19 May 2017
By Tercia Jansen van Vuuren

A reflection on the value of buildings and materials

The 2017 Green Sky Thinking week presented a wonderful opportunity to meet like-minded professionals in the built environment industry, and to discuss concepts that we hear about often, but might not get the chance to investigate further. Reflecting upon the events I attended, I realised that all three events addressed some aspect of the same fundamental question: what do we need to do differently now in the construction industry to ensure that we maximise the life and value of buildings and the materials that comprise them? What follows is a brief look at the three aspects of this question that stood out for me.


The first aspect relates to the adaptability of buildings. Useful Projects hosted an entertaining evening that was more about philosophical debate than technical discussion. Who knew that buildings could be compared to jeans? This turns out to be a rather apt comparison when considering the question of how our buildings fit their purpose. Are they loose and baggy, allowing room for change and growth, or tight-fitting – slim and sexy, but will need replacement (or significant modification) if the status quo changes? How adaptable buildings are is fundamental to the ‘whole-life’ value that they can provide. 


Progressing along this thought train, we get to the question that most central London developers inevitably face: demolish or refurbish? Whilst cost and time are always considered, ECD Architects used a case study to demonstrate the comparison of embodied carbon between a demolish and rebuild option, and a refurbishment option. This was done retrospectively, so did not influence the decision made. Nonetheless, it was encouraging to see how other industry professionals are bringing embodied carbon into the realm of factors to consider on projects.


The practicality of doing the embodied carbon comparison at the earliest stages of a project, when the decision to demolish or refurbish will typically be set, is challenging. The method demonstrated by ECD requires a detailed knowledge of the materials and quantities for both options, information that generally isn’t available until further down the line when structural and architectural options have been developed. Yet once this is available, it is too late to influence the decision – a catch-22. How best to strike the balance is something that we’ve not yet solved as an industry, but is something that KLH is continually working toward and engaging with. 


From early stage decisions to end-of-life scenarios brings us to the third aspect of my reflections on the Green Sky Thinking talks I attended: circular economy. At Penoyre & Prasad, we grappled with what happens to buildings at their end-of-life and how we design buildings for this stage. The most interesting concept for me centred around the value of materials. Are decisions to demolish structurally sound buildings made with apparent haste because we don’t attach sufficient value to the natural resources and materials that comprise the building? Is it too cheap and easy to source new materials? What would we do differently if we embraced the concept of ‘buildings as material banks’? Whilst these concepts provide endless food for thought, I think we need to proceed carefully with the phrase “circular economy”, lest the blasé use thereof to describe what are effectively ‘business-as-usual’ practices, such as waste minimisation, renders it meaningless, instead of describing this truly innovative approach to buildings and materials.


As with anything, the deeper I delve into that first question about what we need to do differently, the more questions I have and the more work I see necessary to get there as an industry. At KLH, we don’t shy away from these difficult questions, and are working with clients to promote the value of buildings and materials. What is clear from witnessing the engagement and interest in each of the events I attended, is that we have the intelligence and determination within the industry to keep pursuing improvements and the desire to turn these into reality.


Photographer: ND Faungg


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