Materiality and Morality

Towards a circular model of building design

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We live in an age where the territory on which we subsist is not the same as the cartographic territory which we inhabit. Through the building materials we specify as architects, we are partly responsible for the state of both, wherein our choice of material for a building in one place can produce a series of detrimental impacts elsewhere. A clear example of this is our widespread use of concrete, recently described in a feature by The Guardian as “the most destructive material on Earth”.

In the same way, these choices also have an impact on climactic conditions; a material that affects indoor air quality within a particular building may, in its making, have contributed to emissions that affect outdoor air quality somewhere else. Over the entire lifespan of a building, materials generate an estimated 55% of carbon emissions.

Our choices, in effect, influence the capital flows of an underlying system based on the extraction of finite materials that are ultimately let go to waste. In most countries, construction contributes an average of 5-10% to the GDP – the current measure of economic success based on the market value of material goods produced annually.

“How can we re-think what we design in order to re-design what we make?”

Digital technologies allow us to monitor the performance of building materials in real-time and measure them against specified outcomes, such as air quality.
The UNStudio urban vision for the Brainport Smart District in Helmond, Netherlands, will see design and construction go hand-in-hand with step-by-step development, guided by its users. Photo © Plomp

As architects and designers we are complicit in matters of climate change matters because we have a certain degree of agency over the building materials and components that we specify, and by extension, what infrastructures we help support. We are implicated in what holes are dug, what climate-altering gasses are released and what economic systems are served.

In an age of accelerating environmental degradation, climate change and wealth disparity, we know that we can no longer sustain the way that we make things. The intersection of morality and materiality is patent in the very buildings that we design, bringing with it a complex series of conflicting problems. How can we re-think what we design in order to re-design what we make?

Performance, not product

Digital technologies allow us to monitor the performance of components and building materials in real-time and measure them against specified outcomes, such as air quality. By designing sensor systems linked to building information models (BIM) and combining them with less quantifiable indicators of human health, we could diagnose the aggregated impact of a building’s properties on its immediate environment and inhabitants over time. So, rather than specifying products to make a building sold as another product, we could design performance in service of the environments that we need to thrive.

Values, not value

Designing robust feedback loops between performance, policy and design could, in turn, open opportunities for investment in our buildings and cities to be tied to performance over time. Through the use of platform technologies, buildings could be financed by stakeholders, that would invest in and mutually benefit based on the outcomes set at a building, neighbourhood or city level. In this way, value could be defined not according to how much a building and its materials cost, but according to how much they will save us in the future.

The UNS Products and UNS Knowledge teams have developed an ultra-durable, ultra-white paint – The Coolest White – in collaboration with Monopol Colors. The coating can be applied to façade elements to deflect excessive solar radiation. The performance of this material in relation to its environment is something that could be specified towards an outcome of reducing energy usage, by reducing the need for mechanical interior cooling. Photo courtesy UNStudio.

Circular systems, not linear flows

The pragmatics of outcome-based design were recently outlined by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation as comprising three principles for the circular economy – a system designed to eliminate CO2 emissions and reduce waste through recycling loops made possible by new materials, energy systems and financial instruments supported by industry, institutions and government.

The first principle is to preserve and extend the life of what is already exists, allowing us to specify services—such as the provision of light —rather than the hardware that generates them. Here the provision and maintenance of components remains with the service providers, distributing risk and responsibility across stakeholders.

The second principal is to treat waste as a raw material, which encourages design for disassembly. All materials and components used in a building are tagged in a document called a material passport which can then be uploaded to open-access platforms that facilitate the reclamation and resale of material parts at the end of the building’s useful life.

The third principal focuses on renewable energy and the regeneration of natural systems, shifting our perspective from resource scarcity to resource abundance, provided that we take care to sustain the ecosystems that support us.

Architecture as a means, not an end

As architects we can shift the focus of our design efforts from products to outcomes that are aligned towards a better future. But whose future are we talking about? There is no universal roadmap that everyone can adhere to or even agree on.

At UNStudio, our design teams are based out of Amsterdam, Hong Kong, Shanghai and Frankfurt. In each of these places, there are a myriad of intersecting and often conflicting set of needs, interests and visions. As the city of Amsterdam gears towards its objective to become fully circular by 2050, we should remember that a circular transformation requires both infrastructure and regulation that is tangible, legible and public, with enough space for contrasting visions to coexist. If we focus on the design of projects used a means rather than an end, we could work together to build more equitable and environmentally just futures.

This article was co-authored by Lili Carr, designer from UNStudio’s strategy unit, UNS Futures.

Main image: the UNStudio urban vision for the Brainport Smart District in Helmond, Netherlands, will see design and construction go hand-in-hand with step-by-step development, guided by its users. Photo © Plomp