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Wa$ted Market Seeks A New Architecture Amid The Rubble

April 6, 2016

By David Dewane


“What happens when one county in America took the radical step of demanding all buildings be built with other buildings?”

When accepting the Pritzker Prize in 2000, Rem Koolhaas called on architecture to liberate itself from simply the building of structures. “Architecture,” he said, “has become a dominant metaphor, a controlling agent for everything that needs concept, structure, organization, entity, and form.” Wa$ted Market, a project currently underway in Chicago exemplifies what this shift might look like. A collaboration between Archeworks, a design lab and educator, and Port, a Chicago-based urban design practice, in partnership with the Cook County government, Wa$ted Market confronts the implications of radically scaling up the recycling of architecture, both in terms of its literal materials, but also the profession’s attachment to the idea of permanence. In essence, it is a radical experiment that addresses the question: “What if all buildings were required to be made with other buildings?”


The Case for Deconstructing Buildings

If we were to speed up time, it would be easy to see the fluid nature of buildings. In the construction phase, an incredibly broad and nuanced pool of raw materials is processed into building components and pushed through a materials marketplace from which we construct the entire built environment as we know it. Materials flow through markets and into complex structures, in all their geographical and formal variety.

The demise of a building is, by comparison, less complex. As a society, we don’t invest as much attention and effort in the end of a structure’s life cycle as we do in the beginning. When a building reaches its end, there is an incredible opportunity to channel its matter in useful directions. This rarely happens though, mostly because conventional wisdom firmly dictates that doing so is impractical. Yet the numbers are too grim to overlook. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, new construction consumes 60% of all materials used in the economy annually, excluding food and fuel. Meanwhile, waste from building demolitions accounts for 48% of the nation’s entire waste stream.  

Not only are the numbers abysmal and the environmental concerns pressing, but the evolutionary pressures of our time are also forcing us to reimagine this system. Trouble is brewing at all stages of the linear building cycle — global urbanization and rising standards of living are straining the environment’s capacity to provide enough raw materials. The processing of virgin building materials is energy-intensive and oftentimes polluting, while mainstream construction norms (e.g. Rem Koolhaas’ Junkspace) are anchored in the up-front acceptance of a short lifecycle. And at the end of the cycle, we are pushing the capacity of our landfills and losing the appetite (and space) for creating new ones.

While striking individually, when these variables are considered together, it’s only logical to want to close the loop on waste. Instead of a linear material flow based on harvesting raw materials for one-time use followed by disposal, why not adopt, en masse, a cyclical policy of extreme recycling of construction materials?  In other words, why not build new buildings from old buildings?

According to the Delta Institute, Chicago’s waste management system is particularly economically and environmentally unsustainable — Cook County reached its disposal capacity limit in 2015, closing its last landfill. Chicago must now ship all its garbage to other parts of Illinois and neighboring states. The need, then, is not simply to displace waste to more remote disposal sites but rather to eliminate the waste altogether by designing a process by which materials are continuously re-absorbed into the built environment.


The Three D’s

On November 21st, 2012 the Demolition Debris Diversion (3D) Ordinance took effect in Cook County, Illinois, which mandates that “a minimum of 70% of all demolition debris generated in demolition, dismantling, or renovation of single-family, commercial, and industrial structures be diverted from the waste stream” and that “a minimum of 5% of material in residential structures be reused.” Deborah Stone, Director of the Cook County Department of Environmental Control, had the vision and acumen to bring the 3D Ordinance into existence, but working out what the new landscape of architecture, construction, and deconstruction means for all stakeholders would require partners.

Archeworks — part design laboratory, part alternative architectural academy — was engaged to help bring the challenge of the ordinance to a broader audience. “In the City of Chicago, we are a connector,” explains Andrew Balster, Archeworks’ Executive Director. “We bridge industry and academia; public and private.” The core leadership team was rounded out by Port, a rising local firm, whose participation was enabled by a grant from Chicago Community Trust. Lacking a clear road map, this public/private partnership has proceeded down an unconventional path of experimentation and communication.

Wa$ted Market is envisioned as a multi-year initiative to expand the material reuse marketplace. It is an architect-led design project that brings together government, policy institutes, universities, contractors, and retailers to understand the consequences and re-envision the opportunities of the emergent recycling/reuse reality in Cook County. Wa$ted Market is a flight into the unknown, inventing the guiding contours for the new and necessary commercial arena created by the 3D Ordinance.

“The biggest challenge we faced is that none of the information we needed was available online. If you want to find out where building waste goes, you need to find the people involved and ask them,” says Andrew Moddrell, partner at Port. “We approached this project like investigative journalists on the front end, and then reported what we discovered using the communications conventions of architecture.”  

One key source was Sean Terry, Community Development Project Manager for the city of Blue Island, located a few miles south of downtown Chicago. Terry gave Port access to the city’s demolition permits, which allowed them to understand post-3D Ordnance material flows. The Wa$ted Market team also interviewed a wide array of contractors, revealing a diverse set of reactions to the new regulations, ranging from frustration at having to muster a fleet of vehicles to haul materials and debris in and out to enthusiasm for the opportunities the new landscape presents.


Post-Rationalizing the Wasted Marketplace

Imagine walking into a building and knowing the quantities of every single material present in the construction. At any given point the steel, timber, and other materials will have a shifting value on a futures market relative to construction trends regionally and globally. Through open-source data you could also have an instant and precise sense of the options for how the current assemblage of matter could be repurposed, how long that would take, and how much it would cost. The implications in terms of reduced embodied energy loss, carbon footprint reduction, and waste elimination are stunning when realized. Wa$ted Market is positioning itself to provide this kind of critical resource for a fast-approaching future.

To understand the trajectory of building recycling at an urban scale, Wa$ted Market approaches the problem over time, looking first at the way things were before the 3D Ordinance, the way things are now, and finally the way things could be in an optimized future. Before the adoption of the 3D Ordinance, there was no system in place to regulate disposal. In the case of a typical single-family house, a few people with heavy machinery would rapidly demolish a building, sift through the wreckage for scrap metal, and whisk the leftover debris away to the nearest landfill. The job would be complete in about a week, would cost around $10,000, and the materials involved would move less than 50 miles.  

The current, post-3D Ordinance situation, however, is significantly different. The same small, single-family house cited above takes a larger crew 2-4 weeks to deconstruct, sort, and distribute. The cost would be roughly $30,000 and the materials involved would travel anywhere between 50-250 miles. Reuse and downcycling examples are emerging. Instead of winding up in a dump, a busted-up foundation might be used as a bed of a constructed pond. While the growing pains associated with extra time and money are obvious, there are also immediate benefits: In the first 16 months after the 3D Ordinance, landfill deposits were reduced by an impressive 600,000 tons.

The vision for the future of Wa$ted Market is to achieve scale locally by creating a platform to dramatically expand the reuse building materials market. “Only through design integration, public policy, and, most importantly, a change in culture, can the reuse market experience growth and longevity,”  says Moddrell. The hope is that tax incentives will eventually make the reallocation of a deconstructed building a net profit and that the materials involved will be processed locally, traveling no more than 25 miles. While much work remains to be done to get there, the circuit of supply and waste of building materials in Cook County is beginning to close in on itself.

The implications of these changing currents are profound, compelling, and immediate — in Chicago and beyond. Existing norms, ideologies, and pedagogies that have influenced our behavior in regards to waste are being called into question. Conventional wisdom, which always carries immense inertia, is being quickly dismantled by a single piece of legislation — unlike most highly aggressive sustainability initiatives, the 3D Ordinance is not opt-in or incentivized. It’s mandatory.


Architecture in Transition

Wa$ted Market is more about process than product; it’s systems-level change that is marked by extreme complexity, inviting critique and discourse from those who think their aspirations are unreasonable. Through Wa$ted Market, Archeworks is questioning more than just garbage — they are questioning the staid, linear notion of what an architect and designer has been, is, or should be.

While we are far from equilibrium and waste is just one of many destabilizing factors in our current environmental and social situation, how we approach the transition to a more sustainable future is a critical and open question. While there will certainly be other approaches and initiatives responding to our state of uncertainty and unpredictability, Wa$ted Market is a project — and a process — worth tracking.


David Dewane is an architect, entrepreneur, and educator. He is the founder and executive director of Librii and an Impact Design Hub Contributing Editor.

Images courtesy of Archeworks.

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