Building waste on its way to the landfill is partly made up of broken materials that hopefully never made it to the job site, but too often do. Broken and cracked lumber is so common that builders in Canada joke and call these hockey sticks. Other times drywall corners are cracked or metal frames are bent, destined for the nearest dumpster.
Waste is a serious problem in our global community and quality control is a serious problem in the building industry - an industry already choking on inefficiency. For example, large projects are estimated to take 20% longer to finish and cost up to 80% more than scheduled. Yet, it’s not due to a lack of standards that these problems arise. Let’s take a closer look at industry-level quality control checks, global waste trends as well as some barriers to and thought-leaders for change. Some are calling for drastically different ways of building to reshape the future of our built world.
Building Materials Standards
Since materials are used in every part of the building process to create all of the non-organic structures around us, it’s important that we as an industry get it right. ASTM International helps regulate building components like adhesives, sealants and other materials used to manufacture building components. They’re active in more than 140 countries including Canada and the US.
The International Organization for Standardization more commonly referred to as ISO regulates design and manufacturing specs, processes and standards for the construction industry at large. There are actually 1100 (and counting) ISO building and construction standards ranging from structures to IT and building materials.
Despite these two prominent regulatory bodies enforcing standards, quality breaks down. Standards are more easily enforced at the manufacturer level - it’s once materials leave the factory that they can get damaged through improper handling and transport at almost every stage leading up to installation.
These broken items often still get bought, sold and sent to job sites. Then it’s up to the builders on the project to sift through them, load them back in the truck or throw them in the dumpster. Either way, a return still has to be processed by the builder, and that item has to be re-ordered for their project to reach completion. Long story short, time and money are wasted when low-quality materials emerge and the landfills aren’t getting any smaller.
Wasting Time & Money With Waste
Under the current methods of building, experts are saying building material extraction and waste could triple by 2100. Worldwide, the construction industry produces about 1.1 billion tons of waste annually, that’s half of all solid waste! Demolishing and hauling all that so-called garbage not only takes time and energy, it’s also actually worth a lot. One study estimated that 2.6 million tonnes of building materials are discarded every year in Amsterdam alone, a value of €688m (~$763M USD).
Centralized and simplified supply-chains, agile delivery and the just-in-time arrival of materials are helping projects reduce inefficiency and the potential for waste on-site. RenoRun and similar companies like Brokrete are bringing these types of solutions to the industry using accessible mobile technology. Builders who use them are less likely to over-order and throw away once the job is done because materials are arriving on-site as they need them. It helps them save time too, so why aren’t these solutions used everywhere already? There’s a couple theories to answer that question.
Barriers to Adopting Change in the Building & Construction Industry
We’ve previously discussed under-digitization in the building and construction industry, but if time and money are saved, what’s the problem? Yes, adoption takes time and innovations aren’t necessarily widely-available but research points to a combination of possible factors.
According to a 2018 report by Transport Market Research, barriers to reducing waste include:
- Policies forcing people to reduce, reuse and recycle building materials
- Lack of resources
- No standardization
- Low-profit margins
- Lack of education
Pulling from these conclusions, major change in the industry seems to need a coordinated effort from governments, regulatory bodies, and even consumers. Yet, some are already thinking outside of the box to help improve the situation.
Beyond Accountability For Better Outcomes
Thought leaders like Dutch architect, Thomas Rau, are helping cities like Amsterdam come up with innovative solutions to combat construction waste. By cataloging all of the materials used in a build, each component can be identified and properly disassembled for reuse afterward, he explains. If there is a plan made for how to deconstruct a building part-by-part, before it’s even made in the first place, it would be the end of wrecking-ball style waste piling up.
Rau is putting this notion to the test at his firm’s headquarters in Amsterdam. “With a structure made entirely from wood, it has been designed with mechanical fixings so that every element can be reused, with all material logged and designed for easy disassembly.” He believes we need to show the value of discarded building materials. The Dutch government has caught on, providing tax incentives to anyone adopting this type of materials-identification and “demounting” process in their projects. This notion puts the end-of-life accountability of building materials in the hands of building manufacturers, project planners and architects just like Thomas.
Accountability could also emerge in the form of material services. Rau explains:
“From the facade to the lightbulbs, each element would be rented from the manufacturer, who would be responsible for providing the best possible performance and continual upkeep, as well as dealing with the material at the end of its life.”
The idea that each component of a building could be serviced from the beginning to the end of its lifecycle is revolutionary. The old cradle to grave idiom comes to mind, or the more modern idea of a circular building economy.
The Future of Building Materials is Green
From LED lights to LEED certification, there are a number of ways in which the exchange of building materials is becoming more efficient and less wasteful...meanwhile R&D hasn’t slowed. Dr. Diana E. Hun delivered a presentation at the 2020 International Builders Show (IBS) in Las Vegas on the future of building materials. She’s leading a team at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory helping to develop more efficient solutions for both new and existing buildings by focusing on materials like insulation, sealants, prefab assembly building envelopes, air-leak detection systems and more.
While the industry hasn’t adopted end-to-end lifecycle materials management, green building innovations are rampant, alongside new technologies and processes from emerging building materials suppliers. Together we are facilitating industry change at a time that couldn’t be critical.
All screenshots taken January 2020 by author.
Image 1: Screenshot via ISO
Image 2: Screenshot via Research Gate