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It’s time to ban demolition and design for deconstruction

Oliver Wainright of the Guardian calls for a rethink of the way we put buildings together and take them apart.

“Ban Demolition” is a tag on TreeHugger because we have long argued for renovation and reuse, especially in this era when we worry about the upfront carbon emissions of new construction. Oliver Wainwright of the Guardian is on this case too with The case for… never demolishing another building.

In the UK, the construction industry accounts for 60% of all materials used, while creating a third of all waste and generating 45% of all CO2 emissions in the process. It is a greedy, profligate and polluting monster, gobbling up resources and spitting out the remains in intractable lumps.

But Wainwright goes way beyond just renovation and reuse of existing buildings; he calls for a complete rethink of how we build new buildings, and looks at the work of Dutch architects Thomas Rau, who designs for disassembly, so that every part can be recovered.

His firm recently put the principle into practice with its new headquarters for Triodos, Europe’s leading ethical bank, which he says is the world’s first totally demountable office building. With a structure made entirely from wood, it has been designed with mechanical fixings so that every element can be reused, with all material logged and designed for easy disassembly.

(It's not the first; look at Alberto Mozó's BIP building in Santiago, Chile. I wrote about it: “Every building should be designed for deconstruction; cities change, climates change, resources and materials get expensive.”)

On thing that has changed since the BIP is BIM: Building Information Modeling, all the materials in a building can be easily tracked for reuse, being “merely another layer of data that can be easily incorporated and tracked throughout a building’s life.” It can change the way you think about buildings and materials.

Taking reuse to its logical conclusion, Rau sees a future where every part of a building would be treated as a temporary service, rather than owned. From the facade to the lightbulbs, each element would be rented from the manufacturer, who would be responsible for providing the best possible performance and continual upkeep, as well as dealing with the material at the end of its life.

This was tried years ago by Interface, with their “Evergreen Lease” model; it failed because carpet is a capital cost, but renting carpet as service is an operating cost. In fact, tax implications like depreciation are a major reason buildings get demolished instead of renovated; it has been written off for tax purposes. So we really need a tax overhaul to be able to consider building components a “product as service.”

Unity HomesAn open-built house designed for disassembly/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

In fact, all building components should be as easy to replace as carpet tiles. Tedd Benson of Bensonwood and Unity Homes uses what he calls “Open-built design,” based on the work of Stewart Brand and dutch architect John Habraken. It takes into account the fact that building systems age at different rates. Tedd doesn't even put wiring in the walls, but in accessible chases; “The simple act of disentangling the wiring from the structure and insulation layer allows you to upgrade, change, or replace a 20-year-lifespan electrical system when new technology arises without affecting a 300-year structure.”

When we talked “ban demolition” before, it as all about refurbishing and reusing existing buildings. Wainright's meaning is much more sophisticated; we may not keep every building forever, but if they are designed for deconstruction we can keep using all the parts. That's the way to truly ban demolition.

Oliver Wainright of the Guardian calls for a rethink of the way we put buildings together and take them apart.