Starting with the end
As designers we strive to create experiences: spaces rather than objects. Good design encourages human interaction, allowing the space to evolve through occupation.
Most buildings are not performing as well as we might like, with higher energy consumption and associated carbon emissions, we’ve got a growing problem with resource scarcity, and it seems to me that the spaces being designed are all too often a long way off what the users want or need.
The challenge then – for designers to design meaningful spaces, in buildings that perform. Sounds pretty simple, so why as an industry are we struggling?
Steve Jobs, the former CEO of Apple, once said: “‘Design is not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works.”
Good architecture should respond to user experience, is practical and adaptable, but lately I feel like we’ve lost our appetite for good design. A focus on cheapest capital cost and using technology as a panacea has led to over complication, reduced efficiency, production of synthetic materials over natural…too many of our modern buildings will never perform to their intended design life.
There is also growing concern in the demolition industry about new materials and products being used. When entering the waste stream they are harder to recycle or reuse (and therefore of less or no value), because of the way they’ve been designed, manufactured and put together.
Where are we now?
At present, the UK construction industry doesn’t really have a handle on exactly what’s going into our buildings, let alone how to ensure we retain or enhance the value of materials over their life.
The reuse of building materials in the construction industry has declined by more than 60 per cent over the past 15 years. Of the 350-400 million tonnes(mt) of materials used each year, we know that around 80mt are ‘wasted’, as a result of the construction, maintenance and demolition of buildings and structures. At BAM, most of our construction and demolition waste is sent for recycling (which is better than landfill), but a lot is being downcycled and not kept within the construction loop. There are huge opportunities, primarily through design and procurement, to dramatically reduce this waste, and to retain the inherent value of precious materials and resources.
Shifting to a service based performance model
If performance was the primary focus, we would design spaces to function as intended over their life, considering a material’s inherent value, its maintenance, durability and end of life.
This performance concept reflects trends happening elsewhere in our lives. For instance we all upgrade our mobile phones every year (if not more often!). Technology has improved at such a pace that we buy something which is out of date within a few months. In most cases we dispose of a phone (for a newer model) before its true end of life or a product breaks before we’re done with it. Buildings are far more complex products made up of thousands of materials (all with differing life spans). We need customers to realise that their decisions during their occupation of a building could lead to a lot of waste, unless carefully managed in the first place.
BAM is the only major construction member of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s Circular Economy 100 programme. The circular economy concept takes account of materials by reducing waste streams as a “product” of construction and by promoting performance-related agreements with suppliers, putting an emphasis on quality, durability and flexibility. So for example, manufacturers would have a requirement to service or replace their products over time, and clients would pay for this ‘assured performance’ rather than the product as a liability.
We have recently completed a 'semi-circular' building in the Netherlands (Brummen Town Hall), where efforts were made to transform a linear design into a circular model by setting up performance contracts for certain elements rather than a traditional ‘ownership’ model. For example, we made an agreement with Phillips for the client to pay for light quality (lux) rather than light fittings.
This performance agreement put the onus of responsibility (for the efficiency and maintenance of the lamp units) back on the manufacturer. This also meant that Philips was incentivised to work with the architects and the cladding contractor to ensure that the design maximised natural light, to reduce energy consumption.
We’re at the start of our journey, but the circular economy is already becoming embedded in BAM’s mind-set and is a key driver for our global business.
Maybe the answer is to extend the role of the designer; to focus on how (practically) each element can deliver maximum value over its life; to ‘broker’ the relationships between suppliers and end users that will drive improved quality and ultimately achieve the performance we all really want.
Nitesh Magdani is Director of Sustainability at BAM.
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