Why Construction Needs to Consider the End of Building Life Cycles
Domicology expert Rex LaMore on how a better building means playing the sustainability long game
When you ask Rex LaMore about domicology, his answer is concise.
“Structures have a life cycle,” says LaMore. “They have an end of life - in some cases, a predictable end of life - and we should build with that end of life in mind.”
You’d be forgiven for not being familiar with the term domicology. It’s a relatively new field of study. It was started by LaMore himself at Michigan State University in 2015 where he serves as senior specialist for the Urban + Regional Planning Program and Director of the Center for Community and Economic Development.
When we build… we have a responsibility for that structure at its end of useful life, so we don't burden future generations with the cost of removing an unusable structure.
For him it’s about finding ways to keep those buildings from becoming abandoned hulks and being able to reuse and reclaim the building materials when they’re decommissioned. This is crucial when you consider that out of the 600 million tons of construction debris the U.S. generates annually, 90% comes from building demolition. “It's just really trying to help people understand that these things have a life cycle and to build for that.”
Why domicology matters
If you’ve studied Latin, you’ll know that domicology comes from domus, meaning home and logy, meaning to speak. LaMore explains that the bulk of his research has been on the life cycle of residential properties but clarifies the principles of domicology also apply to commercial and industrial spaces. It’s important because across the board they just don’t build them like they used to.
“There are obviously structures like the Pantheon that have lasted for thousands of years,” says LaMore. “But most of them overwhelmingly don't last that long. Now that doesn't mean we shouldn't build for them to last, but most structures don't have that length of life.”
Looking at residential properties, LaMore says, in general they have about a 90-year life cycle. Nothing like the Pantheon, unfortunately. “Commercial actually comes in around 30,” he says. “We've seen some as little as 15 to 20 years here recently…. That's such a short timeline.”
When you look at the time, energy, and raw material put into commercial real estate construction, it’s a huge use of resources. Especially considering how short a life these buildings can have. “And as far as materials, salvage, and use,” he says, “from a linear paradigm you can't sustain that for many decades.”
It’s not just one thing
As LaMore speaks, he paints a picture of why domicology is more than just an abstract academic concept. It’s not simply the raw material use, though that plays a part. And it’s not just the staggering amount of construction waste that ends up in landfills, though that is part of it, too. Ultimately, there is a socio-economic aspect that goes hand in hand with sustainability considerations.
When buildings go unused, there’s a chance they will become abandoned. Unmaintained buildings become a hazard. They lower neighborhood resale value. And they have the potential to tank the local economy, causing more and more abandoned buildings until communities collapse under the weight of unused real-estate. Combine that with exceptionally short building life cycles, and it’s easy to see why this is becoming more and more important.
“In my experience for some folks, it's an aha experience,” he says. “Oh, yeah, right. You're right.”
What can be done?
Not surprisingly, it all comes back to the three Rs with LaMore focusing on two of them - reuse, recycle.
“Clearly the best domicological facility is to reuse it,” says LaMore. “Extend the life.”
This could mean taking over an existing building and retrofitting the interior without any impact on the embodied carbon from the structure. Perhaps it’s utilizing a customized modular approach to bring new life to a historical building.
“We've got all that embedded energy. Let's extend the life to the extent feasible,” says LaMore. “Because all that embedded energy and all the structural materials continue to be embedded.”
Design for Disassembly
When the life of a building can’t be extended any further, the challenge becomes finding a meaningful way of decommissioning it. In some cases, salvage teams can come into a building and remove high-value metal and cabling. It’s not easy work, but the sale price of those reclaimed materials makes it lucrative for salvagers. But what about the rest?
Most buildings aren’t made to come apart easily. From poured concrete supports to powerful adhesives, separating usable pieces can be an even greater challenge.
“(The key is) trying to find new ways to help join materials in such a way that you can separate them without damaging the material.”
Designing a space with disassembly in mind offers two-fold benefits. Using a modular construction system allows parts and pieces to be reconfigured without extensive raw material use. And if the building does reach the end of its life cycle, removing those elements that have been designed for disassembly becomes that much easier, reducing labor and increasing the possibility of recycling.
Benefitting the community
For LaMore, looking meaningfully at the end of a building’s life cycle means taking the start of the process into consideration, too. Not just what you are building with, but how. Can you create spaces to last? What do you do when their time has come? His sentiments echo the United Nations Environment Programme.
“From an economic development perspective, if your community is incentivizing that kind of commercial development… you should definitely think about the end of life. If you're going to put public resources into that development, make sure that part of it is accounted for. Part of that negotiation accounts for that end of life.”
To do that, LaMore recommends community benefit agreements (CBA), which are becoming more common in his home state of Michigan. Known for getting their start in California in the ‘90s, CBAs offer a way of building that supports those in the area into the future. In most cases, they are used to improve equity and diversity when it comes to job site labor. Lately this has expanded to include sustainability initiatives as local jurisdictions have legislated green building standards.
“We’re seeing more and more local governments embrace it now,” he says. But LaMore says that negotiations between the developer and the community can and should extend to include ongoing site use and potential removal at end of life. Together with extended building life cycles and improved reclamation initiatives, domicology could be a beacon for those looking to create sustainable spaces and maintain vibrant communities.
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