Build our houses the way we build LEGOS?


Two years ago I wrote this article for the blog of my company – Stim, based on a conference given by Catherine de Wolf – scientific researcher at Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) and founder of De Wolf Environmental Architecture Thinking (EArTh) at MaddyKeynote (an annual French innovation summit). 

I’m gonna pick up the pieces / And build a Lego house

The speaker starts with an observation that 38% of global energy-related emissions come from building and construction, while 70% of waste in France comes from this sector alone. Another stat: every year, 1.3 billion tons of construction and demolition waste is generated worldwide.

Construction and demolition waste to be sent to civic amenity sites or landfills
R.I.P. These stuffs will end up in civic amenity sites, and later and for most of the time, landfills. Source

The idea now is, what if we can build our houses the ways we build LEGOs, where nothing is wasted and can be reused for new structures almost infinitely?

Lego Modular Buildings with a row of Lego houses in a city
Lego Modular Buildings. Source

And we are not talking about recycling here – even if recycling could be considered part of the circular principles. But it is time to shift the focus from recycling, which still requires much energy and resources (water, electricity etc.) – to smaller loops – such as Reuse/Repurpose/Repair. 

Narrowing the loops from a linear economy to a circular economy by focusing on Repair and Reuse
Shifting our focus to smaller loops. Source

So let’s talk about “circular building”, or construction based on circular economy principles, with some examples: 

1/ The world’s first ‘Circular Building’ by the engineering firm Arup in 2016 – “using materials and products leased rather than purchased”, and “designed to be demountable and reusable”

2/ On a tinier (and probably mostly political) scale, the Europa Building, with facades made from recycled wooden frames, designed by Samyn and Partners as a new meeting venue for the European Council in Belgium

Europa Building in Brussels, Belgium using recycled wooden frams, with flag of Europe
Europa Building in Brussels, Belgium. Source: Ngoc Dinh

3/ On the civil movement side, Earthship principles, pioneered by American hippie architect Michael Reynolds in the 70s, include the use of natural and upcycled materials such as earth-packed tires or glass bottles…

A side note: Upcycling means creative reuse of waste or used materials, by adding more artistic or environmental value to them. Contrary to a classic recycling process where more energy & resources are required to transform/convert/extract waste or used materials to give them a new life, upcycling is a less-energy demanding and more-creativity intensive. An old book’s pages made into decorated flowers, broken pieces of glass turned to mosaics on the wall are one of the examples of upcycling.

Eco House - Earthship passive solar house in Biras, Nouvelle-Aquitaine, France on Airbnb
Eco House – Earthship passive solar house in Biras, Nouvelle-Aquitaine, France. This house is on Airbnb. I might rent it during winter months to check it out. Source
Illustration of a typical Earthship design: big windows, often directed to the South, with walls made of tires rammed with earth
Illustration of a typical Earthship design: big windows, often directed to the South, with walls made of tires rammed with earth. Source

If you want to read more on Earthship house designs, you can start with this video “11 years living off-grid in an EarthShip Style house” based in Quebec, Canada where the weather can get extremely cold in winter ( below -15°C in January and below -3°C from December to end of March).

On a scale of individuals, houses using upcycled or recycled materials are possible, based on the willingness of the house-owners to seek optimal solutions to their case. But on a greater scale – the scale of metropolitan cities – we are still so far from what could be done. 

Build everything the way we build LEGOS?

Let’s move our focus to another human-made product. Something we can no longer live without – our smartphones.

More than 5 billion people have mobile devices, and over half of these connections are smartphones. This comes with a price: by 2016, we have generated 44,7 million metric tonnes of e-waste – that means 4500 Eiffel towers. Only 20% was recycled through appropriate channels. Out of which, 1 million metric tonnes are just cables and chargers. 

A huge of Electronic waste in a landfill
E-waste. Too much of them. Source

Europe (including Russia) is the second-largest generator of e-waste per person, with an average of 16.6 kg per person; the UK tops with 24,9kg per person, in comparison with less than 5kg per person in China. 

This couples with the fact that Europe and the UK, in particular, have the most advanced recycling structures – again, here we reencounter the paradox of recycling

But cities have been burying garbage for thousands of years, and it’s still the easiest and cheapest solution for trash. The recycling movement is floundering, and its survival depends on continual subsidies, sermons and policing. How can you build a sustainable city with a strategy that can’t even sustain itself?

John Tierney – The New York Times (source)

Even though European countries managed to reach an overall 49% collection rate (in comparison to the average amount of e-waste put on the market in 2013-2015), machines that are required to retrieve all of the elements in an electronic device are still too expensive. As a consequence, millions of tonnes of e-waste from developed countries are shipped abroad to be recycled in other parts of the world, most notably China, Ghana, Haiti and Southeast Asia. Agbogbloshie in Accra, Ghana, the most toxic place in the world, is also home to 40 000 people – mostly working on the world’s biggest e-waste landfill.

Men Working in a landfill in Agbogbloshie Ghana
Working in a landfill in Agbogbloshie. Source

There is, indeed, economic interest for developing countries to welcome e-waste from the rest of the world. The estimated value of raw materials embedded in this amount of e-waste is 55 billion euros. Most phones contain rare-earth minerals and precious metal, including copper, gold, zinc, beryllium, and tantalum in the circuit board.

Mining raw materials From E-Waste such as gold, plastics, copper, aluminum, iron, palladium and silver
Infographic: Mining Gold From E-Waste | Statista. Source

This study of the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies shows that not one single metal in 62 metalloids in the periodic table has an “exemplary” substitute for all of its major uses. 

The periodic table of the elements labelled according to scarcity of material
The periodic table of the elements labelled according to scarcity of material. Source

These precious metals, therefore, need to be retrieved. And currently, this is done through burning, with no protection.

Young men burning electrical wires to recover copper at Agbogbloshie, Ghana
Young men burning electrical wires to recover copper at Agbogbloshie, September 2019. Source

I found several research papers suggesting ways to retrieve these metals in e-waste rather than burning or doing it by hand. Some of these include Hydrometallurgical Recovery (involving “the use of a series of acids to leach out the metals from E-waste and further separation and purification using extraction, adsorption, and ion exchange to concentrate the precious metal”), or using Porous porphyrin polymer, or using acidophilic bacteria.

Using a porous porphyrin to reclaim precious metals from electronic waste
Using a porous porphyrin to reclaim precious metals from electronic waste. Source

- Bacterial adhesion model by Acidithiobacillus ferrooxidans on crushed PCB in bioleaching to reclaim precious metals from electronic waste
Page 82 of the paper. Source

The techniques will take some time before proving their efficiency. Yet they still stay on the recycling side.

It seems to be that the closest we have to the LEGOS models are initiatives such as Fairphone, a Dutch smartphone producer and a social enterprise that positions themselves with repairable smartphone designs that are made of fairly sourced, recyclable materials. Or the circular economy model where electronic devices are rent instead of sold – which allow better remanufacturing and recycling services, suggested by Kersten-Johnston, a professor from Columbia University. 

These practices are anecdotal. We are, indeed, still far from efficiently reducing, reusing and even recycling our e-waste. Or construction waste. Or many other types of waste if we take a closer look. 

If you want to read further on this topic:

Different sources of energy: which one is less bad?

Less waste, less energy: better ways to heat places in a temperate climate

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