To achieve circularity and transparence London-based architecture studio, Orms, is proposing a manifesto for material passports
The architecture and building industry are responsible for more than a third of total annual Co2 emissions globally. In order to minimize its impact on the climate, it is no longer sufficient to simply use less harmful materials and make responsible choices – though these are, without a doubt, a positive contribution. A large portion of emissions are caused by waste and failing to either reuse or recycle materials instead. If the goal is to make architecture more sustainable, work must be done to achieve circularity and transparency above anything else. London-based architecture studio, Orms, is proposing a manifesto for material passports as a way to get there.
Current issues and potential solutions
According to 2016 figures, sixty-two percent of the total waste generated in the United Kingdom was caused by architecture. This is mainly due to construction and demolition practices which are not circular. With its material passports project, Orms aims to drastically reduce the amount of waste produced by construction by means of encouraging responsible deconstruction and material reuse. The issue here is a problem of knowledge: as things are, most of the time it is difficult to know exactly what is inside a building, especially in terms of materials and sourcing. Orms is trying to fix this.
«This whole research started because I was trying to reuse materials on an existing project and I felt like I didn’t have the tools to do that», explains Rachel Hoolahan, the leading architect on the project. She started having conversations with clients about how to improve the whole process to make it more sustainable: «We realized that material reuse was a big opportunity».
From there, the project developed with a five-month research piece involving different companies that looked into «the barriers to material reuse and then ways around it». The piece took different areas into consideration, more specifically building assessments, supply chains in the second-hand marketplace, and how the architect mindset should change. Orms in particular, contributed by developing the idea of material passports.
Material Passports with a focus on reusing
As Hoolahan explains, the idea behind material passports is not entirely new but «most of what is already out there is aimed at new materials». The principle is quite straightforward: «They are trying to get manufacturers to provide information when they sell a material». The idea is to gather as much information as possible on every material you are using when approaching construction, make a record of it and make the record available to future generations. Once that same building becomes obsolete, they will know how to reuse or correctly recycle any given material it is made of. The approach Hoolahan was aiming at was entirely different and somewhat complementary to this idea: «What I was trying to do was using existing materials in existing buildings».
The question is, what do I do with a building that is fully finished if I want to reuse its components there and then? One more difference is that the currently used approach is assigning and looking at how we value materials: «Their work takes all of the material in the building – for instance steel – and looks at the current value of that amount of material on the stock market and assesses the value of the steel that is ‘locked’ in a building now and the future according to predictions». The main benefit you would get from this approach is therefore having financial data.
Again, Hoolahan had something else in mind: «My approach to this as an architect was trying to understand how to reuse the material so the question was: how can we gather data in a place where we can sort it and it doesn’t become overwhelming? How can it interface with my changing design tools?». It is about using the existing framework but applying a more practical mindset to it: instead of looking at the theoretical or financial value that is locked in a building, start looking at how you can truly reuse its components for new designs.
Keeping value intact
One of the most difficult issues in achieving the goals set by Orms is keeping the value of things intact. What currently happens in best case scenarios when a building is demolished, is that some of the materials that survived the demolition process get transformed and reused as something else. Here, according to Hoolahan, we have to push further. The point is «how can we encourage people in the industry to reuse at a high value»?
A very practical example to understand what she means is what happens to bricks: normally once a building is teared down, bricks get crushed and the leftover dust is then used as a substratum to build a street; but doing this means downcycling, or diminishing the value of the brick itself. Instead the goal is «taking that brick and just reusing it as a brick» thus keeping its value, both economic and environmental, intact.
«You reuse it as a brick ten times and then, only when it’s really worn out, you downcycle it and transform it into something else». The downside is money: crushing the whole building down is easier and quicker, and thus less expensive. Deconstructing it while preserving all of its elements takes more time and care: «Don’t get me wrong – taking apart a building slowly so that you can reuse everything is going to be a lot more time consuming, and time is money».
In turn, elements that would have most likely been discarded will still be valuable and usable. Here is where the changing mindset comes in: «We have been talking with manufacturers to try and figure out how it would be possible to avoid using glues and start using mechanical fixing instead», which makes it easier to deconstruct; «It’s about education: this has just never been a priority», thus, what must be changed is also the way buildings and construction are values, and factor in the sustainability of processes.
The idea is to have the building become a material bank: «Normally when you build what you are then selling is a square meter on a postcode, but imagine having two buildings side by side, made with different materials». In a world where materials are valued for the life they can continue to have in the future which must consider their environmental value as well, this will become a discerning factor for the real estate market as well. «A material that can be taken out and sold or taken out and reused again is also going to be more valuable».
Material passports: how they work in practice
Transparency is a necessity and passports can help with that: «It is in the best interest of the architect to know exactly how things are», and especially in what conditions. «We have been working with surveyors: professionals who can explore the buildings». Some elements, like structural pieces or fire doors will need to get tested. In fact, another hurdle that is going to come up is the one around safety: «How can we be sure that the products are safe to be reused»? There are companies that have already innovated in this sense, where «they will take back products and do their own testing and cleaning and then resell them as second-hand».
Blockchain will probably be included in the process as a tool to guarantee transparency: «Our approach works very well for single elements – like a window for example – but what do you do with elements that come in volume, like a concrete wall? Blockchain holds a lot of potential in this area». Orms is currently experimenting with integrating the Material Passport approach «which has to be as open-source as possible» into 3D and 2D design programs.
«Essentially, everything has been labeled on the drawing, the labels are referring to the existing layout». Labelling is done by examining each element and listing its characteristics so that it can be reused just as it is. A database is then accessible directly from the model which holds all information relating to each piece or material. The system is designed so that the information can then be turned into a specific URL that is then transformed into a QR code. This way, every single element is tagged both in reality and on the program.
Collaboration as a key factor
«What we are building is a methodology» that can and has to be adapted to any of the existing frameworks: «We are not selling a product or a software». It is about trying to make a different kind of effort, to «get as many people as possible on board» and try to develop it further because «it will be an added value for the industry as a whole». Examples can be taken from other industries as well: «It is important to look beyond the construction business».
The point is, unless the whole industry moves together in the direction of change to a more sustainable practice, it will be much harder to reduce its overall impact. The idea behind Material Passports is quite simple: it’s about keeping track of things and their state in order to be able to reuse them. This same idea will have an additional positive pull: if you are keeping track of the state of something you own, you will be more likely to take better care of it. All in all, material passports are about paying attention, taking care of things and avoiding waste as much as possible – which is exactly the way to go in order to make architecture leading in sustainability.
An Employee Ownership Trust architecture firm based in London, UK. «Orms seeks to elevate the human experience through insight, collaboration, and design integrity».