Australia has one of the highest building material-to-landfill rates in the developed world, with up to 40 per cent of our landfill waste coming from construction sites.

With landfills recognised as a source of greenhouse gas, designers can have a big impact on our environment by focusing on strategies to minimise and recycle building waste and reduce their contribution to landfill.

Manufacturing industries are now considering a “cradle to cradle” approach. Even the motor industry is prioritising material resourcefulness. Volkswagen’s current recycling strategy (targeted for full implementation by 2015) requires 85 per cent by mass of each vehicle to be reusable and/or recyclable, and at least 95 per cent by mass of each vehicle to be recoverable.

Australian Green Star projects have succeeded at diverting upwards of 80 per cent of construction waste from landfill, but the majority of this success has been achieved for new building projects.

The “old Queenslander” timber house on stumps has become a popular target for recycling timber. The continuous lengths of “VJ panelling,” joists bearers, and wall and roof members are usually well-seasoned. The homogeneous construction makes these buildings a suitable candidate for sensible recycling and deconstruction.

Additionally, it is now uncommon to see an “old Queenslander” being transported down the road to a new location, and it’s hard to imagine the contemporary suburban brick veneer mansion being reused or recycled accordingly due to the toxicity of chemicals in various composite materials.

Commercial buildings, however, conceived by resourceful architects and interior designers, can forge a new direction in material resourcefulness, and increase the value of commercial buildings, with a concerted focus on:

  • Increased material recycling
  • Increased component remanufacture
  • Increased component reuse
  • Increased building adaptability or relocation

Currently, architects and designers focus on the act of creation, followed by the act of construction. Much less thought is usually provided for the life cycle of the building, with little consideration for the building once it has outlived its economic life. The most usual building outcome is demolition, though deconstruction for recovery of materials and components has great potential and makes good environmental and economic sense.

So how do you successfully design for deconstruction?

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“Old Queenslander” being carefully moved to a new location.

There’s a wide range of design-for-deconstruction strategies a designer can trial and apply, but here are some key principles to keep at the forefront of any project:

  • Minimise building design complexity
  • Minimise different types of built-in materials
  • Use simple connections, and make them visible where possible
  • Minimise composite materials in the building
  • Use materials worth recovering
  • Keep good records and secure “as built” drawings
  • Leave clues to future building owners and builders that you’ve considered demolition and material recovery

As with many design approaches, the more you trial, the more successful you will be in achieving great outcomes. I once had the fortune of finding a time capsule in a 1950s building, which alerted me to the value of certain building materials and provided me with historical information we were able to reuse in the refurbishment project we undertook.

I’ve also been pleasantly surprised to see designers reuse specially commissioned artisan recycled timber elements on commercial fitouts once their intrinsic value was understood.

The real challenge in this “critical decade” of decarbonisation is to find time-efficient strategies where contractors can work quickly to reuse or reposition materials. The reason considerable waste occurs in the current commercial world is that it’s not economically viable to transport materials to new destinations, when the only budgeted transport route for materials is into a site refuse skip. Some quick research via the local council or state government authority will usually identify a company or service that will provide a recycling skip, which is a great start to saving valuable materials.

Another practical strategy is to investigate and understand product stewardship schemes. Organisations such as Schiavello have Product Stewardship Agreements in place, and “e-cycle” schemes which reuse or recycle commercial workstations and furniture. On a recent government project, approximately 180 work points were “e-cycled,” resulting in calculated savings of 110 tonnes of carbon dioxide and 85.9 kilolitres of water, and avoided transport emissions of 0.82 tonnes of carbon dioxide. This proves that meaningful environmental savings are possible when assisting clients to save money by reusing durable workstations.

In times when designers are looking for more “value-adding” for clients in a very competitive marketplace, a focus on resourcefulness might reap unexpected rewards.

Design for deconstruction offers a great opportunity to both save money and save the environment.