Squaring the sustainable circle (by Jaume Prat)

03 July 2017

One Central Park, Sydney Sustainability and the circular economy are two closely-connected concepts that the construction world is just beginning to embrace. Strengthening these concepts could bring the way we understand an architectural project closer to our contemporary sensibility.

Material porcelanico Dekton, de Consentino

Eco-friendly material of Cosentino's closed cycle

Giving significance to a place is one of the origins of architecture: the materialisation of the desire to say ‘we are here'; to signal, to remain, to transcend. Arousing emotion through some form of intervention. Creating a milestone that can appropriate that space or create one that is protected from the elements to hold different commemorative activities, whether religious or not. In short, endowing a place with meaning ends up creating a sacred space, a space which, when it has enough power, tends to separate from religion and the primary reason that led to its creation to survive, duly transcending the different forms of worship that will be held there successively over the years. By way of example: if you excavate a church standing on a hill, you will almost certainly find a pagan Greek or Roman temple underneath which, in turn, will have been built over the ruins of a previous intervention (whether a temple, a menhir or a megalithic monument) from Celtic, Iberian or even earlier times. The church will have lost the memory of its location in that precise place, but it will continue to be sacred.

This type of architectural intervention on sacred buildings, which often survived for years and even centuries, well-built initially and well-maintained thereafter, are the perfect example of the concept of sustainability: regardless of their construction, their meaning and their function keep them standing and operating. The longer they are there, the more they are occupied, the more use they are put to, the more sustainable they are. Times passes and the building is invariable, immutable, respected.

And yet the bulk of architecture is made up of buildings that do much more than transcend a place; buildings that require a minimum of comfort to be functional in which to live and work. Buildings which, moreover, will need to be maintained, renovated and eventually reused. Traditionally, these buildings shared characteristics with their sacred counterparts: buildings built to last, well-constructed, in which the use already incorporated the maintenance. These buildings were built to a large extent with what could be found in their immediate surroundings, with the minimum contribution from external material in their realisation. When they reached the end of their useful life and had to be demolished and replaced, the new building was usually built from the remains of the old one, following the same logic of minimising the use of imported material. This action always mobilised a small economy: careful, selective demolitions, the preparation of the different construction elements for the new life (bricks, beams, stones), treatment of waste so it could be used as a filler material or for the foundations (breaking up stones and bricks to form a filling, etc.).

The construction criteria of traditional architecture are sustainable by definition, something that has been noted in many other places. The economy that drives these projects is, also be definition, circular: the minimum enters and leaves, you work with what there is. The decision to use new materials is always a thoughtful and disciplined one.

This panorama started to break up definitively when tradition was replaced by convention and memory disappeared, which was driven by the exponential growth in the demand for buildings. This new situation has created a paradigm that has made us forget, or treat as a sort of Arcadian legend, the time when all construction was both circular and sustainable.

This situation, which we have become familiar with in the last forty or fifty years, is first defined by a basic cultural factor: spending and not worrying about the consequences. Or, in the world of construction, about waste. This is the same sentiment as the one that leads us to throw away old tyres, to get rid of nuclear waste or plastics by dumping it in the sea with an ostrich-like ‘if I can't see it, it doesn't exist' attitude, leading to the indiscriminate creation of vast cemeteries of building waste, much of it illegal, to the point that they are already constituting a significant percentage (sometimes half) of a country's waste.

This situation is also defined by the world's urbanisation. More than half the planet's inhabitants live in cities, and this occurs regardless of whether this decision is a good idea or not. It quite simply exists. And to date this was done without any kind of reference to sustainability: cars, energy squandered indiscriminately, abandonment of day-night cycles, the lack of extensive green suburbs in which to live the nightmare of the middle class.

And still we could add a third point to the definition of this paradigm: the use of a whole series of specialised materials, often derived from oil, that made it possible to give buildings the required levels of comfort, such as thermal insulation, plastics, wiring, claddings, liquids and different installations. Building envelopes are now a complex multi-layered compound that is difficult to manage when it becomes waste, even when the desire is there to deal with it responsibly; it is often a toxic pollutant throughout its lifecycle except (with a bit of luck) for the brief period of time when it is fitted, functioning and has not yet deteriorated. But the cost-benefit ratio was amazing.

This situation has reached the point of collapse. We need a change of mind. A radical one.

Two pieces of good news: the first is that this is already happening, to a greater or lesser extent.

The second is that the best decision to get this mindset to take hold has already been taken: that of making sustainable actions economically sustainable as well. In other words: creating companies, or creating a new business division within existing companies, to manage, reuse and give a second meaningful life to construction waste and make it profitable to be used once again in an architectural project.

The scale factor is crucial in achieving this, in that the waste needs to be managed on an industrial scale. As an example of what industry can offer in terms of reuse and recycling, we might recall the so-called closed cycle materials which, when they had finished their useful life, returned to the company that manufactured them so it could process them and turn them either into the same material or a different one. Certain versions of Dekton porcelain, marketed by Cosentino, are already closed-cycle materials. The energy used to manufacture them is optimised. The absence of standard measures (due to the complete automation of the manufacturing process) means the order can be tailored to the customer with no wastage whatsoever. The colour range is achieved with non-polluting dyes which, moreover, can be recycled 100%, as well as the other components: aggregates and binders. And the scaling factor continues to increase: there are some concretes that are slowly carbonated by absorbing carbon dioxide molecules from the atmosphere for much of their useful life, which makes the building cladding clean the air around it. There is still a long way to go, but initiatives are overlapping each other and being developed en masse, which has an impact on both the processes and the end results.

One Central Park, de Jean Nouvel

One Central Park, Jean Nouvel's ultra-energy-efficient project using structural resources that architects who are experts in sustainability advised against.

The sustainable process, as well as the circular economy, is a negotiation. It is the world of grey: manufacturing cantilevers may be expensive in energy terms, but these can have mirrors mounted on them to conduct the sun into an atrium and hence significantly reduce the cost of artificial lighting, even when this is low consumption (the fact is that even low consumption energy consumes some form of power)(2). In these ephemeral times, when a company might change its headquarters three times in ten years, definitive constructions may cease to be an option. Or not, if they are made flexible enough. The panorama that is opening up is infinite. The good news is that it is starting to become inevitable to include this discussion in virtually every new project.

It is not so much a question of seeking out the exemplary project (which will never exist) as one of looking for an optimised process or management system. It is not about seeking a change of forms a priori but about incorporating this way of thinking into our cultural framework. Or rather, what it is about is ensuring that the management of a project goes back to what it was just a few decades ago: nothing in, nothing out, not just from the site (the current circumstances make this almost impossible) but from the industrial process that makes an architectural project possible. What it's about is getting back to incorporating this way of thinking, updating it, reinvigorating that spirit that was present in traditional construction. By doing this, we will have closed the circle ourselves.

(1) One Central Park, Jean Nouvel's ultra-energy-efficient project using structural resources that architects who are experts in sustainability advised against.