In a world where data is ubiquitous, it might seem easy to monitor material and energy flows through urban systems. Policymakers and society as a whole rarely acknowledge resource, energy, or water scarcity. More often than not, they are not properly measured, or only partially so, even though a misleading indicator can be as detrimental as no measure at all: both can steer us in the wrong direction.
Simply showcasing alternative materials and technological solutions while explaining current societal threats won’t be enough to induce change. Catastrophic events such as floods, fires, or earthquakes can create an incentive to reconsider how we build. Architects, engineers, and scientists can then design for hope by implementing new solutions, some of which stem from traditional methods.
New technologies such as the “Internet of Things”, or sophisticated structural systems for high-rises, have the potential to nudge clients toward new building types thanks to their attractiveness compared to current standards, and thereby help in decreasing a structure’s environmental footprint.
Circularity with social quality in mind
Urban quality can’t be considered without integrating social concerns such as livability and diversity. While the twentieth century saw the rise of the suburbs, people today more often seek a high-quality urban lifestyle. The shift requires a combination of design, technology, and policy actions that promote circularity.
Shifting how we think about and work with resources can be a powerful tool in getting more people to engage. The city works as a system; and mapping its resources can prove particularly challenging. It also has untapped potential when scratching – literally – beneath the surface. For instance, studies show that accurate mapping of underground heat flows can be used to develop shallow geothermal infrastructure to keep residents warm, or to build energy- efficient subterranean urban farms.
There is a fundamental interdependence between the natural and the built environments. While crises and emergencies can spur rapid change, traditional innovation cycles are simply too slow. We need to support ecological restoration and reconnect the components of natural systems. New ideas that promote a better future are catalysts when they raise a question; they turn into an answer only when they become part of everyday life, embraced by the community, designers, and policymakers.
This text is based on the paper “Beyond circularity” presented by Marilyne Andersen and Guillaume Habert at the LafargeHolcim Forum “Re-materializing Construction” held at the American University in Cairo, Egypt.
Inspired by the discussions by 350 leading thinkers from architecture, engineering, planning, and the construction industry from 55 countries, Ruby Press Berlin has published The Materials Book that evaluates current architectural practices and models, and introduces materials and methods to maximize the environmental, social, and economic performance of the built environment in the context of “Re-materializing Construction”.