Change in design culture

From mono-functional buildings to material banks

Most current buildings are still designed from a linear perspective, neglecting future change and creating construction and demolition (C&D) waste during and at the end of their service life. The conception and design stages are crucial to ensure that buildings can support planned and unpredictable changes, in order to increase or maintain their quality of use.

However, designing buildings and building products to be reused and transformed is not yet integrated in current design practice.

What is the reward in the long term?

  • A building stock that can easily be maintained and adapted to future changes. Instead of prematurely demolishing buildings because they are unfit to meet changing demands, the actual service life of buildings will increase, which increases the added value for end users. In order to do so, building and product designers will need to take into account different future scenarios, using design principles supporting transformation, multi-use and disassembly. Facilitating this will lead to business opportunities for:
    • designers: supporting technical designs for future retrofits;
    • contractors: more construction and deconstruction projects within a shorter timeframe;
    • facility managers: smooth maintenance and repair actions with no or restricted time delays.
  • Zero waste construction and deconstruction activities. Instead of landfilling and down-cycling of construction and demolition waste, as it is often done today within the EU, building components and materials will be reused and recycled for other useful applications, within or outside the built environment. Ideally, these continuous cycles can be repeated over and over again. To make this principle reality, building elements and product components need to be designed in such a way that they can be disassembled and reused, and that material quality and value are kept at the highest level possible.
  • Healthy building materials, using renewable resources where possible, while keeping non-renewable resources in high-quality material cycles. Instead of using building products that emit harmful indoor or outdoor emissions, only healthy and environmentally sound materials should be used within a given building context. This will require some assistance in selecting materials during the building and product design. Furthermore, as the existing building industry still uses a lot of primary and fossil resources, more efforts are needed to increase the use of secondary resources coming from high-quality recycling within the design of building components in order to reduce the need for primary resource extraction.


Why isn’t it so easy to initiate change today?

  • The future role of building and product designers needs to be redefined. If buildings are more and more conceived as adaptable configurations (of standard building components) made of building kits such as Lego® and Meccano®, designing and constructing buildings can become accessible to more stakeholders, not only architects. This can be compared with the Do It Yourself (DIY) furniture concept, in which consumers can design and make their own tailored wardrobes/kitchens without the help of a specialised Similar observations can be made in product design: with the uptake of 3D printing, the manufacturing of customised user products has become accessible and will gain importance in the coming years.
  • Standardisation of connections and dimensions of components will require a long and difficult harmonisation process within the building industry, because some producers will need to change their design and production processes.
  • Reversible Building Design and Circularity is not rewarded today, as designer fees are calculated based on current building costs, not taking into account future costs/savings when the building needs to be adapted or refurbished. Unless solutions supporting adaptability, multi-use, reuse and disassembly are put forward by the building client, e.g. through a design brief, there is hardly any (financial) incentive for building designers to incorporate these principles into the design. Even more, the enlarged responsibility of the designer to take into account the entire life cycle of the building and building products, can be perceived as an extra burden within the design stage, and not as an opportunity.
  • Product development and building design are currently not aligned. A building product may be designed to be disassembled into technological and biological resources (cf. Cradle-to-Cradle) but if it is not installed in a proper way on the building site (e.g. by gluing it to other building components), the aim of easy separation is impeded. In addition, a building can be designed to be easily transformed in order to extend the (functional) service life of the building. However, if building components are not designed to be reused or recycled at the end of the service life of the building, building products will still end up as waste. As a result of this, design paradigms on product and building level need to be integrated, to make buildings fully reusable, combined with B2C and C2B materials and components trade.
  • There is a lack of design guidelines and instruments helping the building designer to evaluate and communicate the transformation capacity and reuse potential of the building and its parts during the early design stages.


Which actions are needed?

(L = long-term perspective; S = short-term perspective; B = within the BAMB project)

  • Open industrialisation (L), in which standardisation agreements concerning modular dimensions of components and connections are made within the entire building sector, will facilitate the use of (pre-assembled) building components coming from different manufacturers into multiple configurations and for different applications … even beyond the building sector. Similar to the car industry where open industrialisation is already applied, this doesn’t necessarily affect the designer’s freedom. On the contrary, the building and product designer can create multiple configurations, without being tied to a specific building system or supplier.
  • The manufacturing of building products needs to be brought closer to the designer and end user (SL). New additive manufacturing techniques, such as 3D printing, are becoming increasingly popular within the built environment, thanks to their ability to accurately construct complex and customised architectural components, with low labour costs, less production waste and a short construction period. It also offers remanufacturing possibilities, when building components need to be replaced by products not available on the market anymore. Is customisation in contradiction with open industrialisation? No, it isn’t! 3D printing can perfectly match dimensional standardisation rules for prefabricated components and will especially be useful for the design of new dry jointing.
  • In order to build-up experiences within circular economy, reversible building design and the use of ‘big data’ within computer-aided design (CAD), both students and professionals in architectural engineering, construction and facility management, need to be encouraged to embark in life-long learning initiatives (SL). Such initiatives will include practical design and construction guidelines, assessment and decision-making instruments, the use of Materials Passports and Building Information Management (BIM), as well as experiences from up-to-date good and bad practices. Policy administrations and knowledge institutes will play an important role in providing objective and transparent information (SL).
  • The development of a Materials Passport Platform (Bis already a way to exchange knowledge and expertise within the building practice and user community; i.e. through electronic and interoperable data sets that collect characteristics of materials and assemblies, enabling suppliers, designers and users to capture the highest possible value and guide all materials towards reuse into new applications.
  • Based on the prototyping actions (B) within the BAMB project, the development of user-friendly reversible building design tools together with software developers (S), should enable building (system) designers to enhance the transformation capacity and reuse potential of buildings and their sub systems.
  • The development of Reversible Building Design Protocols (B) will guide architects and engineering firms to make proper design decisions regarding the transformation capacity and reuse potential of buildings and their constituting parts. Furthermore, these two design indicators will be used as communication instrument along the value network.
  • Experimenting with the use of materials passports and reversible building design protocols needs to be done in pilot projects (BS). Not only will these practical experiments provide the necessary proof-of-concept(s), but they will also provide feedback to prepare these instruments for a broader use.
  • Large-scale demonstration and ‘first-of-its-kind’ projects need to be set up (SL), in which additive manufacturing and open building systems are combined for change-supporting and circular buildings. The scale of these projects will support experiments with circular business models, upfront capital costing, reverse logistics and business and financial Incentives.
  • To motivate building designers to take up reversible and circular building design, financial remuneration (S) for providing counselling for future transformations during the design stage might be sufficient. Yet, long term ‘Design-Build-Maintenance-Transform’ contracts through which building creators (architect, engineers and contractors) will actually manage the design transformation activities, will serve as an extra business stimulus for them.
  • Mandatory assessment (S) of (environmental, financial and social) life cycle impacts and benefits of a building design to acquire a building permit for a new construction and a refurbishment.
  • Besides sensitizing the community (BS) on the need for circular and reversible building design, and disseminating practical information (BS) amongst building professionals, governmental organisations can play a more active role in initiating the shift in design culture. Through public procurement (SL), change supporting and circular building solutions used for and within (new and existing) public buildings can inspire other building and product designers to do so as well.


Back to “Buildings as Material Banks: a vision”