Demountable building: don’t think straight, think circular

Demountable architecture has a long history, but has tended towards the utilitarian or temporary. Today, a new wave of projects in the field presents new, circular-economy possibilities

Flexibility has always been a concern for the office architect, and recent events have highlighted the importance of buildings that are able to flex and shift to adapt to changing patterns of use without simply discarding valuable resources. London-based studio Waugh Thistleton Architects have recently completed an office block that, in addition to being able to flex to changing needs, can be fully demounted at the end of its life cycle.

The studio used a hybrid steel and cross-laminated-timber (CLT) structure to create highly adaptable open-plan floors that can be easily reconfigured – whether that’s shifting internal partitions, or removing sections of CLT to create double-height spaces.

‘The whole building has been treated as a recyclable product…’

The whole building has been treated as a recyclable product, with the main steel structure bolted together, the timber screwed, and the cladding, decking and balustrades all designed to be detachable. Internally, the structure has largely been left exposed to minimise future wastage, using natural clay finishes and biodegradable Marmoleum tiles. In an inventive final flourish, offcuts from the CLT structure were also used to create office furniture.

Inspiration from the past

The idea of modular and demountable architecture is not new; the use of partially prefabricated buildings that could be moved and reassembled was reported as far back as 1624. Neither is it always restricted to simple functional boxes. London’s Crystal Palace of 1851 was viewed as a modern marvel, Jean Prouve’s 1944 demountable house has become something of a collector’s item, and Qatar’s upcoming World Cup is due to be played in a demountable stadium. However, the focus has tended to be on the utilitarian (quickly constructing hospitals or extra classrooms) or the temporary (events and disaster relief).

There are big wins to be made in expanding the principle of demountable buildings to more permanent, high-quality architectural developments. The building industry accounts for more than 50% of global energy use and over 35 per cent of CO2 emissions, and demolition and renovation waste can account for up to 40 per cent of waste production. In addition to the ecological benefit, there’s a business case to be made; with the rising price of construction materials, adopting circular principles could represent a EURO 1.8trn opportunity for the EU alone in the years up to 2030.

Maximising materials

New technologies are making this more achievable than ever before, allowing us to maximise the utilisation of components and materials both now and in the future. Increasingly sophisticated Building Information Modelling (BIM) enables buildings to effectively function as a materials bank, reimagining the architecture around us as a dynamic data-tracked repository of tradable value.

Using digital technology, every part of the construction can be tagged with a unique QR code containing the information required for reuse. The trendsetting developer Edge Technologies took this approach in a recent development for Triodos Bank in the Netherlands, resulting in a high-quality building which can be reconstructed in a new location without any waste flows.

Imogen Privett’s full design roundup of innovations in work and workplace can be found in the Innovation Zone.

Imogen Privett is a Senior Research Associate in WORKTECH Academy and Workplace Innovation Consultant with UnWork. An architectural designer and researcher, she holds degrees in both History and Architecture.
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