The Milan Triennale’s USA Pavilion, curated by two engineers, asks us to rethink our use of materials
By Russell Fortmeyer and Frances Yang
It turns out efficiency is not enough. If engineering has primarily concerned itself with optimizing the quantity of material, energy, or water used in our built environment – designing artificial systems to efficiently address natural phenomena – the current global situation of climate change, resource scarcity, and stressed nature demands that we change engineering. We have to ask ourselves: how can design transform the landscape of consumption?
For Broken Nature: Design Takes on Human Survival, the international design exhibition that kicked off the XXII Milan Triennale in March and runs through the summer, Arup curated an exhibition for the United States pavilion called RECKONstruct that argues for a radical overhaul of how architects, designers, engineers, and contractors create the built environment.
In the United States, construction and demolition waste from buildings accounts for over 20 percent of total solid waste generated in the country. In 2015, the last year the US Environmental Protection Agency publicly assessed the industry, that amounted to more than 160 million tons of debris. More generally, the country is on track to produce more than a billion tons of solid waste every year, with an average national rate of recycling of only 35 percent. At the other end of our industry, demand for new materials for construction exceeds 2.2 billion tons per year and growing, by far the largest consumer of raw materials in the country. We cannot recycle our way out of this – we have to find ways to use much less.
This massive materials economy exceeds our borders, exacting an enormous toll on environmental, economic, and social systems across the planet. Very little of it is quantified, tracked, or even generally understood in terms of how it fuels resource depletion, carbon emissions, or impacts to public health and ecosystem viability. Yet, we find that from academia to design, government to industry, the forces shaping the built environment in the United States increasingly acknowledge the expansive system boundaries governing the circulation of materials in the economy. Our industry must now consider boundaries beyond the project site, where the installation of materials as part of a project is viewed as merely one point along the systemic value chain of consumption, rather than the only point we value. Rapidly growing programs like the Carbon Leadership Forum, Cradle to Cradle, the American Institute of Architects’ Materials Matter initiative, mindful MATERIALS, International Living Future Institute’s Living Product Challenge, and Environmental and Health Product Declarations, are galvanizing our domestic industry toward integration of life-cycle considerations into design.
With our exhibition in Milan, we wanted to take stock of the opportunities these new developments present to engaged designers and engineers. Many manufacturers are developing new markets for materials to redirect waste toward new products. Our exhibition highlighted three stools designed and manufactured by the furniture company Humanscale that explored three different models of sustainable practice. The UBQ stool relies on post-consumer landfill waste (think diapers and potato chip bags) combined with recycled plastic to create a hard substrate for the stool, which is then topped with a felt pad made of recycled garment scraps. Another approach, which Humanscale called the Venus stool, used plastic to feed a three-dimensional print from a design based on mimicking nature’s minimalist constructs, in this case the Venus’s flower-basket sea sponge. In sustainable design, this tactic is called biomimicry, or using inspiration from nature. While this version of the stool focused on material efficiency, the designers envisioned the plastic could be replaced with recycled nylon from ocean-harvested fishing nets to further reduce impacts.
But we can also scale up these approaches. Developing biological material loops creates new categories for design engagement. In 2014, Arup collaborated with the New York–based design studio the Living to use the firm’s mushroom bricks, made with Ecovative Design’s mycelium biofabrication platform, to create a durable, freestanding tower capable of occupancy. A similar approach was taken with Humanscale’s mycelium stool on exhibit in Milan. Both the tower and the stool can be disassembled and composted, returning nutrients to the earth when they are no longer needed. Today – by design, not necessity – very little of our existing built environment can be treated similarly.
How is it possible to know whether these radical design changes are making a difference? How do we take a quantifiable pulse of the planet? Life-cycle assessment (LCA) is the scientific means of tracing back the history of how our building products were made, how they were transported from one stop to the next, and what toll they took on our environment in getting to us. It accounts for the raw materials and their spoils that need to be extracted from the earth, or for the waste picked out of material graveyards and made good for a new life. It considers whether the energy used comes from dirty or clean sources, and whether the mode of travel emitted heavy pollutants over many miles or merely hitched a short zero-emissions ride across town. It also reflects if the material itself has helped to clean the air during its growth from a small seedling or if it displaces climate-warming emissions emanating daily from landfills and incinerators.
LCA is the big data problem of the century for the built environment, and we have a lot of work to do. And this type of life-cycle accounting is only as reliable as the data, and only as useful as it is accessible. Tools like openLCA give us the power and the knowledge to test if new design approaches lead to smaller environmental footprints. The data are on par with those of commercial LCA tools, while the open-source, free-access attributes break down normal barriers to entry. Using openLCA on the three Humanscale design concepts led to deeper understandings, as well as some surprising results.
Not surprising was that all three concept stools had lower environmental impacts than a generic metal stool with a composite agrifiber seat. The impact reductions varied from 20 to 90 percent, with the largest reductions in energy consumption, marine and freshwater toxicity, waste, fossil fuel use, and carbon emissions. Surprisingly, water consumption did not improve much for the mycelium and Venus designs because they relied on plant oils that still incurred high agricultural water demands. LCA on the Venus stool design showed that material efficiency isn’t necessarily good in and of itself – the material still needs the ability to serve a second life if it is to stay out of a landfill. If we substituted recycled nylon fishing nets for the virgin plastic, while also ensuring a means for recycling that plastic again after the use life of the stool, we could reduce impacts by a remarkable 90 percent when compared to the conventional 3-D printing materials.
It was also not surprising that developing a robust LCA for three simple stools took a lot of time. We interrogated data we didn’t trust, compared alternative data sets, and debated what the results meant to understand what we could have changed to effect greater reductions. With the current state of the LCA process, it’s unreasonable to think we could do this for everything we consume, hence we have to start with the materials, assemblies, and products that account for the biggest impacts.
The LCA process we undertook was developed in collaboration with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s SHINE program—Sustainability and Health Initiative for NetPositive Enterprise—which used what we call a regenerative LCA process to confirm and quantify the impacts. While a sustainable approach to materials LCA would result in a neutral outcome—doing less harm—the challenges we collectively face require a more progressive approach. Materials consumption could capture and store carbon in circulation already, creating a net positive impact.
In the logic of SHINE, if we can know our footprint in terms of the impact we leave, can we start to know our handprint—the intentional mark we make to positively affect the planet?
In a state of broken nature, transforming America’s entrenched market is not an easy task. It requires thinking beyond recycling or merely reducing consumption. We must usher in a new circular economy by constantly reimagining the nature of “raw” materials as the availability of whatever stock of ingredients is already in play. Simultaneously, we must account for the full impact of materials use, whether that is valuing the health of an ecosystem, registering the carbon emissions associated with the life of a product, or forcing the elimination of hazardous materials from supply chains. The material life cycle and material choice offer us massive hidden opportunities and a collective call to action to design for and with nature.
Russell Fortmeyer, chief curator of RECKONstruct, is an associate principal and sustainability consultant who leads the consulting practice in Arup’s Los Angeles office. Trained both as an engineer and architect, Russell addresses issues including climate change, resilience, resource scarcity, and social equity in the context of creating healthy and efficient buildings and cities.
Frances Yang leads the sustainable materials practice in the Americas region for Arup, a global design and engineering firm. Frances has more than 12 years of experience in green building design, engineering, and sustainable materials strategies across global projects. She is coauthor of Prescription for Healthier Building Materials: A Design and Implementation Protocol.