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How sustainable are modern materials choices?

The properties of glass allow us to be protected from the elements, while still having a connection to the world outside. It is loved by architects and letting agents alike. However this desire for light and views has been taken to the extreme with whole buildings becoming completely transparent. 

I think this is impractical; why do the piles of paper stacked around desks need light or to be seen by the outside world? It is also not sensible from an energy management perspective. The climatic conditions will differ greatly on different faces of a building, as will the internal climatic requirement depending on the use of the space. Therefore, a uniform façade which does not respond to either of these points is illogical. We need to be more responsible.

However, I don’t think this responsibility is limited to how much glass is used on the façade or where we use it. I am concerned that once we have got the operational energy use of buildings under control, we will be left with all the problems we forgot to consider in our haste.

With the demand for ever better thermal performance of facades we are sealing buildings, applying more advanced coatings to glass and using a huge combination of materials in window and facade framing. I believe we are leaving a legacy of materials that are difficult or impossible to recover and reuse or recycle. 

Conversations I have had with the demolition industry indicate that it is already facing problems with “new composite materials” used in buildings from the 1960s and 1970s; they are seen as difficult to segregate and unable to be recycled. Our modern super-sealed thermally efficient buildings are likely to exacerbate this problem.

I don’t believe that this is the only way.

The circular economy concept has been gaining momentum over the past few years, championed by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. Recycling body WRAP defines it as an alternative to a traditional linear economy (make, use, dispose) in which we keep resources in use for as long as possible, extract the maximum value from them while in use, then recover and regenerate products and materials at the end of each service life. MacKinsey has estimated that the transition to a circular economy could save the European Union between £220bn and £250bn a year.

As an industry we need to embrace this concept. We need to seek innovations in material take back schemes, un-bondable adhesives, de-mountable designs and lease-based business models. This will require effort throughout the supply chain from product manufacturers to architects, engineers, contractors and clients. But there will be a reward, a more efficient industry, actually delivering more for less, both in terms of resources and capital.  

The challenge is ours, let’s address this now before our mountainous legacy of unrecoverable waste becomes too large. 

  • Andrea Charlson is a senior advanced technology and research engineer at Arup

Readers' comments (1)

  • Considering the fact that LEDs are so energy efficient and the amount that heat (too much too little) is becoming the major use of energy - probably more than cars but certainly the major use in buildings, perhaps we should move away from the demand for windows. Smaller windows would reduce heat loss and gain, most offices already seal their windows and provide forced ventilation and this also eases sound control - I live 15yds from the A2 and although my windows are all double glazed I like fresh air.

    If we don't need windows then buildings don't need rooms to have outside walls. Build downwards and put the roads and parks on the roofs. Access is still important, especially in an emergency ladders can be used to access medium rise but requiring fire brigades to have moles might not be very practical.

    Incidentally I lectured at the Bounds Green Campus of Middlesex University which was a vast warehouse type building with few windows and very inward looking. The engineering courses have gone and it has become a student hostel - I don't know whether these students have a better view than I had from my office which was only into the Civil Engineering court area which itself had no windows.


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