Nature Produces No Waste
Environmental Task Group, New Zealand Institute of Architects 22jun03
The are no landfill sites on the outskirts of forests where forests dump their wastes to become a problem for future generations. The detritus of one generation of trees become the nutrient of the next generation. Balanced ecosystems ensure not only the sustainability of the forest but also the usefulness of any surplus. Architects reap the benefits of zero-waste forests.
Waste is not a necessary outcome of activity. It is rather an indicator of dysfunctionality. When we see black soot coming from the exhaust of a car we assume some fine tuning is necessary.
Many people see the waste produced by a city only as a problem to be solved. This results in tendency to address symptoms rather than causes. Architects tend to see waste as an indicator of system failure.
Architects enjoy the purring of a nice car. They love good design. They work late into the night because they care about right order and harmonious relationships. Architects make good urban designers precisely because they do not just plaster over the cracks like the New Urbanists do.
A well-ordered city produces no waste. Waste is an indicator of urban design failure.
When a building is demolished because it is no longer appropriate the need for demolition indicates design failure. This of course does not mean that the designer has failed. Perhaps the wrong questions were asked. Much of the built environment of our cities is of such poor quality that trashing the fabric seems inevitable. It would be better if these buildings had never been built because their environmental cost is too high. No nation can afford the cost of poor design.
Zero-waste begins with design quality. Not cost. A well-oriented building which belongs in place need cost no more, and every year the savings in energy costs provide a further discount.
Zero-waste implies viewing a building as a process rather than a product. We do not throw out the building because the light bulb fails. Designing for maintenance and repair may mean using components, or perhaps modules which can be easily recycled. Buildings which are designed to be put together also need to be designed so that they can be taken apart.
Some architects have been experimenting with houses where there are no off-cuts simply because they are never cut off. Maurice Smith, more than forty years ago, developed design solutions which celebrated the meshing together of disparate building elements at many different scales. It takes a little time and some discipline, but good design always does.
Zero-waste means taking the down-stream cost of decisions into account. Treated timber, for example, presents insoluble problems. The shavings from Lawson Cyprus can in contrast be used to smoke the fish you catch over the weekend.
At first this seems like an absurdly small consideration, but the scale can quickly become majestic. Probably we should be planting Lawson Cyprus rather than Radiata Pine (which in NZ requires chemical preservative treatment). Architects are the only profession in a position to advise the government about these issues. We see the whole picture precisely because we are designers.
When a building is seen as a breathing living entity rather than a dead carcase the attitudinal shift results in buildings which increase in value as they grow older.
Decay can also be seen as perfectly normal. It is tragic that we need to fly great distances to relish the pleasure of architectural ruins. Destroying what is old simply because it is old is cultural genocide. Zero-waste means enjoying the rusting corrugated iron of the old boatshed.
The planners who trash rusting boatsheds are trashing our way of life. "Tidying up" can be a very dangerous and destructive activity. In our world whole cultures are simply "tidied up". Zero-waste means that no cultures go to waste. Zero-waste implies respect and tolerance.
Rather than asking how much architects should do about zero-waste we might ask how we can improve our designs. Excellence can be elusive, but that does not mean we should accept the unacceptable.
In our role as leaders we also need to educate the community. Reducing at source is much more important than recycling. When the right questions are asked architects already know many of the answers.
Most architects would love to have a hydrogen car. While working towards that ideal all we can do is to fine tune the car we have.
Every contribution which architects can make to overcome dysfunctional design is worth making.
Environmental Task Group
New Zealand Institute of Architects
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