Like Legos

lego 1

“… it was 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.”
~ Lloyd Alter

It was a hard lesson for a young boy to learn. To keep building new things, you had to take the old ones apart — the supply of Legos was limited.

But in the real world, we just go dig up another streamside, hillside or pasture for the gravel and limestone, mine the mountains for the metals and chop down forests for the wood. We drill for more oil to make the plastics, paints and carpets. After all, isn’t it all just out there for the taking?

I live in a house built in the 1870’s in a neighborhood of mostly homes from the early 1900’s or before. They’ve all had renovations, major upgrades and some demolition. When we demolished the decrepit old lean-to kitchen, we gave the locally-made bricks to a neighbor for his reconstruction project and the worn yellow pine floorboards to a woodworker friend. With some neighbors, we routinely scoured houses that were to be taken down for their stair rails, newel posts, radiators, windows, door knobs and other fittings that someone might use in their house.

History is important, but sometimes you have to see ahead, not back. So, not every old house or building in the neighborhood has to be saved. Some of the most historic-looking buildings in the neighborhood are relatively recent, but designed with their context in mind.

I often see old shopping centers, mostly abandoned, that reflect the era of build-it-fast, use it for twenty or forty years, then take the depreciation and tear it down. I lived the sixties, and know the modern architectural styles are noteworthy and interesting. So, I know that we should be conscious of preserving good examples of that architectural history as well. However, most of those places are destined to be scraped and replaced by new big box stores and fast food places.

While there are attempts to save and recycle some components of demolished buildings, most of the materials simply go to a solid waste landfill. Brick and concrete can be used as fill, often requiring crushing first, and some metals may end up at scrap metal recyclers. The expensive part of the process is segregating materials when you bulldoze or otherwise demolish the structure. It is so much easier to just load it all into dump trucks or roll-offs and take it to the landfill — let someone else in the future worry about sorting!

I have worked on a lot of mine sites, and every state has requirements of reclaiming the site when mining is completed. The site is supposed to be stabilized, any environmental damage repaired, and natural conditions more of less restored. At the time of mine permitting, the owner is required to post a bond, covering the costs for reclamation. As mining proceeds, the bond may be increased, and ongoing reclamation may decrease it. The bond is returned when restoration is completed.

This model could be applied to new structures, too, so we’re not left with big box store zombies littering the landscape.

A similar approach stated by Oliver Wainwright is reported by Lloyd Alter in a recent article, “But Wainwright goes way beyond just renovation and reuse of existing buildings; he calls for a complete rethink of how we build new buildings … using designs for disassembly, so that every part can be recovered.”

“In fact, all building components should be as easy to replace as carpet tiles.” According to Alter, “Tedd Benson uses a design that … takes into account the fact that building systems age at different rates.” He puts wiring in accessible chases in the walls. “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.”

That concept isn’t new. Industrial buildings and construction prefabs use “utilidors”, channels where the piping and wiring are run. The channels are enclosed and sometimes shared with ventilation ducts, but are accessible for repairs and replacements or for adding new systems. I would have liked to have had some of those in my house when we’ve had to modify or replace systems over the last forty years.

Another concept reported by Alter proposes that “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.”

I get that houses in my neighborhood shouldn’t be retrofitted to meet those concepts. However, new structures could be designed with their ultimate demolition in mind. The world is turning away from “single-use” anything, and looking for ways to recycle or reuse. The world is changing.

As Alter notes: “Every building should be designed for deconstruction; cities change, climates change, resources and materials get expensive.”

I wonder if I could rent some super big Legos somewhere …..?

Additional information:
Lloyd Alter, It’s Time to Ban Demolition and Design for Deconstruction, January 17, 2020, TreeHugger

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