Time to change
An opinion piece by Dr Oliver Jones, Research Director, Ryder Architecture
I spoke recently at the Futurebuild launch event on innovating to achieve zero waste and the acute need to change traditional behaviours in the sector to benefit from the new business models offered by circularity. When it comes to effecting change in the construction sector, I am always reminded of a quote by the economist John Maynard Keynes
“The difficulty lies not so much in developing new ideas as in escaping from old ones”
In the pursuit of a more sustainable future as a society or a sector, affecting behavioural change at scale has been our biggest challenge. To effect dramatic and rapid change, we as individuals need to simultaneously feel the need to change and be capable of delivering that change. We are certainly capable and this week we may just have felt the need. The searing heatwave we have seen may just have been the push we needed to accelerate both our individual and collective efforts. The problem, we experienced a (very hot) taste of our future. It came into our homes and workplaces, it pushed our buildings and our infrastructure to breaking point, exposing their fragility. The link between our personal comfort, environment quality and the need to address the climate emergency with renewed vigour and urgency could not have been felt more acutely.
Had our ability to innovate and collaboratively tackle global emergencies head on not been so recently tested I may question our ability to act collectively, unilaterally, and with conviction. But the pandemic, showed us that shared global events and challenges that significantly impact our individual lives are powerful motivators of action that can initiate rapid behavioural change at scale.
What’s waste got to do with it?
Reuse and recycling are a significant part of the plan to realise a more sustainable future. It touches everything from retrofit to modern methods of construction. 80% of the buildings that will exist in 2050 already exist today, placing retrofit high on our collective agendas. We can seldom afford the luxury of demolition and clearing sites, and if we do, we need to accept that each cleared site comes with an attached embodied carbon cost of demolition and building material waste from the previous building that will be added to the embodied carbon of any new development.
We recently completed a research study for Scottish Government comparing retrofit and new build options on schools. In this we pushed the limits of how we calculate embodied carbon. We surveyed the test site to establish how much carbon was in the existing structural elements. This was then added to the embodied carbon along with the carbon cost of demolition, incorporating this into the embodied carbon cost of each proposal provided more accurate carbon calculations for each option. This is a method we have slowly started to see becoming more commonplace and it adds much needed emphasis and responsibility to reuse and recycle building materials. This ties in with the rise in “Urban Mining”, the process of reclaiming raw materials from existing buildings and recognising them as a valuable resource instead of mining and producing new materials. And while it would require a fundamental shift in our existing business models it also represents a lucrative opportunity.
New business models
Imagine a future where you are so in control of your material pipeline that you achieve greater price stability and can forecast material cost 30 years into the future, while also securing a pipeline of future work. In this future we have shifted the sector away from a point in time relationship to a lifetime relationship with the built asset. To realise this future, we need to accept responsibility for designing for disassembly, reuse, recycling, and repair. Instead of selling a building once, build a long-term relationship with the client and built asset, ensuring that as spaces need refurbishing or components reach end of life that predictive maintenance, a more vertically integrated supply chain and take-back partnerships help to recycle building components, re-supplying the raw materials needed to remanufacture and sell back increasingly more sustainable replacements. This may sound idealistic, but it is already happening in the German modular housing market and the practice is commonplace in consumer electronics.
Taking more responsibility for the buildings we put on the ground has its benefits and its challenges. Central to building a lifetime relationship with a built asset is a single source of the truth, a golden thread of data and information. The building safety act has already started to move us in this direction. Increasingly “because that’s the way we’ve always done it” is not an acceptable response, we have to be aware of the information we have access to in relation to future climate adaptation, emissions, urban heating and flooding. Grenfell was a turning point for our industry on many levels, but it also represented a watershed moment, setting a precedent that you will be held responsible for the decisions you have made for decades to come. With data sets more accessible than ever, if you choose to deliver projects that do not respond to this data and shift the costs of dealing with climate adaptation outside of your red line I think it is highly likely that decision will come back to haunt you further down the line. In all likelihood large ESG focussed funds and our insurers will also be big motivating forces to bring about this change. If we rise to the challenge of taking greater responsibility and we utilise data to deliver evidenced based design, we will deliver more intelligent sustainable projects that will stand the test of time.
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