The cycle of life: everlasting buildings

11 July 2018

Sustainability and a ‘cradle to cradle’ approach have never been more important to the construction and reconstruction of the built environment. At a dining club held by LEAF Review in partnership with Hanex Solid Surfaces at the Sanderson London hotel, manufacturers, architects and designers considered when to reuse or recycle materials, how long buildings should be intended to last and the ways in which architecture can respond to the needs of future generations.

How should architects conceptualise the future? It’s a grand question, but one that demands answering when the built environment is increasingly required to embody sustainable credentials. After dinner, in a private room at the Philippe Starck-designed Sanderson London, those invited debated how to extract maximum value from materials, how long buildings should be designed to last and whether renewal plans should be an integral element of an architectural proposal. While chairing the discussion, Alan Crawford, founder and managing director of Crawford Partnership, prompted the attendees to look ahead in considering how materials could be used and reused in light of their endurance and their potential for reuse and recycling.

For architects, conceiving the future use of their buildings requires a long view. Subharthi Guha of Zaha Hadid Architects saw the best route to sustainability in longevity: architects should design buildings to last forever. “You want to be the Pantheon of today; you want to be the Parthenon of today,” he said. “If a product doesn’t change, it’s actually more sustainable than it being reused again and again.”

The question was taken up around the table, participants leaning forward to offer the founding philosophies and assumptions behind their designs. “Is it not naive of us, today, to consider that buildings should last forever?” asked Crawford, pointing to the possibilities of future challenges we are blithely unaware of – just as Georgian and Victorian architects, producing rows of low-rise villas, could have had no comprehension of the population boom that would require a much higher density of urban-living accommodation. “At the time these homes were built, they never thought about that as being a problem. Now it clearly is a problem,” he said. “I’m suggesting that it’s very difficult to crystal-ball gaze what might happen if we had these buildings that we’re creating for 100 years.”

Building for reuse

Jeremy Blake, partner at Purcell, raised another issue: that the materials and techniques we currently consider to be high quality and long-lasting may, in the future, be proved otherwise. He offered the example of the low-cost buildings erected in the second half of the 20th century to cope with a housing shortage that are now subject to widespread demolition. “What was thought to be an exceptional quality building post-war has in our own lifetimes proved to be totally inappropriate, of poor quality, and totally inflexible for conversion and reuse,” he said. “We don’t know whether the next generation will want what we are currently building.”

Our obligation, Blake stated, is to create buildings with a flexibility that allows their reuse and – should they be demolished – the ability for the components to be recycled. “Whether it stays for 100 years or whether it actually gets bulldozed in 40 [years] is not our decision,” he said. “Our responsibility is: if it needs to be recycled, can it be recycled?”

The idea of repurposing buildings had the table considering the types of structures that have proved to be conducive to changed use. Victorian houses, for example, constructed in traditional materials such as brick, can be endlessly regenerated and modernised. “You can knock the guts out of it, quite frankly,” as Crawford put it. The same is true of Industrial Revolution-era warehouses, as Carlo Castelli, director of strategic planning and design at AECOM, pointed out.

Beyond their adaptability, these buildings have also been preserved because we value their appearance and the character they give our cities. “Where do we like to be, what kind of materials do we like to touch?” asked Castelli. Whether these considerations – of future renovation, of emotional appeal – should be extended to contemporary buildings is a matter of debate: Crawford questioned the value of longevity in structures we know we may have to demolish to make way for a growing population.

Instead, lightweight modernday materials offer alternative and innovative possibilities for reuse. In particular, they allow the creation of temporary structures, such as the sports venues created for the Olympic Games in London and Rio, held in 2012 and 2016, respectively. These buildings can be portable – moved from event to event – or can be repurposed; the Olympic Stadium in London, originally intended for dismantlement, is now the home of West Ham Football Club.

Nevertheless, unfamiliar materials can carry potential risks. Valerie Evans, director of architecture at Atkins, drew the room’s attention to recent research on air pollution created by plastics, while Alan Crawford raised the subject of the harm caused by the once-miracle material asbestos. In response, John Flannery, UK and Ireland managing director for Hanex Solid Surface, stressed the manufacturing industry’s commitment to research and development. “The amount of money that companies such as ours spend on R&D is phenomenal, and most of the stuff we develop never comes to market because we don’t feel that it’s good enough,” he said.

Refurbish first

For Flannery, the industry should concentrate on reusing modern-day materials, such as acrylic-based solid surface, before recycling. For many years, he argued, recycling has been seen as the key metric for sustainability, when other, potentially better, options exist.

“Nobody ever thought about refurbishment and reuse,” he said. “The first option for us is to refurbish the product before you even think of recycling. Why would you not refurbish it if you can bring a product back to what it looked like from day one?” Used as cladding, solid surface can be refurbished every 20 or 30 years to return the material to its original appearance.

The value of extending a product’s lifespan in this way makes reuse – whether on the same building or another – a more conscientious option than breaking it down to be recycled. “I take [solid surface cladding] off a building in London, and I ship it back to Korea for recycling; that’s good in one sense, but I’ve got a big carbon footprint. But if I can take it off the building, it comes off a building in Wembley and I can give it to somebody to use somewhere else in Croydon, we’re talking about really bringing that circle around,” Flannery said.

A lack of transparency and cooperation across the industry proves a stumbling block, however, for this kind of sustainable practice. Anthi Valavani, architect and environmental-design engineer at ECD Architects, pointed out that developers often have no plan for what to do with components that could be reused or recycled.

“I work mainly on retrofitted buildings, and there’s a lot of material that goes to waste,” she explained. “That really disappoints me a lot.”

The importance of a continuous chain of knowledge, reaching across manufacturers, architects, construction and demolition companies and developers, was stressed; while individual manufacturers might have the capability to reuse or recycle their products. If this goes unnoticed, the material will end up in landfill.

Flannery agreed, pointing out that he would take away from the conversation an understanding of the value in marketing Hanex’s capabilities to refurbish, reuse and recycle solid surface. “This is an easy thing for us to do,” he explained.

While the industry is enthusiastic about sustainable practices, the table was quick to acknowledge the impact that impetus from governmental policy would have on establishing a circle of life for the built environment. “It’s not that companies don’t necessarily want to [reuse or recycle] but it’s expensive, so until there’s a payback – maybe on tax, you’re getting something in return – companies aren’t going to just go for it,” said Sarah Brown, senior designer at Fletcher Priest Architects.

Blake was in agreement. “If you look at the motor industry, – for example, BMW and other manufacturers – because of legislation, they have to [make sure] all the components in their cars can be recycled. So, I think the key thing is there’s got to be a governmental shift,” he said.

The potential of sustainable practice built into legislation was summed up by Pascall+Watson’s Samantha Brewer. “It takes conversations like this, it takes everyone to push it, until government takes notice and it becomes a legislation that everyone has to take note of.”

Guests and speakers at the Sanderson London hotel.
Carlo Castelli of AECOM pondered what the key is to preserving a building.
John Flannery and Subharthi Guha listening to Purcell’s Jeremy Blake (left to right).
John Flannery and Alan Crawford with the debate in full flow.
Subharthi Guha of Zaha Hadid Architects stated that buildings should last forever
Sarah Brown (far right) believes companies hesitate to adopt sustainable practices.

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