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Design for Disassembly: The Key to Circular Construction

Kinderkunsthaus (Villa Zebra) in Rotterdam, XX-architekten. Photograph by Ger van der Vlugt

When we think of demountable buildings, the first thing that comes to mind is probably temporary types of architecture like exhibition pavilions, stands, art installations, etc. In those cases, the need to design such demountable infrastructures is very easy to assume because they’re buildings intended to be used only for a limited period of time. But why can’t we apply the same design principles to buildings with a much longer life cycle?

Design for Disassembly (DfD) is one of the six basic principles of the Built Positive movement for circular economy. It involves designing buildings and products in a way that allows the materials used to be recovered easily and cheaply at the end of their life cycle, thus preserving their value and making it possible for them later to be reused or recycled. It may sound like a rather innovative idea, but actually it’s not all that new. Nearly all of us have spent hours and hours building all kinds of things with Lego and Meccano and then taking them to pieces again. For some people, like myself, those construction toys almost inadvertently aroused a vocational interest in how things are put together. What is newer is the idea of applying that approach to building construction. Or is it?

The nomads of Mongolia have been living for years in yurts made of wooden structures clad in cloth and yak’s wool, which can be taken down in a couple of hours, loaded onto a lorry, driven more than 50 kilometres and then reassembled just as quickly, like furniture from Ikea. Present-days yurts have evolved a lot, but the earliest forms date back to the Middle Ages, proving that the principles of DfD were already being implemented hundreds of years ago.

The basic premise of Design for Disassembly is to construct buildings with mechanical, reversible, easily accessible and preferably standardised attachments which don’t require the use of resins or adhesives, and with the lowest possible number of different materials. The materials chosen should ideally be biodegradable, and therefore easier to recover and recycle. This way, all the components can be separated and reused or recycled at the end of the building’s useful life. Here, two particularly useful concepts are those of shearing layers and material passports, which facilitate the processing of materials at the end of a building’s useful life by making them accessible, identifiable and quantifiable. It’s also important to avoid embedded elements and to use components that are easy to clean and maintain, thereby extending their useful life. And finally, it would be a good idea to create not only building plans but also disassembly guides for new buildings, so that they can easily be taken to pieces if necessary.

One excellent example of Design for Disassembly is Villa Zebra, or the Children’s Hall of Art, by XX architecten. Within a period of approximately ten years, this building in the Hoogvliet borough of Rotterdam has reused its components to become first a cultural space for children, then a provisional school called Villa Nutcracker and then Villa Camera, three structures housing an art school, a school and an office. It’s a kind of giant Meccano set, a demonstration of how, if reusability is taken into account right from the beginning, our buildings can be reincarnated into different forms, uses and spaces without too much effort, gaining in value in each reincarnation. Other examples, like Werner Sobek’s Efficiency House Plus (F87) in Berlin, also prove that it’s feasible to design a demountable, sustainable building, one that will even generate energy and have a positive energy balance.

These buildings show that we can now design for disassembly in all kinds of projects, not only temporary structures. It may still seem a difficult, unattainable dream, but it is possible, and it’s our future.

Text translated by Andrew V. Taylor
Arquitecta especializada en diseño sostenible, eficiencia energética y accesibilidad. Actualmente envuelta en los entresijos de la economía circular, pero también rodeada de diseño gráfico y web, fotografía y de mucho mundo. Combinando todo con ganas e ilusión para buscar nuevos retos profesionales. Como decía Einstein, no tengo ningún talento especial, solamente soy apasionadamente curiosa.

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