PURE RESEARCH: Architecture and Un-making At the 2019 launch of the RetroFirst campaign, the Architects’ Journal reported ‘Worldwide, the construction industry consumes almost all the planet’s cement, 26 per cent of aluminium output, 50 per cent of steel production and 25 per cent of all plastics...We lose more than 50,000 buildings through demolition every year and, while more than 90 per cent of the resulting waste material is recovered, much of this is recycled into a less valuable product or material, rather than being reused.’
Here Helen Taylor explores architectural attitudes towards reuse, recycling, and the circular economy.
Anyone who has seen the Lego movie will know all about the “kraggle”- the mysterious powerful negative force that turns out to be (spoiler alert) glue. The way materials are stuck together is also a challenge in the real world of un-making. The earth is a closed system with limited finite ‘mineral’ resources. The climate emergency and the vital need for carbon reduction also applies to our thinking about materials, their value and how we retain it. Despite the efforts taken to develop and deliver site waste management plans, and encourage recycling, data actually shows a significant reduction in the re-use of construction material over the last 20 years. There are many reasons for this from bricks being laid in concrete mortar that can’t be reused, to a lack of provenance, and to reclaimed materials not being specified.
This situation is driving some of Scott Brownrigg’s key sustainability themes:
Resource Depletion: Resource use in both construction and operation needs an increased focus. This attitude applies to the specification of materials from sustainable, ethical sources and targeting the use of locally sourced, retained, reused or recycled materials wherever possible.
Circular Economy: The industry needs to be transformed from a construction project based focus to become wider built environment guardians- and to design for the whole project lifecycle. The AJ RetroFirst campaign aligns with our approach, considering reuse and refurbishment first, but also designing for reuse, adaptability and – increasingly - for deconstruction and disassembly . Considering every building as a material bank. This approach means that materials built-in to a project must be capable of being economically dismantled for reuse, which impacts material selection and fixings.
Healthy Environment: As we have seen during the recent and ongoing pandemic, a healthy environment is vital for our physical and mental health and the heath of the planet. Preventing pollution of air, water and land is critical. Consideration of the lifecycle of construction materials must include consideration of potential pollution during that life such as:
- Disturbances to the existing environment, whether on green field or brown field sites
- Specification of materials during the design stage and associated need for plant, processes and techniques within the construction stages
- Manufacture and transport of materials and products
- Handling and use of materials on a construction site
- Pollution from the operation of the built environment (sewage, waste etc.)
Each of these activities poses a risk of introducing pollutants into the environment which can affect the workers on site, the neighbourhood, or the local ground, water and air quality. Our environment is the largest determinant of overall health, therefore the built environment has a key role to play in relation to our health and wellbeing as well as that of the planet.