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Full-circle on sustainability

We all know what is meant by the term ‘sustainability’. Don’t we? The Brundtland Report helpfully defined it for us thirty years ago and industry has invested money hand-over-fist since. Individual sectors represent their particular brand of sustainable products and processes to specifiers, contractors, government and Jo Public. But while this definition is perfectly sensible as a minimum expectation, treating it as exhaustive surely misses a fundamental opportunity. Why can meeting present needs, not also meet future needs? Or at least lay the groundwork…

The concept of circular economy addresses this in a fashion. It seeks to answer the question: can a building be made entirely from components and materials that can, at the end of their life, be re-used, re-manufactured or re-cycled? Essentially, the objective is to ensure that the full potential of a resource is realised. It is no longer considered acceptable for products to be disposed of at the end of first use (commonly referred to as a ‘linear economy’).

The danger here to the integrity of our sustainable efforts is that of treating ‘first use’ as – by definition – an inadequate period of time. Take clay bricks as an example: if the correct considerations are made in the early stages of manufacture, design and construction, bricks can have a typical lifecycle of 150 years. Not bad for ‘first use’. And who says that a single structure can have only one use? The adaptability of some products means that they can be used on projects including extensions, internal configuration alterations and façade renovations, to meet the specific needs of multiple users. The level of a product’s durability also determines for how long a building can withstand the hard wear of multiple occupants over an extended period of time.

At a time when, with a chronic shortage of suitable housing stock, the state seeks a cure-all, currently in the shape of pre-fabs, it is essential that we remember one size does not ‘fit all’. It is crucial that house building meets the diverse, long-term needs of our population. This is not limited to the one generation: Housing Minister, Gavin Barwell, recently spoke of the importance of helping our younger generations on to the housing ladder, by ensuring title deeds pass from grandparent to grandchild. In order to bequeath an asset, the asset need still exist. A fifty-year lifespan therefore (as quoted for some innovative pre-fabricated structures) does not cut the mustard.

Announcements such as that of £2.5bn of Chinese investment into 25,000 modular homes in the UK sounds promising, but represents a tiny proportion of the overall need, not just now, but for the foreseeable future. So, if you are planning a project and are at the stage of material selection, remember this: the three little pigs had very different experiences. What they had in common was a need for their home to be, as they say, ‘safe as houses’. Look beyond the headlines and glossy brochures to the reality of your shortlisted materials. Don’t only ask yourself if they can be reused, recycled, repurposed. Ask yourself the more salient question: will they stand the test of time?

For more information about the sustainability of brick visit www.brick.org.uk and download our Sustainability Report 2016 today.

This article first appeared in https://www.homebuilding.co.uk/march-2017-issue/

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