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Materials passports take a step forward

Words:
Rachel Hoolahan

Materials databases and passports could hold the key to efficient reuse of structural elements. Rachel Hoolahan explains what Orms has been doing to develop an effective system for reuse

Rachel Hoolahan is an associate at Orms.
Rachel Hoolahan is an associate at Orms.

Orms has extensive experience of working with existing buildings, and four years ago, we began to look at how waste could be reduced by using materials passports – digital identity documents that help architects to understand the materials in a building, enabling their reuse. Like your own passport, they describe a material and store information on the travels it has made. We published our research in 2021, and established a working group with other organisations to trial the approach. Now, with Ana Rute Costa of Lancaster University, we have published a policy paper based on those findings plus additional data and interviews. 

The paper consolidates industry developments and recommends eight key policies for local authorities who want to know what they could ask for, given their limited resources to check lengthy documents. We suggest that from 2025 materials databases should be created for all projects. To give design teams the resources to get started the appendices contain detailed tools and handbooks. We’ve introduced hierarchies to the structuring of data which align to existing methodologies in architectural practice, and offer an Excel spreadsheet as a template – although paid-for platforms may be the best solution for larger projects.  

Material reuse might save on capital expenditure... planners often look more favourably on schemes with enhanced sustainability objectives

Building databases does have an initial cost, but material reuse might save on capital expenditure. Planners often look more favourably on schemes with enhanced sustainability objectives. Small practices might make a meaningful start by focusing on a single material.

We need more debate about the best way to passport, and further testing of our approach, particularly by practices outside London. In time it will be important to firm up common standards for materials passports, and perhaps share databases at a national level, creating liquidity in the market for reused materials. Current work includes asking manufacturers to start taking back and refurbishing materials, which might require greater standardisation. These changes would be transformational, but as architects we believe we have the power and the responsibility to do something different. And every practice can start now – even if it’s with a single material. Do something, and do it meaningfully. 

Download the policy paper here

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