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Materials for a world not yet built

Changing paradigms: Creating the future without destroying the world

Is the idea of building more with less a Utopia? Maybe. But to me, it’s the key to our future and a challenge we must urgently address. We must all tackle the social, economic, and environmental problems created by population growth, migration, climate change, and dwindling supplies of resources. How do we do this? By building differently and by reforming a construction industry that is famously resistant to change while creating a built environment that requires significantly less material.

By Werner Sobek

To put this into a global perspective, note that in Germany the built environment accounts for an average of 490 tons of material per citizen, then note that the world population is growing by 2.6 people per second. Supplying every new person with Germany’s structural standard would require extracting, processing, and installing almost 1,300 tons of building materials per second.

The carbon cost is huge: creating a built environment similar to Germany’s for all those newborns would result in a dramatic failure to meet the 2°C target agreed on in Paris — without taking into account CO² emissions from other sectors such as transport and manufacturing.

F19-Sobek-01-DSC0390.jpgA new type of construction

This means it’s time to act. Neither today nor in 2050 will every person on earth be able to enjoy Germany’s current structural standard. It is obvious that only a drastic reduction in material consumption and greater recycling will lead to a new type of construction.

At the same time, we must ask what level of consumption is appropriate. The construction industry accounts for about 35 percent of global energy use, 35 percent of emissions, 60 percent of resource consumption, and half of mass waste.

The objectives could be sketched out as follows:

  1. It’s about building for more people with less material.
  2. It’s about planning for the recycling of all building materials.
  3. It’s about an immediate halt to all emissions of gaseous waste.

Saving energy is deliberately absent from this list because there is no shortage of energy. The sun provides us with 10,000 times as much power as humanity needs for everything we do. Sustainability, therefore, does not necessarily mean greater energy efficiency; it means a shift away from fossil fuels.

A15GLsiLK-update-09.jpgMinimizing consumption, circular material flows

Minimizing our consumption of building materials makes sense not only because it would cut emissions of CO² and another 144 gases. Simply meeting growing demand for buildings and infrastructure requires that we drastically reduce the amount of material we consume. In addition to minimizing the resources we use for construction – we must also make these resources available for later reuse. That means designing for disassembly, which can reduce the volume of new building materials that must be extracted while minimizing the amount of waste that can’t be recycled or reused.

The changes needed to make construction sustainable are manifold and far-reaching. There are plenty of approaches, but society must be willing to implement them. We need a change in awareness, and we must create a legal framework that will allow it to happen.

How architects and engineers meet the goals developed by society as a whole should be left to their innovative power. Experts in their fields must have the freedom to develop the best tools and methods to address the problems we face.

Re-materializing Construction

This text is extracted from the paper Build More with Less: How to Create the Future without Destroying the World presented by Werner Sobek at the LafargeHolcim Forum for Sustainable Construction on “Re-materializing Construction” held at the American University in Cairo, Egypt. The full text is available as a flip-book via the link below:

Build More with Less: How to Create the Future without Destroying the World

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”.

The Materials Book: Re-materializing Construction – Cairo (Ruby Press)

Last Updated: May 25, 2020
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Stuttgart, Germany
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