For a long while now, Architecture has been regarded as the art and practice of designing and constructing buildings. It is in constructing and building something that Architecture manifests itself, at least from a generalized perspective. Whereas, the whole component of design and problem-solving, that goes behind construction, is not perceived as much from the user’s point of view, for the design process is largely intangible in itself – only its output is seen and felt.
It is certainly unavoidable that we are steadily progressing towards a tipping point, by which time, the world becomes devoid of most of the conventional materials that are in practice at the present.
One could also say that a similar tipping point would be reached, in the distant future, when the needs of the built environment for most people on earth are adequately taken care of, thanks to the efforts that humanity is collectively putting together to make life better for everyone.
Simultaneously, we should take note of the systems of construction that are commonly adopted in building: conventional materials after their life cycles end up in landfills, and the most common amongst them—concrete, requires a very labor-intensive recycling process.
All of this makes us wonder about what will become of Architecture; Will there be a need for medium and large-scale construction processes anymore at all, in the distant yet foreseeable future? What roles will Architects play, in a future where the practice of construction has diminished? What other means could be adopted to make use of an existing built form, in a way that it suits functions other than what it was designed for? How can we be more sensitive in the way we deal with buildings after their life-cycles? Let us attempt to answer these questions to deliberate further and speculate a bit more about the potential futures for Architecture.
On the sustainability of existing processes and systems in construction:
Imagine living in a densely populated metropolis; you inhabit a multi-storey housing complex that is designed, keeping in mind just the bare minimum of the required open spaces and landscape patches. The complex is an imposing concrete edifice, constructed to create housing units to maximise the capital. You have to commute a considerable distance between home and the workplace, university, or the like and find yourself using a mode of transport to reach your destination.
You see the roads, becoming increasingly crowded with vehicles of every sort, rummaging through nooks, moving inch-by-inch in the busy mornings. To alleviate the jams, development authorities construct newer roads, highways, and bridges, supported on massive reinforced concrete pillars, rendering a dull grey outlook to the cityscape. Urbanization, migration, and the associated problems never appear to ease: they are at new maximums with every passing day.
This might appear to be normal, for most of us; humanity is constructing and constructing, over and over, in what little space there seems to be available in our urban areas; we either utterly maximise on the bare minimum, or we go on converting the fringes of the urban in the name of development.
Whereas on the other hand, we hardly give ourselves the time and space to pause and think, as to what would become of everything that we have built: the humongous masses of reinforced concrete that dominate our urban spaces are hardly recycled; even if they are (shredded or pebbled), people are generally unwilling to use recycled concrete aggregates into construction, owing to quality concerns.
A great proportion of all the concrete used ends up in landfills, and now with a huge surge in construction activity in cities over the last two decades, the future of construction and demolition waste (C&D) remains bleak and impending.
Besides, the manufacturing process of Ordinary Portland Cement, used in making concrete, is one of the most carbon-intensive in the world—manufacturing one tonne of cement produces more than 1000 pounds of carbon dioxide; furthermore, manufacturing of other building materials, including the mining of raw materials, have been highly unsustainable, and they simply cannot be continued in the long run.
We are all aware of this: existing building construction processes and the associated systems of material usage and disposal are not viable for the planet. The answer, the solution has been evident for quite a while now, but most of us seem to turn a blind eye towards them and continue to live in the bliss of unconcern.
Alternatives in building materials and systems of construction:
The most significant alternatives posed to do away with the usage of conventional materials could be narrowed down to those made of timber and earth. Obtained from nature directly, they are the most sustainable options available—timber could be replenished over and over by mass afforestation practices, and earth has high capabilities to be reused.
Several Architects around the world have put together efforts to promote the use of such materials: newer systems of material production and construction have been explored in recent years, and have yielded commendable results.
What this might mean for the future of construction, within the purview of this deliberation, is that collective attempts could be made by the Architecture community to slowly replace existing structures made of concrete, so that they could be recycled and reused elsewhere beyond their life cycles, whilst newer, small scale construction could be taken over by sustainable materials based on earth and timber.
Again, it is almost entirely upon Architects and Designers to explore and experiment with newer means of material systems and construction, that it is possible to achieve circular economies in material usage.
Adaptive Reuse of existing buildings:
Adaptive reuse refers to making use of an already existing building, for a purpose other than what it was designed for. It is a method that is becoming increasingly popular, as it eliminates the demolition of old buildings, in favor of redesigning: this dramatically reduces the overall cost of a project, whilst also posing no harm to the environment.
Adaptive reuse of heritage buildings greatly promotes the use of such spaces, rejuvenating them and making them more relevant to contemporary zeitgeists; further, it gives the building a new character that blends with the original, creating novel means of socio-cultural expressions. Adaptive reuse could very much become the norm in the future, attempting to eliminate new layers of construction in the urban, and in a way helping in urban regeneration.
It is a very sensible way forward for most existing structures in our cities – instead of entirely demolishing and erecting new buildings, adaptive reuse could very easily transform existing ones to suit the required function. Plus, transformation of a building would almost always be simpler, economic, and environmentally viable, than constructing from scratch.
In a potential future devoid of the usual building materials, adaptive reuse will be the most suitable avenue for Architects and Designers to work with.
Towards interdisciplinary futures:
From the perspective of a student architect and a young person, it is very strongly noticed that well-experienced, seasoned Architects hesitate to collaborate with people from domains other than their own. Such Architects regard the Autonomy of Architecture to be more significant, and that collaboration with other disciplines would blur the distinction that Architecture has, and restrict what it has to offer individually.
Although such were the conditions and contexts with which they worked, the same cannot be said to hold good in the years to come. Collaboration has now become more possible than ever, and working from remote places, whilst being virtually connected to everyone has opened up possibilities we were unaware of just a few years back.
Architects, designers, scholars, researchers, and a lot more professionals are working in fields beyond just their own, to apply knowledge to newly conceived issues and in diverse scenarios, to create solutions, products, and systems that solve inherent human problems—problems concerning carbon emissions and climate change, of food production, of environmental pollution and degradation.
Interdisciplinarity possesses way more relevance to times as now and the near future than ever before, and Architects are involved in projects and systems that are beyond just mere building. Collaborations between Architects, Designers, with professionals like Biologists, Material Engineers, Fabricators, Scientists, and a lot more, have opened up discourses that have largely been unexplored. And it is for us in the present to make sure that Architects in the future are not professionals involved just in building and construction.
Visions for the years to come:
With the world in a course of gradual progression, development in terms of infrastructure becomes a significant factor; whereas, when the same is taken forward without a concern for the environment or the sustainability of the processes, the actual development may not be as efficient in the long run.
There might potentially arise a time when virgin construction itself would be seen as a notion to minimize and evade—the role of Architects in such scenarios would be as significant as in the present, provided we adapt to changing zeitgeists.
There might come a time when we would not need new construction at all: this does not mean we do not need Architecture, for it is perpetual in whatever form we give it, and in whatever process we adopt—be it constructing with primitive materials as earth, rejuvenating and regenerating the old, or the like.
- Akiva Blander – When a Building Comes Down, Where Do Its Materials Go? – metropolismag.com
- Marcello Rossi – Scientists are taking concrete steps towards reducing cement’s massive carbon footprint – qz.com
- Adaptive Reuse – Wikipedia