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Medical Care for Sick & Disabled Buildings

There are 3 reasons to care for ageing, sick or disabled buildings. Firstly, they are packed with embodied energy, secondly, they are imbued with memory and meaning that helps to inform our sense of place and belonging, and thirdly, it is economically, socially and environmentally sound practice to remedy their ails prior to any thoughts of demolition.

This article is focused on the first reason: A building’s embodied energy and the medical care required to acknowledge this important aspect of society, the built-environment and our environmental responsibilities.

In today’s energy sensitive culture, to acknowledge a building’s embodied energy is not enough, although it’s a healthy start. We must strive to ensure the development of a considered approach and practice at managing it.

Any product has embodied energy, it is determined by the amount of labour and energy consumed in the fabrication of a structure. In other words, the energy used to prospect and extract (mining) the natural resources from the planet (such as iron ore and Limestone etc), the energy used to transport, refine, smelt or extract the elements from the mined raw material, the energy used to the form or fabricate the steel or process concrete etc, the transportation of materials and manpower to the construction site, the labour and the fabrication before installation of materials and products. (The list is very long and difficult to reference holistically in official literature without refining the search to particulars, such as embodied carbon or through individual material components such as concrete and copper)

It is important to remember that the embodied energy also includes the energy required to demolish, remove and dump building components.

Therefore, it makes sense to protect that energy. Despite the management of embodied energy complementing a circular philosophy in other sectors, as championed by the Ellen Macarthur Foundation and her peers, the building sector in its entirety seems relatively overlooked, in my view, as far as embodies energy is concerned, there seems little fundamental difference between a washing machine, car or a building.

However, the management of embodied energy in buildings seems critical to any sustainable approach in managing and conserving our planet and our well-being in general.

The constant cycle of demolition and rebuilding puts a huge strain on natural resources and energy usage; in terms of sustainability, demolition should be the option of last resort. In Britain alone demolition produces a staggering 70 million tonnes (2005) of waste materials annually. Construction of new buildings uses approximately 4 percent of Britain’s total energy consumption and generates 40 million tonnes of carbon dioxide each year. Up to 60% of energy and resources used in construction is spent on the shell and core of the building, so retention of a building’s structure through conversion makes sound ecological sense.

To demolish a building and squander that embodied energy, it would take a new build (no matter how sophisticated) decades to balance the loss of energy in the original before it too was replaced ad nauseam


Is surgery the answer then?

If humans grow week or become ill, break something or require enhancement they visit a doctor or surgeon. These professionals understand our structural makeup and internal matrix, they can remove, replace, reconstruct and augment our body to improve and extend our life expectancy rather than opting for some sort of euthanasia .

Similarly, building physicians could be required to address structures that no longer work properly or have become old, week and disabled. So-called surgeons would understand their patient's structural makeup, past and underlying conditions and could prescribe specialists in biomechanics, bionics, transplant, circulation, mental health or even plastic surgery. They could also prescribe long term life changes, a change of use, occupancy or rest etc.

Caring for buildings can be an exciting dynamic way to breathe new life into a tired and strained built environment. New-build construction consumes enormous amounts of energy and resources in comparison to caring for original structures, which although seen as labour intensive, is not capital expensive and in fact, attracts financial incentives and tax breaks.

To care for our ill structures successfully, a set of contemporary approaches should be adopted to make the most of this medical approach to sustaining our built environment.

As in any medical practice, these approaches depend heavily on the practitioners' analytical ability to convert the host building’s structural information, which means understanding the building’s DNA

For further information on published research about understanding a buildings DNA and Medical Approaches to Architecture, please contact Frazer Macdonald Hay

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