• Nanda Cruz Rios Ford

Let's change the fate of our buildings

Where did we come from? Where do we go after our life is over? I am sure you have asked yourself these questions at least once. As humans, we are inherently curious about our origin and destination. But have you ever asked the same questions about your… house? Think about it. The structure that holds the roof over your head and witnesses your happy and painful moments for years – where did it come from and where will it go? Walls have ears, they say. Don’t they deserve some respect when their life comes to an end?

If you live in the U.S., chances are that your walls’ skeleton is made of 2x4 wood studs, spaced sixteen inches one from another. Those studs were once a tree. Campers may have tied a hammock around it. It may have provided shelter for many birds before being turned into studs and nailed together to protect you from the rain, the heat, and the cold. Now it silently watches your daughter’s first step and other dearest moments. Soon it will burn in a big wood pile.

No, I am not cursing you with a house fire! But when you move out, or when the next family moves out, when someone buys this land and decides to build something else, all the wood that now supports your house will be taken to an incinerator. This wood will turn into ashes while lumberjacks will be busy cutting more wood to build the next house on this land. And so it goes.

How nice would it be to change its fate, to make it witness other babies’ first steps, other new beginnings… If only we could disassemble these walls and reuse them in a new construction! Well, in theory, we could. But that's probably not going to happen for a number of reasons. To name a few: it takes a lot of time to remove all the nails. “It doesn’t pay off”. It is cheaper to just throw things at a landfill. People don’t think of buying second-hand construction materials – unless it’s a treasure hunting for some antique reclaimed wood. Our linear economy does not support reuse. Instead, it is cheaper and easier to follow the make-use-trash model.

The truth is that people are not concerned about what is going to happen to their buildings when they are building (or buying) them. You think about reusable grocery bags, water bottles, coffee cups, but not reusable building components like your wall frame. Designers don’t think of making it easier to take the building apart in the future – in fact, they don’t like to think of their work being taken apart at all.

People don’t know the difference between reuse and recycling. We think all is well if we recycle everything. Think of steel frame walls, for example. If they are bolted instead of welded, they can be easily taken apart and reused. Instead, they end up in a recycling facility. Reusing and recycling are not the same thing. Recycling is an industrial process that has its own environmental impacts. Reusing materials “as is” avoids environmental impacts. Why? Every time we reuse a product, we avoid the production of a new product.

Let’s face it: there is no such thing as a 100% “green” building. Well, maybe if we lived as bees or armadillos that shape nature into houses without depleting Earth’s fossil-fuel reserves. But we are not armadillos, so being “green” depends on our choices, priorities, and trade-offs. There is no one-size-fits-all answer when it comes to “going green”. There is one golden rule though: making reuse feasible is one of the “greenest” things we can do, and this is also true for buildings.

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