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Designing Out Waste

Building waste accounts for a staggering 35-40% of worldwide waste in landfills, and carbon emissions from both building erection and deconstruction are increasing. These factors can be daunting when considering whether the design profession is an active or passive player- in the unending game we play each day with environmental management.
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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

  • Determining the best construction type for maximum interior flexibility, adaptability, and detachability.
  • The versatility of the construction system allows for adaptability of the space to new uses, decreasing the need for virgin materials during large scale internal changes to the spaces.
  • The post-deconstruction process is made easier when materials like cross laminated timber and heavy timber, have flexibility regarding their use due to their composition and ability to be used in a variety of ways during updates.

Passive energy site and massing techniques

  • By implementing more energy-efficient building envelope strategies that utilize the fundamentals of solar design, for instance, we can simultaneously accomplish the creation of comfortable spaces for occupants and a decrease in the demand and requirements of active HVAC systems.
  • Through considering the impact of onsite supplementary utility systems (e.g., storm water management, greywater or blackwater systems) in the design process, we can potentially avoid overloading city infrastructure.

Sourcing local (and healthier) materials

  • Material analysis can also come into play as we understand the types of materials that are more easily recyclable, and contain more recycled content, than others.
  • Common building materials such as masonry, concrete, or glass are often upcycled by creating new materials incorporating other materials destined for a landfill, which can reduce a building's emissions up to 90%.
  • It's important to specify and utilize highly recyclable materials like steel during the design process.
    • Depending on the region, drywall can be very recyclable, as paper and gypsum do not generally result in loss of performance when re-manufactured. However, in an anaerobic environment like a landfill, gypsum can actually release copious amounts of the toxic gas hydrogen sulfide
  • Designers have the ability to specify materials that have a lower environmental impact such as carpet made of less toxic and recyclable material.
    • Carpet usually results in less than 10% recyclability if using conventional adhesives and backings.
    • Using materials that have little-to-no chemical by-product or are made of non-toxic materials.
  • Local materials can decrease the cost, and carbon impact, of transportation from out-of-region locations.

Reducing Muda - the Japanese term for excess

  • Fully acknowledging that excess (or waste that absorbs resources but does not create value as stated by Taiichi Ohno) is often present due to oversizing of MEP systems, specifying lavish finishes, or over constrained equipment. These aspects, which not all tenants will be using throughout the life of a building, can be addressed by paying for what is needed at a particular point in time so that the permanence of these resources does not become a burden at the end of a tenant's cycle.
    • For instance, “Pay per Lux,” by Phillips, is a program that "provides the exact amount of light for workspaces and rooms that employees need when using them for specific tasks -with maintenance costs included. Whenever the lighting needs to change, Philips can either adapt the existing system further to the client's wishes or simply reclaim its materials and recycle them via LightRec."
    • ”Furniture as service” can also be evaluated as a life cycle cost reduction compared to purchasing furniture outright.

Discussing strategies with the client for preservation of elements

Documenting existing conditions

  • Through a comprehensive survey of existing conditions and assemblies, there can be an understanding of materials in the space that can help reduce what needs to be included in the new project scope.
  • Identify existing MEP systems that can be used with minimal alteration.
  • Identify finishes and interior architecture that could work with the new design intent.

Design and detail millwork, assemblies, attachments

  • It is important to include design elements that can be easily deconstructed and reused, recycled, or upcycled.
  • A prime example of this is the “Circular Building” by ARUP for the 2016 London Design Festival. This "installation" showed how a building successfully used all materials that could be reused and were either biodegradable or useful as raw materials.
  • For designers, this could mean using Cradle to Cradle products or using temporary attachments. Detailing shear connections using metal fasteners, as opposed to welding moment connections, could account for this flexibility.

Work with the client and general contractor to determine the conditions of "waste"

  • Identifying donation centers for materials and establishing dedicated local storage to help incentivize recycling. While this is atypical, if this practice was more commonplace it would assist in the deconstruction process and create another bank of resources that doesn’t require interrupting raw systems.
    • Planning for multi-stream deconstruction would require in-depth coordination with the client and project team to identify the potential materials that could be salvaged.
  • A creative and compelling solution that can be inserted at any point in a project is to –the project team determine materials that could be reclaimed and converted into a fresh design element, such as an eye-catching piece of art for a feature wall

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.

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