In the six years that I’ve been in design, my journey to integrate sustainability into my daily practices has led me to identify different ways young designers could strive to apply an environmentally conscious mindset in their design process. When considering this piece, I hoped for it to act as a blueprint for future designers as we make sustainable design a priority in our field.
The embodied energy and life cycle costs of buildings are often considered major challenges by designers, but not necessarily addressed in unison. We are depleting resources to both construct and deconstruct buildings. Design professionals could (and arguably should) be thinking about how to reduce costs and increase environmental and design efficiencies for when buildings need to change use or are under evaluation for being condemned. To be successful, the first challenge that can be crucial for a designer to move forward is getting the client on board.
By addressing the topic of waste, designers inherently have certain agency to help the built environment become more sustainable. Using design to think long term about material use and construction methods for assembly and disassembly can result in buildings that have a lower carbon footprint.
The construction industry is responsible for at least 39% of greenhouse gases released into the environment. These emissions, particularly carbon dioxide (CO2) and methane (CH4), increase the negative effects of accelerated climate change these greenhouse gases produce. This issue can be reduced through upfront design tactics like passive energy building and site selection strategies, as well as better preservation of materials at the end of the building cycle for reuse/repurposing (adaptive reuse).
Some of the current issues with re-using, repairing, and re-allocating resources that are considered waste from a construction project can be deemed out of the architect or designer's control. One such issue is the material science concerns and regulations for testing regarding the evaluation of a building’s material or elements of its structural, thermal, or aesthetic integrity after use and deconstruction.
Other considerations involve the additional scope of work cost for careful/selective deconstruction on the general contractors’ end, the storage of said materials until they can find a new application, and the development of technology at waste management plants that could potentially make the process of recycling materials more streamlined and efficient. While these matters may be tackled in the background through legal incentives for clients, as well as better technology development for material testing, they are indeed out of the grasp of a designer's typical scope.
As designers, we should not approach this topic by looking for new solutions to an old problem, or by trying to step into the role of policy makers and economists. Instead, what is evident is that the road to better waste management is circular in nature, and designers have opportunities to intervene at various points in this cycle. However, the root of these interventions lies in the hands of having early conversations and coordination with the client.
Let's analyze the case of faster-paced scenarios where the clients will be tenants in commercial projects. Often the previous tenant's remnant equipment, finishes, and systems layouts and capacities are undesired by the new client. Identifying these elements for recycling/repurpose may be deemed a superfluous additional cost. That said, by applying the circular thought process, we can identify three main points of intervention in which the architect can work to create environmental and cost efficiencies by quite literally designing-out waste. These are as follows:
Setting up initial passive energy strategies with the landlord to provide base systems for tenants that can sell additional services as needed
Flexible structural systems
Passive energy site and massing techniques
Sourcing local (and healthier) materials
Reducing Muda - the Japanese term for excess
Discussing strategies with the client for preservation of elements
Documenting existing conditions
Design and detail millwork, assemblies, attachments
Work with the client and general contractor to determine the conditions of "waste"
Ultimately, the way designers play our part is directly linked to embodied carbon and how we evaluate substituting more environmentally positive designs. This entails involving the trifecta of architectural project success - coordinating with the owner, architect, and contractor, since the design, constructability, and project management considerations all have a significant impact in the way materials will eventually transform into construction waste.
We have tools to make an impact, so it has become a matter of understanding how to do so for every project.