reduce reuse recycle [and rethink]: buildings
When it comes to caring for the environment, we’re all pretty used to the concept of “The Three R’s”, in terms of sorting our household waste, upcycling furniture, or embracing vintage fashion… but what about when it comes to buildings?
As an architect with a passion for sustainable design, I dream of the day where we can ALL live in affordable, comfortable, healthy, beautiful and sustainable homes that have a strong connection with (and care for) our natural environment.
At the rate we are consuming the earth’s resources, Australians live like we had FOUR planets to provide for us1. Our current ecological footprint is not sustainable, and in order for our childrens’ children to be able to live in a world that provides enough for their needs, we need to make some more responsible decisions now.
Buildings consume around 40% of our planet’s materials, and 30% of energy resources2. It really is time to rethink our homes. It is not just about “adding” on solar panels and water tanks (although that all helps), there’s much more we can do to improve our mindset an create a more sustainable future.
Shamefully, Australians live in the world’s largest houses! The average new house here (in the state of Victoria) is 243 square metres (26 squares) with the average of 2.66 people per house3! One of the single biggest impacts we can have is learning that bigger is not better when it comes to our homes. A smaller home uses less of earth’s resources to build, uses less energy to run, contains less “stuff” (which is a whole other environmental and ethical consideration in itself), costs less, is often closer to amenities (due to the nature of population density and development), and there’s much less to clean! If it’s well designed it can be more efficiently planned (and be flexible as the occupant’s needs change), as well as being energy-efficient (and more thermally comfortable). If we could all reduce our building footprints, it would be hugely beneficial.
Seeing old buildings be demolished can be upsetting, with them being reduced to a pile of rubble. This is such a wasteful activity in terms of an entire building ending up in landfill, and then it being replaced with a whole new construction of new materials. If possible, it is more sustainable to reuse the existing building. Renovate, rearrange, alter, upgrade, extend, improve or retrofit. Where demolition is required, the building might be able to be de-constructed or dismantled instead, so the components can be reused.
Recycled materials can have a fascinating history and often a more tactile quality. Most people instantly think of gorgeous recycled timbers and perhaps textured recycled bricks… but there are many other ‘new’ materials that also have recycled content. Fro example, there is concrete that has recycled aggregate, or recycled rubber flooring made from old tyres, or insulation made from recycled glass. Another consideration is choosing materials that are recylable. This can include steel and other metals that can be endlessly recycled, and timber – preferably if it has been screwed or nailed together, without toxic glues or finishes. Many other building components can be recycled or reused, such as windows and doors, light-fittings, cabinets, plumbing fittings, etc. Of course this means we should always choose good-quality and durable products in the first place that will actually last a lifetime.
There are inspiring movements to rethink the life of buildings, and they should have a “cradle-to-cradle” philosophy. If the materials and components can’t be recycled at the end of the building’s life, they can instead be returned to the earth (compostable or biodegradable) without polluting the soil, the water or the air. This cyclical nature of things is of course what happens in our natural environment, and for our future built-environment to be truly sustainable, our buildings should be considered part of our eco-system too.
- Ecological Footprinting, One Planet Living http://oneplanetliving.org.au/one-planet-living/ecological-footprinting/
- Peter Graham, Building Ecology, Blackwell Publishing, 2003, p.12.
- Simon Johanson, ‘Australian homes still the world’s biggest’, in The Sydney Morning Herald. August 22, 2011 http://www.smh.com.au/business/property/australian-homes-still-the-worlds-biggest-20110822-1j5ev.html
Talina Edwards is the owner and principal architect at “Talina Edwards Architecture: elemental design”, with a love for green buildings, sustainable design, healthy homes and natural living. As well as practicing architecture, Talina is also very involved with her local community, and regular writes and speaks about eco architecture. She lives with her partner and two young boys in central Victoria. Find out more and connect with Talina at: