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Designing out waste is essential to a sustainable future

Liz Westgarth

In an ideal world, every material we use should have already had at least its first life in another place. Hassell’s managing director Liz Westgarth outlines the initiatives her practice is taking to position itself for a zero-waste future

Hassell’s climate adaptive 3D-printed pavilion, in one i­­­­­teration of many, here designed for full shading in hot climates like Senegal.
Hassell’s climate adaptive 3D-printed pavilion, in one i­­­­­teration of many, here designed for full shading in hot climates like Senegal. Credit: Imigo for Hassell

When I joined Hassell 10 years ago in 2013, I knew that designing for the future of the planet needed to be a key focus for the industry – which is why it is so exciting to be leading Hassell into the next phase of its evolution within a zero-waste lens.

Designers, architects and construction companies have a vital responsibility to cultivate a sustainable future. Alongside creating a circular economy, the industry should respond creatively to these new challenges for design within a global context and, foremost, we must design out waste. This is not a new problem for the sector; worldwide, the construction industry consumes almost all of the planet’s cement, 26 per cent of its aluminium, 50 per cent of steel and 25 per cent of all plastics.

Achieving a zero-waste future cannot be solved by architects alone. Experts across design disciplines – from products to engineering, fashion and materials – need to be working together to achieve zero waste and circularity. We have a business and moral imperative to facilitate conversations and foster cross-collaboration to drive this change within the industry.

Architects, in the pursuit of zero waste, are compelled to rethink the conventional design trajectory. Beyond aesthetic considerations, we have a strategic commitment to intelligent material management: from project inception to completion. With research indicating that 80 per cent of the buildings that will be in use in 2050 have already been erected, designs also must be conceived to facilitate disassembly and modification. This involves meticulous planning of materials, and contemplating aspects such as material sourcing, storage solutions, design flexibility, waste prevention, resource efficiency and lifecycle considerations.

Inside the printed structure, which uses recycled plastics from hospital waste. Credit: Imigo for Hassell
Visualisation of the structure which can be adapted to trap snow and use it as an insulating layer. Credit: Imigo for Hassell

At Hassell, we are learning through experimentation. Our design innovation team, led from our London studio, has been working alongside our head of sustainability on a series of lighthouse projects testing the realms of what is possible. Working within design constraints, such as circular economy principles, serves not only as a catalyst for innovation and development within our team but also resonates throughout our broader practice.

We are using smaller scale and research work as proof of concept to inform architecture on a large scale. This has ranged from 3D-printed structures created from recycled hospital waste, developed to withstand easy adaptation and a range of climatic conditions, such as the 3D Printed Pavilion, designed by the team in London; to taking the design challenge to fully source the construction materials from non-virgin materials for an extension of an existing structure, Oru.

Furthermore, buildings that can be disassembled, expanded or even relocated provide a circular lifecycle for our built environment. Hassell’s AMRF First Building in Sydney, Australia, is conceived as a ‘kit of parts’ with its timber structure comprising modular components that are mechanically fixed together, generating a substantial reduction in construction time and cost while enabling future disassembly or adaptation of the building and its components.

Considering not only the aesthetic design of a building but the use of raw materials has challenged the team to prioritise the locality of the materials used and their storage ahead of onsite construction. Understanding the process and criteria for demolition contractors and consultants has been an eye-opening and enlightening part of the process, informing consistent changes to the design based on scarcity and availability.

  • Printing in progress.
    Printing in progress. Credit: Imigo for Hassell
  • Hassell’s AMRF First Building in Sydney, Australia, is conceived as a kit of parts to help with both construction and deconstruction.
    Hassell’s AMRF First Building in Sydney, Australia, is conceived as a kit of parts to help with both construction and deconstruction. Credit: Doug and Wolf for Hassell

The driving force towards this more sustainable future requires an equal commitment from all parties in the design process. More than 50,000 buildings are demolished in the UK every year and while more than 90 per cent of the waste material is recovered, much of this is recycled into less valuable products rather than marked for reuse.

The inaugural RIBA Reinvention Award, which will be awarded this October alongside the Stirling Prize, is a major achievement in encouraging refurbishment over demolition – highlighting the innovation that is possible when both design teams and clients get on board.

The world is moving away from iconic architecture at any cost; regenerative design is now cause for celebration. All of this supports the conversations that architects, designers, clients and more need to be having to find collaborative solutions that reduce our collective environmental impact. Our aim at Hassell is to be part of this cultural shift and to drive a planet-first approach, actively contributing to adaptive reuse and zero-waste projects within the industry. 

Working across disciplines is integral to supporting a circular economy. At Hassell, we recently held an event to which we invited designers and industry commentators from a variety of disciplines to collaborate on this issue. Among those present was the UK Design Council, an organisation that acts as the national strategic advisor for the government on design in the UK. The Design Council, like many others, is arguing that we must prioritise moving more quickly, justly, and equitably to reach our climate goals. Speaking at the event, chief design officer Cat Drew emphasised that ‘investment is needed in the design that turns technology into things that people both use and desire, increasing the speed of adoption to green principles’. She also called for greater collaboration and government investment. The Design Council’s Design for Planet Festival highlights how it hopes to upskill, train and support businesses looking to make greener choices, no matter their design specialism.

In an ideal world, every material we use should have already had at least its first life in another place but this ambitious goal is not yet feasible. We must come together as colleagues to create demand for new infrastructure to be built, to explore and partner with supply chains, and to adapt traditional design and procurement processes so that designing our way to a zero-waste future becomes business as usual. We need to be encouraging meetings of minds, to be learning from and collaborating with experts from across the design industry and beyond.

Liz Westgarth is an architect and managing director of multidisciplinary architecture, design and urban planning practice Hassell


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