Designing for disassembly

When we look at the prevailing trends in structural engineering, one principle emerges as a critical path towards a more sustainable future – Design for Disassembly (DfD). As the name suggests, DfD refers to a design approach that allows structures to be deconstructed at the end of their lifecycle, facilitating the reuse and recycling of materials and an improved circular economy. This powerful concept not only opens up new opportunities for resource efficiency but also introduces challenges for the industry. In this article, we will delve into the benefits, complexities, and the changes needed to bring DfD into the mainstream.

Benefits of Design for Disassembly

DfD introduces a transformative perspective on the lifecycle of a building. Traditional approaches often follow a ‘cradle to grave’ philosophy, viewing the building’s lifespan from construction to eventual demolition. DfD, on the other hand, adopts a ‘cradle to cradle’ perspective, imagining and preparing for the building’s life beyond its initial use.

The implementation of DfD paves the way for considerable environmental and economic benefits. First and foremost, it propels the circular economy, curtailing waste and extending the usability of building materials. By facilitating the easy disassembly, reuse, and recycling of materials, DfD assists in lowering the carbon footprint that is inherently linked with the production of new materials.

From an economic vantage point, DfD has the potential for significant cost savings throughout the building’s lifecycle. The disassembled materials can be repurposed or sold, thus curtailing the need for fresh materials and simultaneously diminishing disposal costs. By embodying a ‘cradle to cradle’ mentality, DfD allows us to see and utilise buildings as reservoirs of valuable materials, ready for constant and continual reincarnation.

The Challenges in Implementing Design for Disassembly

Implementing DfD is not without its obstacles. One of the main challenges is the prevailing ‘design for permanence’ mindset in the industry. Traditional building techniques prioritise durability and longevity, often leading to structures that are difficult, some might say impossible, to deconstruct.

Material handling and logistics pose another challenge. The recovery, storage, and re-distribution of disassembled materials require sophisticated management systems. Additionally, the perceived unpredictability of reused materials’ performance can be a deterrent for some.

Industry-Level Changes: Developer and Supply Chain Perspectives

To overcome these hurdles, systemic changes are needed in the industry. Developers must shift their mindset from ‘design for permanence’ to ‘design for lifecycle.’ This involves viewing buildings as temporary aggregations of materials rather than fixed entities. This is complicated by short-term commercial considerations. Often, engineers are briefed to design structures leanly which in many circumstances makes them beholden to specific material use.

Education and training play a key role here. Designers, engineers, and contractors need to be equipped with the necessary knowledge and tools to implement DfD. This could be achieved through comprehensive training programs and the integration of DfD principles into educational curricula. Integrating DfD into an engineering curriculum, for example, can help simply by widening the knowledge of its case studies and practical applications, ensuring students are well-equipped to incorporate DfD principles in their future work.

Also, promoting interdisciplinary collaboration in educational institutions could provide students with a broader understanding of the various aspects of DfD. After all, successful DfD implementation requires the collective effort of architects, structural engineers, environmental engineers, and construction managers.

From a supply chain perspective, developing robust systems for material recovery, storage, and re-distribution is essential. This includes enhancing the traceability of materials to ensure quality control and establishing partnerships for the redistribution of disassembled materials.

Government and Legislative Support for Design for Disassembly

Government legislation and incentives can play a substantial role in facilitating DfD. Regulations can be implemented to mandate the consideration of DfD in the design phase, similar to energy efficiency standards.

Tax incentives can be offered for buildings designed for disassembly and the use of disassembled materials in new projects. By revising building codes to encourage (or even mandate) DfD, governments can drive the adoption of this practice. As with any large-scale change to how the industry functions, there will be those that embrace change and those that drag their feet until policy forces their hand.

The introduction of ‘extended producer responsibility’ (EPR) laws could also encourage DfD. Under EPR, manufacturers would be responsible for the entire lifecycle of their products, including disposal and recycling. This would incentivise manufacturers to design products that can be easily disassembled, reused, and recycled. It’s easy to see how this concept could be implemented and managed with products, but less so when it comes to the built form.

Advancing Technological Aids

A crucial piece of the puzzle is leveraging technology to aid in DfD. Modern technologies such as Building Information Modelling (BIM) can play a significant role in fostering DfD. BIM not only allows for comprehensive planning and visualisation of the disassembly process but can also maintain a database of the materials used, aiding in their recovery and reuse.

Similarly, advancements in prefabrication and modular construction methods offer a boost to DfD. These methods naturally align with the principles of DfD, as they involve constructing buildings from discrete, reusable components that can be easily assembled and disassembled.

Encouraging Industry Collaboration and Standardisation

Greater collaboration across the construction industry is vital to normalise DfD practices. Manufacturers, architects, engineers, and builders need to work collaboratively, sharing knowledge and best practices to streamline DfD processes.

Standardisation also holds great promise for DfD. Creating industry-wide standards for the design, labelling, and handling of disassemblable components can simplify the disassembly process, reducing the costs and complexities associated with material recovery.

A further question is whether buildings need standardisation more broadly. For a truly circular economy in the built environment, buildings would largely need to conform more strictly to standardisation. The problem with many modern buildings is that the level of specialisation and bespoke elements makes reuse almost impossible. This is particularly true of elements like concrete frames and M&E installation.

A route forward could involve moving away from the construction of high-rises and highly unique buildings towards a more DfD-friendly model. This, however, could be a difficult pill to swallow for developers and governments alike.

Real-world examples of buildings designed for disassembly

For our own part, renaissance has experience working with projects designed with disassembly in mind. At Cuerden Valley Visitor centre, a straw and timber building was designed with sustainable materials and with a view to some of the materials finding a new lease of life in the future. At the up and coming Salford Youth Zone and the in-construction Moor Lane project, both have been designed with disassembly in mind.

Each of the below examples demonstrates a unique approach to DfD, showing how the principles can be applied in various contexts and scales. These buildings not only showcase innovative design but also stimulate discussions on how we can rethink our design principles and construction methods to promote a more sustainable future.

The Bolt Building, Netherlands

The Bolt Building in Rotterdam, designed by the Dutch architectural firm Superuse Studios, is a paragon of DfD. It’s constructed almost entirely out of recycled materials sourced from the city, including old wind turbine blades and plastic sheeting. The design was such that these materials can be easily disassembled, removed, and reused when the building reaches the end of its lifecycle.

The NEST Building, Switzerland

The NEST (Next Evolution in Sustainable Building Technologies) building in Switzerland is a living laboratory of sustainable construction, with a design that facilitates easy disassembly and change. This modular building allows for the replacement of its individual “research units” as construction technology evolves, demonstrating a unique approach to DfD.

The ICEhouse, USA

Designed by William McDonough + Partners, the ICEhouse™ (Innovation for the Circular Economy house) is a structure built for disassembly and constant reuse. The building, showcased at the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, was designed to be assembled and disassembled in a matter of days. It utilizes McDonough’s “WonderFrame” structural system, which is designed for easy assembly, disassembly, and material recovery.

A Sustainable Future with Design for Disassembly

The metamorphosis of our built environment into one that champions DfD principles is no small feat. This transformation demands a concerted effort from all stakeholders—architects, engineers, developers, government entities, and the public. Yet, the journey is a critical one that offers a pathway towards a more sustainable, economically viable, and resource-conscious future.

The transition to DfD invites us to fundamentally rethink the way we approach buildings. No longer are structures static and unyielding, but instead, they become dynamic assemblies of components that can be endlessly repurposed. This approach not only mitigates the environmental burden of our structures but also lends itself to a new era of innovation and creativity in design, an opportunity which our team at renaissance embrace.

For developers and those in the supply chain, this paradigm shift can spur the development of new systems and strategies for material recovery, logistics, and reuse. Meanwhile, technological advances, such as Building Information Modelling (BIM) and modular construction, pave the way for more efficient and effective implementation of DfD.

To enact these changes, it’s crucial that industry education and government policy evolve hand-in-hand with these new ideas. By integrating DfD principles into educational curricula and establishing supportive policies and incentives, we can catalyse the adoption of DfD across the industry.

Buildings like the Bolt Building, NEST, the ICEhouse and those in our own portfolio have already given us a glimpse into what’s possible when we embrace DfD. These examples showcase not only the practicality of DfD but also its potential to redefine the aesthetic and functional parameters of architecture.

To sum up, Design for Disassembly presents a compelling vision of a sustainable future in structural engineering—a future where we design not just for the needs of the present, but also with the flexibility to adapt to the demands of the future. By embracing DfD, we invest in a future that is both economically viable and environmentally responsible, marking a significant step towards realizing a truly circular economy in the construction industry.