chris wise engineer

Designing for the Great Recovery

On the train I overhear 3 old blokes talking: “I can’t get too excited about the Olympic swimming ‘cos you can only see their heads”….and I think of the captain of the Titanic saying something similar about icebergs. From the Titanic, it’s a natural jump to hear the construction industry saying the same thing about its use of materials. Watch out for the bit you can’t see, I want to shout! It’s gonna get you!

Now we have Sophie Thomas and Nat Hunter at RSA paddling away in the rough water for everything we design to be recyclable. In their upcoming Great Recovery program, supported by the Technology Strategy Board (TSB) and launched on 17th September 2012, they want us to design everything so it can be recovered at the end of its life. Great idea, but surely, idealistic. Because lurking in the depths I remember images of small kids trying to prise rare metals out of rain-soaked piles of old computers in the film Manufactured Landscapes. And it’s going to be a lot harder still for recyclable buildings, bridges, rails and infrastructure.  The pragmatists always win, don’t they? Well, Sophie and Nat have managed to persuade the TSB to part with a 7 figure sum to fund prototype work in this field through supporting courtship rites for up to 50 partnerships of designers, makers, users, and they hope to eventually fund a fully recyclable house prototype. Through this work, the RSA is trying to cue up great examples of the marriage between expert materials knowledge with great design. But when I marry modern construction technology to the Great Recovery, I only get a Grand Unified Theory of Lego which wasn’t quite what I was hoping for.

What lies deep down, in the depths beneath the Great Recovery? It’s pretty simple…they probably want us to work out how to take our core materials, especially the scarce ones, and make sure we don’t chuck them away. Because while we already recycle a lot, we still manage to jettison about a quarter of all the material used in UK construction each year. By weight, most of this is commonly available stuff, at least for now. Yet as population grows and civilisations industrialise, we will lock up many more of the rare materials, until eventually everything becomes scarce. We all know about platinum in catalytic converters, and lithium in batteries. But what about stainless steel which contains not only plentiful iron, but also about 10% nickel and 18% chromium, both endangered elements according to the TSB and the wonderful periodic table of “endangered materials” produced by its Knowledge Transfer Network. Glass might use relatively common sodium, calcium and silicon, but low E glass is coated with an oxide of tin, also endangered.

Tell me more….tell me more. Why is it that some of these elements are so rare? Aha….now that’s a proper question, and maybe in the answer there’s at last a glimpse of the critical importance of the Great Recovery. Because the reason that tin for glass coatings will become scarce lies not in the Building Regs, but in the lifecycle of stars, and our place as a cosmic backwater where some of this tin turns up. Mixed in to Joni Mitchell’s “We are stardust…” is only a very very small proportion of heavier elements, like tin. In fact, the Earth’s crust has six orders of magnitude less tin, nickel, zinc and chromium than things like iron, silicon, and aluminium. Because it turns out stars can only make lighter elements, those in the periodic table up to iron. Stars can’t actually make any of the endangered elements. Instead these heavy elements, some of the most useful to our industry, are only produced when a star explodes cataclysmically as a supernova at the end of its life.  Supernovae create and then blast out the heavier elements into clouds of gas which eventually cool into new stars and planets, including Earth….and then we come along, hunt them down, dig them out of the ground and specify them in a curtain wall without a second thought. We never stop to wonder whether there will be any more.  This behaviour is worthy of reflection. Because in terms of human lives, supernova explosions are incredibly infrequent, and only happen in our galaxy once every century or so.

When we run out of these rare elements, we will have to wait for another supernova, and that’s going to be a project management headache.  So, the Great Recovery is asking us to respect the cosmic origins of our materials (cosmic, yeah), use them wisely, recycle them always, or design something else. At last, if not a Unified Theory, something a bit better than BIM for us to focus on. So well done the RSA and TSB for supporting what might turn out to be a sort of WWF for materials?

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