Iteration the First

August 28, 2007

Today is one week to the first Arch 8777 deadline (and tomorrow is an informal meeting for which I promised work) so here it is … drum roll, please … a first stab at a hypothesis and thesis statement.

The building industry is responsible for 35 percent of the waste generated in America each year.
It is still possible to startle friends outside the world of architecture with this statistic, but to design students and professionals it is old hat – so often dinned in our ears that it fails to shock. It has become a byword, a fact. But I don’t believe it ought to be taken for granted.
Construction and Demolition waste totaled an estimated 136 million tons in 1996, as compared with 133 million tons of landfill in Municipal Solid Waste in 2005. But of that MSW stream, a further 97 million tons were diverted to recycling and composting solutions and another 33 million tons were burned for energy harvesting. In the public sector waste management has improved dramatically over the last 30 years. The situation is not perfect, but there is a sense of progress and a common goal that is actively being approached.
So far the building industry has not seriously tapped the potential of waste reduction. Even the low hanging fruit remains unpicked. Industry in general has proved that great advances are possible. The automotive industry has had its first zero waste auto plant up and running for over a year, turning out Subaru’s by the thousand in central Indiana while generating a bi weekly dumpster of office trash. In America we recycle roughly 25% of our building waste (mostly large scale debris ground into fill for further construction projects) while in Germany and Belgium more than half of construction waste is recycled and in the Netherlands an average of 75% of C&D “waste? is reclaimed. This lack of activity and innovation can only be caused by a lack of interest. The American construction industry does not have the effective motivation necessary to change its approach.
Thesis Statement
There are many potential methods for reducing architecture’s contribution to the waste stream. A shotgun overview: Prefabrication, whole or partial, provides a more controlled building environment and makes reuse of leftover materials more feasible. Design for deconstruction takes the relative life spans of individual materials and building program into account and provides for easy reuse of long-lasting components. Adaptive reuse similarly re-purposes certain parts of an existing structure which both keeps the reused mass out of a landfill and negates the need for new building material. Designing with standard units allows for minimal selvage. One simple and easily overlooked option is to make buildings or spaces smaller; less material creates less eventual waste.
Too often sustainability in America is viewed as a good thing … for those who can afford it. What do a few LEED certified houses solve when only 1% of houses are designed by architects? The majority of people continue to live in homes designed by contractors who are uninterested or unaware of the potential of sustainable design. They would regard it as an impractical luxury. However, few, if any, of the above options make a building more expensive or more technologically complex. Waste reduction is a simple, effective and cost effective to make a building greener. By approaching green design from the angle of waste reduction, it is possible to make it more and more immediately cost effective. My thesis proposes that environmentally friendly building techniques can be universally accessible when they are grounded in sound business theory and sensible waste management.


2 Responses to “Iteration the First”

  1. Aaron Westre Says:

    Kudos on a first draft! Here I sit, the day before with nothing but piles of notes and copious digital scraps collected over the past year. Of course, given your previous assistantship duties, one could reasonably expect you to be ahead of the game.
    I appreciated the Rathje reference. I saw him speak back in my anthropology days. Some incredible stories about taking core samples in old dumps and discovering fully readable newspapers advertising Victorian era goods. Archaeology is primarily about garbage, Rathje recognized that it could be about our garbage. Minneapolis’ solid waste system is amazingly choreographed… enormous piles of trash spirited away just out of sight.
    Here’s to a fruitful thesis year.

  2. James Says:

    Sounds good for a first stab. Now how does it happen? 🙂

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