Reflecting on Material Sustainability – Master Design Studio D

As the second semester of the Master of Architecture has finished, I’d like to share what I learnt through a project, especially material sustainability.

I’ve published the project on my portfolio website, so please check it out (see below)!

Why ‘sustainable’ architecture can’t be black & white

“Sustainable architecture” has always baffled me as its definition can never be black and white. As I live in a society full of green-washed, consumerism-driven and high-tech building designs, understanding the core of sustainability in architecture became one of the goals for this semester.

Carbon footprint / embodied energy

One of the measures for material sustainability is the material’s carbon footprint / embodied energy – i.e. how much energy is consumed in the material’s lifetime. It encompasses everything from material extraction, processing, transport, construction to disposal. Hearing from Dr Robert Crawford (refer to p.41 of the research booklet) that embodied energies of materials are hugely varied depending on material sources, transport methods, manufacturing processes, quantities, scales of projects, etc. made me realise that it is tough to justify how ‘sustainable’ a building is, just by choosing supposedly ‘low embodied energy’ products. For example, if we only focus on the carbon footprint of transporting, say timber, shipment from Europe can have a smaller footprint than transporting from interstate using trucks depending on circumstances.

When building materials become ‘waste’

When the act of creating new building materials is part of consumerism-centred capitalism, we don’t talk enough about where those materials go after their perceived shelf life. In Victoria, more than half of the overall landfill waste is construction and demolition waste (refer to p.29 of the research booklet). It reveals how much we are wasting resources and destroying the environment by creating new buildings (very ironic). It questioned why we call piles of materials at landfill sites ‘waste’ when those were part of our built environment until demolished. The emerging material technology I researched as part of the studio work is Biocement, a calcium carbonate bonding agent that utilises construction & demolition waste to produce masonry products. Learning about Biocement made me think about extending the material life cycle and opportunities for re-labelling ‘waste’ with ‘materials’.

Adaptive reuse / reducing the amount of new & demolished materials

“The most sustainable building is the one you don’t build” is a well-known saying that reminds us of the potentials of existing buildings. Adaptive reuse can reduce the carbon footprint generated through demolition. Still, it is also an act of embracing the history and memory of the place, telling those stories to the new inhabitants. Retaining some of the existing conditions now appears to me as one of the brave decisions architects can make in the face of clients’ expectations on the final outcome; to look like those ‘perfect’ images on social media.

Reducing the amount of new materials can be achieved by revising the scale of the project and design execution. During the research, I encountered online articles on a massive ‘sustainable’ Passivhaus house – is a project still ‘sustainable’ when it consumes an unnecessarily enormous quantity of materials?

Ultimately, I felt that it is about shifting where the perceived values lie. For example, does a dream house need to be huge (the average floor area of Australian houses is 235.8m2, the biggest in the world according to the latest CommSec Home Size Trends report)? Can we appreciate existing buildings and make full use of them? How can architects bring out the beauty of existing conditions and convince clients that keeping it is the best solution?

Integrating ideas into the design

Although there are so many things I can talk about the project, the consideration for materiality is something I found most satisfying. Earlier in the semester, thinking about the materiality of the surrounding buildings was based on the idea of ‘architecturally engaging with surroundings’ – for example, through synthesising on a certain level (material selection, finishes, forms, modularity, patterns, etc.), but by the end of the semester, I was more attuned to the concept of materiality through sustainability.

Considering the site context characterised by the proximity to the Scienceworks, Pumping Station and the biocement factory (designed in the first half of the semester, refer to p.88 of the research booklet), it was natural to think about what I can retain, reuse and create using ‘waste’.

  • The northern portion of the Pumping Station (North pumping house and boiler house) was suitable for locating academic office spaces over two levels – new upper level was installed but not ‘touching’ the old external envelope
  • Looking around Google Streetview (the only way to ‘visit’ Scienceworks under COVID lockdown) helped me understand the use of corrugated sheet cladding of relatively recent additions such as the Lightning Room at Scienceworks – decided to reuse those corrugated cladding for new buildings’ roofing in an attempt to reduce demolition waste
  • Nearby biocement factory can manufacture architectural elements such as Catalan vaults and paving tiles from demolition and construction waste (fabric, aggregate, old bricks, etc), resulting in extending the life time of otherwise wasted materials

Of course, these material selections are way too simplified, but I believe this studio project made me more conscious of what it means to design and subsequently construct and how choosing to keep the existing fabric of the built environment can contribute to material sustainability.

Thanks for reading the article! If you enjoyed it, please find me on Instagram. I’m posting one reel a day, every day since I began Master of Architecture (you can see the archive of the design process too).

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