Designing waste out of your project

Would you think differently about the materials you build with if you had to dispose of them on your own land?

In October I was fortunate enough to visit Nepal. Travelling through remote rural areas in the foothills of the Himalayas reminded me of the stark contrast of the way people live in some parts of the world compared to us Europeans. Parts of the world where a fairly typical family might live in a concrete bungalow made up of a few rooms, the most modest plumbing and sanitation, without access to private transport or effective waste disposal.

When we think about ecologically responsible construction we generally think of the latest eco-tech – solar panels, triple glazed windows and sedum roofs. But a big part of sustainability in construction is the lifecycle of our building materials. How much energy does a material take to produce? What chemicals might it leach into the watercourse or release into the air during use? And what happens to it once it reaches the end of its useful life? Just because we don’t see the huge holes in the ground full of our waste plastics, gypsum plaster and foam insulation it doesn’t mean we’re not creating just as big a problem for ourselves in the future.

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Pile of rubbish waiting to be burnt on site at a domestic a property in Bandipur.

Of course we also need materials to perform effectively to keep us warm and dry and so choosing the right material is a balance between maximising performance while keeping negative environmental impact to a minimum. To find an environmentally efficient balance between the performance and environmental impact we need to consider 7 aspects:

. Non-toxic, non-harmful + organic;
. Renewable raw materials;
. Reusable / recyclable;
. Durable / repairable;
. High environmental performance;
. Low embodied energy.

When developing the design for a project I like to assess my options using a scoring system based on the above list. There are certain areas where designing out harmful materials is incredibly tricky – flat roofs for example. However even just by considering these factors we can build awareness and find more sophisticated solutions to our environmental problems.

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A property under construction using reclaimed materials & fast growing bamboo props.