We Must Understand Buildings as Intermediate Deposits of Raw Materials

Increasing urbanization, excessive waste production, excessive consumption of material goods, and exploitation of natural resources. There are many factors that contribute to the environmental impact of humans on Planet Earth. Scarcity of raw materials and the use of non-renewable resources is already the reality of some locations, and nature can no longer reclaim renewables at the same pace as it is exploited. The impact of human activities is so remarkable that scientists have pointed out that we are living in the new geological age of the Anthropocene (the Greek word for “the recent age of man”). The construction industry in particular is a major resource consumer and waste generator. In the European Union, the construction and use of buildings represents about 50% of all resource extraction and energy consumption, and about one third of all water consumption. [1] In 2014, 52% of all waste was attributed to the construction sector. [2].

Discouraging as these facts may be, there are people who see them as potential sources of beneficial changes to the planet. We spoke with Annette Hillebrandt, who along with other authors developed the book Manual of Recycling: Buildings as Sources of Materials. In addition to compiling articles on the stated subject and stating examples of successful projects with recycled elements, the book is a comprehensive guide that provides detailed explanations of calculation methods and bidding trends involving the reuse of materials in construction. Anette points out that "Global raw material deposits have shifted their location. Many raw materials are no longer at their original source: they are bound up in new, anthropogenic structures, above all buildings.” It is this concept of “urban mining” that guides the book. To Anette, it is a matter of changing perceptions of the built stock of cities, viewing them as true mines of useful resources for future construction.

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The author states that “Germany, for example, has a deposit of over 50 billion tons of anthropogenic material in the form of goods or waste products, and this volume is currently growing at an annual rate of 10 tons per inhabitant" [3]. 'Urban mining' means recovering material from this anthropogenic stock to relaunch it in a new production process. This is a paradigm shift affecting the anthropocene construction industry that entails the separation of construction processes and materials and the high recycling of the latter.

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Encapsulated in the concept of "urban mining" is circular planning and costing over the entire life cycle of a building, including its ecological impact. It signifies a departure from linear economic thinking, with its one-way logic of expansion, one-sided view of investment costs, and ultimate landfill disposal scenarios.

To this end, all parties involved in construction have primary functions, which are not restricted to design or construction but go well beyond that. According to her, future buildings should no longer be planned for disposal / waste / landfill, but as intermediate deposits ("mines") of raw materials:

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  • the owner / builder guarantees the construction - and at the end of its use phase - its deconstruction;

  • the industry commits to a responsible manufacturing policy, an obligation to return its products and materials or to use (or establish new) official forms of recycling,

  • Architects and builders utilize methods of demountable construction for future deconstruction and specify recyclable materials.

Thinking about the entire life of the project, from its construction to the fate of its parts after disassembly, is a major lesson in the book. This level of consideration ranges from thinking about detachable joints to specifying recyclable and sustainable materials in every respect. The author points out that architects are of unique importance in the process, and should be well informed so that they can unmask the unethical strategies of the construction products industry. "Avoid materials with suspicious components or those for which the production or recycling process is not transparent enough, forcing the industry to adapt these integral concerns around the materials. For customers, they should clarify to their customers issues of overall building costs - not only construction and operating costs, but also maintenance and demolition costs and end-of-life disposal fees.”

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Wattenmeerzentrum in Ribe (DK). Architektur: Dorte Mandrup, Kopenhagen | Vadehavscentret in Ribe (DK). Architecture: Dorte Mandrup, Copenhagen. Image © Jakob Schoof

It is undeniable that we need to change our thinking and actions to achieve significant changes for the future. Anthropocene construction will depend on the recovery and recycling of building materials from the 'urban ecosystem', separable building materials, concern for life cycles, circular planning, and many other factors. As written at the beginning of the book, the concept of "Urban mining is not meant to be a new style of construction, but a new paradigm: waste is a design flaw!"


[1] Commission report to the European Parliament on the efficient use of resources in the building sector, Brussels 2014
[2] Federal Statistical Office (Destatis), Environment, Waste Balance 2014, Wiesbaden 2016
[3] Umweltbundesamt: Pressemitteilung Nr. 30 vom 6.9.2017 »Urban Mining – Rohstoffquellen direkt vor der Tür«, PM-2017-30, Urban Mining.pdf

About this author
Cite: Souza, Eduardo. "We Must Understand Buildings as Intermediate Deposits of Raw Materials" [Devemos entender os edifícios como depósitos intermediários de matérias-primas] 11 Jul 2024. ArchDaily. Accessed . <https://www.archdaily.com/929560/we-must-understand-buildings-as-intermediate-deposits-of-raw-materials> ISSN 0719-8884

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