The construction industry is known to be one of the most polluting industries on the planet, but we often find it difficult to associate the role of the architect and urban planner with this industry, thus avoiding the responsibility of being involved in one of the most harmful production chains in the world. Therefore, it is imperative to emphasize the importance of questioning not only the materials used in the projects but also the manufacturing systems involved.
The construction industry is considered one of the most important economic activities in the world while at the same time one of the biggest causes of environmental damage due to the great consumption of natural resources, modification of the landscape, and waste generation. Since this is a global commodity and supply chain, the processes involved also affect the entire world on social and cultural levels.
A commodity chain is a process of gathering resources and transforming them into goods. The chain of production of the construction industry, however, is quite heterogeneous. Simply put, it begins with the extraction of raw materials such as wood and minerals. Converting companies then modify these raw materials to create new intermediate or final products, for example, iron which becomes aluminum or steel, and then used to produce window frames, rebar, and other metal structures. These goods are then sold until they reach the final consumer at the construction site.
So, to understand the full extent of this chain, it is fundamental to be able to track the course of the material from its extraction to its use in construction. The construction industry is responsible for the consumption of 40% to 75% of all feedstock in the world, including iron ore, used for the production of steel and aluminum. Brazil is one of the largest producers of iron ore and, in 2021, this material accounted for 1.64% of Brazil's total exports, with an estimated value of 2.6 billion dollars from January to July 2021 alone, making it the 13th product in the ranking of the country's total exports.
This material was exported to China and the United States, accounting together for almost half of the country's production, the Netherlands, South Korea, Japan, Singapore, Mexico, and others. Brazil is also one of the largest producers of pig iron, which is extracted from the soil, transported by railroad to a port where it is transferred to a ship and then exported to China, for example. In China, this material is added to the iron that is also extracted there and transformed into steel for construction, which is then used to construct the tall buildings and skyscrapers that form large cities such as Shanghai. This journey is very cost-effective but has devastating consequences.
The mining industry causes many environmental and social impacts, as described in reports prepared by the International Federation for Human Rights, and the Mapa de Conflitos (map os conflicts), an organization that reports on locations with environmental risks and impacts caused by industries, almost always in tphe construction sector. Even though iron is just one example, it reveals a very striking situation. On one hand, iron serves as an essential resource for the development of cities and state-of-the-art technologies, while, on the other hand, it causes serious environmental and social impacts that can wipe out entire lands and communities. This conflict goes far beyond the supply chain of the construction industry, thus requiring the involvement of the authorities to control and contain the damages.
At the same time, it is important to understand the role of architects in this scenario. As final consumers in the commodity chain, architects have the opportunity to promote and encourage transformations in these processes. An architect must be critical of this system and seek other ways of building, other materials, and other narratives for their projects. When using vernacular skills and local materials, we need to go beyond aesthetics and techniques and consider the entire production process: extraction, transportation, and the transformation processes of the materials. With this approach, we inevitably realize that we are discussing much more than just construction techniques, we are also addressing the transformation of our notion of cities and territory.
- Ana Carla Fernandes Gasques, Cristhiane Michiko Passos Okawa, Generoso De Angelis Neto, José Luiz Miotto, Tainara Rigotti de Castro. Impactos Ambientais dos Materiais da Construção Civil: Breve Revisão Teórica [Environmental Impacts of Construction Materials: A Brief Theoretical Review]. Revista Tecnológica Maringá, v. 23, p. 13-24, 2014
- Fundação Getúlio Vargas Projetos, ABRAMAT. A cadeia produtiva da construção e o mercado de materiais [The commodity chain of construction and the market of building materials], 2007.
- Comex Stat, Governo Federal, 2021.
- Antônio Filho, Danilo Chammas, Ícaro Vilaça, Isadora Guerreiro, Kaya Lazarini and Paula Constante. As vacas têm para onde ir, o povo do piquiá não: o reassentamento do piquiá de baixo e os caminhos do desenvolvimento brasileiro [The cows have a place to go, the people of piquiá don't: the resettlement of piquiá de baixo and the road to development in Brazil], 2015.