What if materials were not just non-toxic but also regenerative – could a building clean the air? Titanium dioxide facade coatings are being studied for pollution capture and a range of studies are underway on carbon sequestration in common materials. Designing for non-toxicity is a first step toward regeneration that can be taken today. Materials that contain chemicals hazardous to human or environmental health are not recyclable, create enduring waste, may harm the workers producing them, and may emit hazardous chemicals – especially if they catch fire.
Some of the most common building materials are made from hazardous materials. PVC, used for pipes, polyurethane (insulation), resin (flooring), formaldehyde (plywood), flame retardants, petrochemical-based products, heavy metal additives (used in many products like sealants), and persistent bio-accumulative toxics (PBTs) like chlorine are all harmful. Chemicals in hazardous materials travel down and upstream, and some, like PBTs, only break down after long periods of time.
Materials for a world not yet built
At the 6th LafargeHolcim Forum for Sustainable Construction, Vivian Loftness Professor of Architecture at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, USA explored the theme of “Could I eat your furniture, IKEA?” as workshop respondent. In the workshop “Changing paradigms: Materials for a world not yet built” main discussion topics included new approaches to materials, water and energy supply, waste management, and alternative construction methods – all aimed at fundamentally redefining our relationship with resources.
Today, in the typical scenario, resources are taken from the earth to use as construction materials, and these materials are disposed of after the building has served its purpose. The resources are consumed in the most literal sense of the word. If our built environment is to become sustainable, it must also become a supplier of resources itself – through circular economy: materials from end- of-life buildings must be reclaimed and reused.
Strategies to re-materialize construction
As the key input to the Forum, the publication 22 Propositions offers strategies for both the material supply chain and material use in buildings. The propositions aim to “re-materialize” construction by rethinking the building material cycle from extraction to processing, design, transport, installation, maintenance, and removal.
The Materials Book to be published by Ruby Press Berlin in late 2019 will feature the essence of 22 Propositions as well as a selection of additional proposals to re-materialize construction derived from the findings of the Forum.