When we ignore the carbon costs of our building materials, the planet pays the price. Few are more aware of this than Pelle Munch-Petersen, an industrial Ph.D. researcher at Henning Larsen and a nominee for the 2019 Det Bæredygtige Element (The Sustainable Element) Person Prize. Pelle recently developed the "building materials food pyramid" in collaboration with KADK and CINARK, which draws a parallel between the environmental costs of our building materials and our choices in personal nutrition.
We called up Pelle for a conversation at the crossroads of construction, capitalism and climate change.
If we look at building materials as ecological mediators between ourselves and the planet, it changes everything we do. Right now, it feels like we have all the materials in the world. They are just a surface in Rhino, a selection in a digital catalog. That distance between us and the material world has become highly problematic, I think.
If you think about how architecture was before the most recent 150 to 200 years, there was a strong tradition of material reuse and preservation. It’s a very new concept that we’re not doing this. If you look at old churches, often they were built with stones from other churches or taken from somewhere else. This way of building assumed as a matter of course that you would be able to take things apart and reuse them. Materials were worth so much that preservation was the only logical approach. We’ve only recently become accustomed to thinking that our current pattern of consumption is natural.
I think that basically, there is a core capitalist idea in play here, that the market can supply new materials all the time. We’re clinging to the idea that it’s viable to manufacture more materials, just to keep tearing buildings down and doing it all again. We demolish concrete buildings after forty years, even though the materials could live for thousands. We tear them down due to cultural reasons, just because we want something else. So many of our materials are plastic—petroleum products—that will have to burn someday, releasing toxins and CO2. This current model is defined by fast turnover, high consumerism, and high material demand. We don’t really feel the consequences of this yet, but it seems we will soon.
Let’s see what happens if we put materials front and center, and let the material choices inform our architecture. We should sit down and establish a material palette for our next project as the first action of design. Then, we design for disassembly, making sure that materials can be released from our buildings. That way, we use materials that have a low impact and a long lifespan – hopefully, longer than the building itself.
I’m saying you should think hard about the materials you’re using, to make sure you’re getting as much out of it as possible. If you’re using high-impact aluminum brackets, but it’s to make sure the façade panels can be disassembled and reused, then, of course, do that! That sounds like a perfectly good idea. We just have to be very critical about our use of items at the top of the pyramid, making sure it really works toward a sustainable strategy for the building as a whole. The materials in the bottom of the pyramid we can use as bulk materials. But if an aluminum bracket can render other materials unnecessary and ensure the overall sustainability of the project – then fine. The most sustainable materials are the ones we don’t use.
I know all of this is easier said than done because we’re dependent on clients and politicians with their own wishes. But I think the time has come for architecture to become a revolutionary art again. We can’t just support the system that’s out there – We need to break out of that and do what is needed. It’s as simple as that.
We’re living in a world where short narratives and simple solutions are in demand. I’m beginning to think that in some sense, this oversimplifies what we know and what we’re willing to consider.
We have to allow for the industry to explore concepts like a renewable material in totality, and that just requires some degree of complexity. And complexity costs money. People have to get more education, they have to change their mindset and workflows, it’s uncomfortable, inconvenient and expensive. But I think there’s just no way around it – the way we’re working now is not addressing what the world needs. We have to acknowledge the fact that our practice has to stop being obsessed with the simple narrative. Complexity is here to stay, and it’s going to get a lot more complex before things get better.
Architecture becomes great when it endures and adapts. The idea of monumental architecture – the idea that architecture can transcend time – can no longer be a valid point of departure. It might be the goal, and in the best cases, it might stand forever. If so, perfect! That’s the most sustainable solution. But in most cases, as we know, things will change. This doesn’t mean that architecture will become unimportant or unimpressive, just that its relation to its users and the climate should change.
If we design truly adaptable, recyclable buildings that can take on new cultural demands and go in unforeseen directions, we can resist the unsustainable idea of monumental architecture. Then architecture is not an unchangeable, enduring force, but a cultural, malleable idea that changes with the times and trends.