The Big Question

Will being sustainable be enough?

Sustainability is a word that has come to define a generation. It has changed society to such an extent that it has become increasingly demanded.

As our planet hurtles into dramatic environmental change we are quickly realising that a circular existence is the only option to slow its pace.

Whatever we make only adds to the speed at which it will arrive.

As a society, will being sustainable be enough?

Better in a building than a whale.

“Over the last 12 months we have seen plastic achieve a spectacular notoriety. Sir David Attenborough’s Blue Planet 2 started this phenomenon and it has been universally condemned with bans and taxes.

A paradigm shift is needed in how we think about the planet’s resources. As the primary consumer of materials, the construction industry generates vast amounts of waste — too much of it is plastic.

But we have to be mindful of the enormous benefits of other plastics that may be polarised or condemned by a lack of understanding.

What if we made buildings that in the future were waste free? Can we then dismantle or reuse them? What can we do with the single-use plastic that already litters our planet?”

Case Study
Schools out, plastics in

With 8 million tons of plastic entering our oceans each year, businesses and governments worldwide have implemented bans on single-use plastic items such as straws and bags. But is it enough? Maybe not when you consider that the construction industry alone is the second-highest user of plastic after packaging. 23% of the plastic used in the UK is through this industry and only 9% of all plastic is ever recycled. So what can we do with all our plastic waste?

Materials science company Dow are leading the way. They’re developing initiatives that convert plastic waste into next-generation materials. For example, Colombian non-profit ‘Conceptos Plásticos’ build schools using bricks made of plastic waste. They’ve also started the Hefty® EnergyBag® initiative which collects hard-to-recycle plastics such as crisp packets and converts them into valuable resources.

Let’s analyse the future that was built yesterday.

“80% of the UK’s buildings in 2050 have already been built. Do we really understand what we have, do we know what the inventory is, does it have a value or is it all about the land? With gold from old electronics more profitable than mining, are buildings tomorrow’s untapped opportunity?

A better understanding of the asset is required. Technology, intelligent mapping, big data and blockchain will allow us to know all of the facts — what is there; how it is used; how much energy is consumed; and how much waste is generated.

Analysing this will give the answers to inform true reuse, rebuild and recycle strategies on a larger scale. We need to move to an era where there is no end of life to a building, no waste, either energy or materials. Does ‘meanwhile’ use becomes the norm?”

Case Study
Passport control

The choice of materials in construction has profound effects. Glass-fronted buildings may be good for natural light but not when it comes to generating heat with air-conditioning responsible for 14% of all our energy use. Whether it’s glass, plastic, steel or wood, how can we make better choices on materials? And, more importantly, if we do use them — how can we recycle them when they’re intertwined and buried deep in such large and complex buildings?

Giving each one a materials passport might be the answer. Used across Europe, these digital documents outline all the parts in a particular product or building. Now, rather than being smashed to rubble they can be taken apart carefully in the knowledge of what lies beneath. One of the first to use this system was an office owned by Dutch energy firm Liander. It reused 80% of materials from the existing building and ensured all virgin products were reusable.