If we want to have a future world, we must embrace circularity. If we want to embrace circular architecture, material reuse is essential. And, if we want to embrace material reuse, I believe that material passports are vital.
The construction industry is currently facing two critical challenges. Firstly, we need to stop emitting carbon (and other harmful pollutants). Secondly, we need to slow down the extraction of natural resources. The simplest solution for both problems is to just stop building and utilise the spaces that already exist.
But this isn’t a complete solution either – we need spaces and places for our populations to thrive in an equitable way, and much of our current building stock just isn’t up to scratch, so new builds will still be required. But we need to stop using new materials – or at the very least limit their use.
We are increasingly seeing project teams reusing as much material from existing buildings as possible. Generally, a substantial amount of the original structure is retained. But any materials that must be removed from site as part of the demolition process ordinarily end up in a downcycling loop. Imagine if we could just carefully deconstruct the building and reuse the materials, either as they are, or with a light refurbishment?
Currently, this is a seemingly impossible task. It can be considerably more expensive to deconstruct rather than demolish, and the materials typically haven’t been designed for deconstruction, often being glued together so it’s almost impossible to pull them apart without damaging something. It’s also perceived as a very risky business to take a material that you frankly know nothing about and install it ‘as new’ elsewhere.
Material Passports offer an opportunity to gather and organise data about materials contained within a building. As the name suggests, these are ‘identity documents’ for construction materials. The idea is that if you have useful information about the original specification and life history of an element, you have a better chance of deciding if it is suitable for reuse.
At Orms, we have developed a strategy that centres around a Material Database, with Material Passports acting as a user interface to filter relevant information. Our goal was to develop an open-source methodology to Material Passporting for existing buildings, that would be accessible to design teams of all sizes and capabilities.
In the next blog, I’ll explore how Material Passports could work in mainstream practice.
About the author
Rachel has extensive experience working with existing buildings. For the past few years, she has engaged in a series of deep research assignments and is utilising this data and knowledge to push the boundaries of sustainable development – both in refurbishment and new build projects. Recently, she led a research piece on material passports as part of a wider Grosvenor Estate Innovation Project into material reuse. Rachel has recently received the 2021 AJ100 Sustainability Champion Award.