Frugal Innovation and the Future of Urban Construction

Monday, January 4th, 2016
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The Australian construction sector could reap significant benefit in terms of both costs and sustainability from the adoption of frugal innovation.

Kate Harris, CEO of GECA, notes that India is a leading pioneer of frugal innovation as a result of pressing material conditions in many parts of the country .

“Frugal innovation is originally an Indian term that refers to the reclaiming, reusing and repurposing of building materials, rather than innovating with a sense of limitless resources to which we’re entitled,” said Harris, who is a scheduled guest speaker at Sydney Build 2016. “It’s actually looking at what we already have and being adaptable.

“Rather than going for the easy option of what we know, it means actually being in that creative space of rethinking what else we can use or look it, what we are already demolishing and what we already have.

According to Harris, frugal innovation is already commonplace in India, leading to widespread recycling of building waste materials by the construction sector.

“In India it’s a daily life practice – for them it’s at a very basic level with things like scrap metal and recycling,” she said. “For them waste isn’t often an issue because it’s actually seen as a resource, so all that metal and scrap and glass people take as a source of income for processing and reuse.”

While members of the Indian building sector may have more compelling reasons to pursue frugal innovation, Harris believes similar practices could bring immense benefits to Australia – particularly given the harsh climate and environmental limitations of many parts of the country and the trend toward higher density urban centres.

“When we look at urban density and grow, as well as population increase and those environmental issues – we need to think of how we can respond with design and architectural solutions,” she said. “I think Australia can really seize frugal innovation and run with it, particularly in the urban density space.”

Australia is already host to landmark examples of frugal innovation, with housing projects that make extensive use of recycled materials.

“Some interesting design examples which are starting to take off in Australia include the Earthship – one of the first of which has been built in South Australia,” Harris said. “This is a housing structure made with recycled rubber tyres that also uses recycled glass bottles for its windows.”

In addition to the use of recycled materials, Harris also views frugal innovation as potentially encompassing a profound shift in the way residential properties are configured, with a greater emphasis upon economic utilization of space via smaller dwellings or communal living arrangements.

“I think the tiny house movement is a really interesting architectural opportunity at the moment, and that’s part of a philosophical, cultural and social change that’s occurring,” she said. “Does bigger make us happier? There are other design considerations that also create health, well-being and happiness, and do not necessarily revolve around size and volume and footprint.”

Communal living arrangements in high-density urban environments are another area of opportunity for frugal innovation.

“Another option is some of the more innovative apartments and living designs that are currently being developed, where for example not everyone has a laundry,” said Harris. “There’s one per laundry floor, and everyone shares clothesline space and outdoor areas. There’s no garage parking, but there are plenty of flexicars, so not everyone needs to own a car  – this is growing through increased awareness of share economies.

“These arrangements not only provide economic and environmental gains for the buyer and the developer, but they also cater to the desire of people to develop a community.”

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