Think About Creating Space

With an adaptable construction system, you don’t need to know the future to build for it.

“There is no shortage of energy being put into trying to define the future of work. If we’ve learned anything over the past several years, it’s that none of this is predictable. It’s all up for grabs.”

DIRTT co-founder Geoff Gosling doesn’t pull any punches when it comes to design and construction planning. It doesn’t matter if it’s for workplaces, medical facilities, or higher education. “No two environments are the same, no two task structures are the same, and no two groups of people are the same,” he says.

What does that mean for designers, architects, and general contractors who are navigating the current sea of uncertainty around how people will use space now and in the future? His advice: instead of trying to build for an unknown set of needs, just build to adapt to any unknown future.

Sounds easier said than done. But not if you have the proper tools to do it. “With the right approach, you can embrace uncertainty. And at the same time, you allow for innovation,” he says.

IMAGE CREDIT: © Robert Benson Photography

No two environments are the same


The future is unknown and that’s OK

Investment in the future of work is big business, and in 2021 some estimates pegged spending on new work models would surpass $650 billion. That’s up nearly 20% over 2020.

With that much money on the line, design decisions are often quite conservative. Fear of not knowing what’s next leads to safe decisions that play the odds for future relevance, even if it sacrifices a space’s ability to serve users today. For Gosling, though, the uncertainty over new work models actually inspires more creative problem-solving. He refers to this as “embracing ignorance.”

“Accept that you not only don’t know the future, but that you can’t know the future. Once you fully accept that, the problems you’re trying to solve change quite radically.”

When you’re building out a workplace, for example, it’s not necessary to agonize over what might influence resale value or occupant demands 10 or 20 years down the road. Instead, if future adaptation is easy and nimble, you can just focus on meeting the current needs of occupants.

When designers and contractors let go of the unknowable, it’s easier to think creatively. It’s a fundamental shift to how you approach the building process.

Geoff Gosling, Co-founder, DIRTT

“There is no end state,” he says. “Just like natural evolution, it’s constantly in flux.”


Leveraging layered modularity

The key to that shift in building is the concept of layered modularity. That was also the key when Gosling created the DIRTT Construction System. While most people understand the idea of small assemblies coming together to create something greater, it’s typically with only Day One in mind. To adapt to an unknown future, those modules not only have to come apart, they must be able to come apart in any sequence. That’s not typically how the world of construction works.

Most environments are built dependently, in sequence. When all the parts are interdependent to one another, making a change means taking the whole thing apart. But using layered modularity to create a space, with an independent system like DIRTT, allows changes to be made quickly and easily. Like retrofitting a glass wall to be a solid wall. Or adding a door to that solid wall. The parts holding the modules together can be removed and individual assemblies can be swapped out.

The practical example Gosling uses is the nature of electrical appliances. There are two primary interfaces: the power and the plug. They allow you to plug in whatever you want, whether that’s a toaster from decades ago or a 3D printer. From a design perspective, the outlets and plugs represent a universal language. A bridge that can power all consumer technology no matter who made it, or when. This one behavior solves for both sustainability and innovation at the same time.

Layered modularity applies that same logic to construction. According to Gosling, interiors built using DIRTT allow the individual elements like walls, access floors, and electrical infrastructure, to plug into any other piece of that system.

“Suddenly, objects don’t care about what their neighbors are up to,” says Gosling. “And when that happens, real freedom starts to show up.”

Remaining relevant over time

When the outcome is space that’s more adaptable day-to-day, and over time, improvements will be fluid, says Gosling. And that’s because modular environments can shift to meet changing needs and behavior in real time.  This is crucial, since in recent years, adaptability in the built environment has become more and more essential.

“People that are making decisions about the nature of space now have an expectation of change,” he says. “And they want their built environment to allow for those changes — whatever they may be and whenever the need arises.”

That change, which is impossible to accommodate in a static environment, can be embraced with layered modularity. By reducing the size of the module and creating separation between the layers, the ability to adapt becomes second nature.

Layered modularity allows you to meet changing needs in real time


A structural layer offers a base of support, like a wall assembly. A technological layer accommodates plumbing, AV equipment, or flexible medical gas. An aesthetic layer allows space to reflect the brand identity, culture, or wayfinding requirements of a space. And a spatial layer allows all of that to interact with the world around it, ultimately empowering it to be placed anywhere on the floor plate.

Gosling uses a hospital as an example of this modular approach at work: Imagine a healthcare facility that provides medical care, food service, workspaces, patient residences, and even a children’s playground. The need for versatility is obvious. In this scenario, a singular modular construction system can be used throughout and applied in a variety of different ways.

“Whether it’s a headwall or a hallway, it has attributes to fit wherever the need happens to be,” say Gosling. So, if a patient ward needs to shift to function as a vaccination center, it can happen without difficulty. This means less mess and less disruption. It also means the needed change is more likely to happen.

With four independent layers, DIRTT empowers quick and easy space evolution

Small changes bring big results

But those examples are about big changes. What about the ability to make small adjustments on a more regular basis? That’s the real power of layered modularity. It’s also why Gosling spent so much time designing the interface and behaviors of DIRTT. Adding an electrical outlet to accommodate a new workstation. Adding a writable graphic to improve collaboration and wayfinding. With layered modularity these are quick, easy changes. In a conventional space these changes come with a lot of dust, labor, and cost. Those factors become such a barrier, most people would rather live with the discomfort of a space that doesn’t serve them. But on a long enough timeline, that discomfort becomes so great that fixing all those problems in a single massive renovation is the only way. But that comes with more downtime, dust, and disruption.

Layered modularity allows you to meet changing needs in real time

Layered modularity allows those small changes to happen as needed. The result is a space that remains continually relevant, serving the design expression, technological expression, or cultural expression over time.

“More often than not, it’s about trying small adaptations in your space,” says Gosling. “If it’s not quite reflecting the needs of the day, you can just make that adaptation and explore. And with every exploration you do better. It can be as important to play and experiment as it is to be able to respond to the unknown future.”

With DIRTT, it’s not renovation. It’s evolution. Continual adaptation to optimize environments.

“The amount of weight that comes off of people’s shoulders as soon as they understand that they don’t have to know the future is truly incredible,” says Gosling, “To allow our clients to work and live in environments that reflect their unique and evolving needs is why we bothered in the first place. That level of self expression and adaption is how I measure success. We should be able to walk into a DIRTT-built environment and not recognize DIRTT at all. Those environments must reflect those that experience them.”

Quickly update aesthetics of a space

IMAGE CREDIT: James John Jetel

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