Owning too much stuff?

Owning too much stuff?

Owning too much stuff? Christmas is just around the corner again, the time of giving. It’s at this time of year, bombarded by advertising, that I start to think about ‘owning too much stuff’ and all the things in the world, and all the extra items that will soon inevitably be joining it, like it or not. Just take a walk down the toothpaste aisle at your local supermarket and you’ll get my drift, too much stuff.

It’s not just commodities, the construction industry generates the need for a huge amount of materials and components, all of which need to be extracted, manufactured, shipped, and delivered. Construction itself is also by nature wasteful. I’ve seen this first-hand, it’s very difficult, especially with an existing building, to order just enough of anything, because buildings rarely conform to standard sheet and component sizes. To tile an area, you have to over-order to allow for cutting wastage, this leaves you with ‘spares’, but these are rarely actually required. Sometimes these odd amounts of components can be restocked, but not always. Then there’s out of date bagged render and grout which must ditched, not to mention all the packaging needed to protect all these items in transit, which can be extensive.

Attempts to combat this type of wastage are nothing new, however. Pioneering German-born Architect Walter Segal developed his ‘Segal Self-Build Method’ of building based upon traditional timber frame construction and standard sheet material sizes. This aimed to eliminate wet trades and reduce site waste. This principle became much followed by the self-build community for decades, and this makes sense when you are buying materials directly yourself, you become more aware of their cost and value.

MMC (Modern Methods of Construction) today take this concept to the next level, reducing site waste by favouring factory-building. It’s easier to efficiently use-up materials when they are all in one place, with room for storage and kept out of the weather. Such off-site system builds also generally remove the need for wet trades, with what’s left becoming non weather dependent. For situations where materials and components remain unused at the end of a contract, there are organisations that will take these away. The cost of restocking is often not worth the bother for a contractor, resupplying these valuable commodities to worthy charitable organisations at low cost helps everyone. Hopefully we’ll see more joined-up thinking like this in the future.

Looking at this issue from a different perspective, clever design from the outset, applying value engineering review as the process develops, is where efficiencies can inherently occur. The ‘less is more’ design philosophy promotes this type of outcome, and it helps to hone any design down to the intrinsic values and essentials, allowing cost and thought to go where required whilst removing fussiness and unnecessary complication. Such decisions are not always obvious to spot, and we really value the consultant and contractor relationships we have when it comes to reviewing construction efficiencies.

Reuse is another facet of efficient materials use, and we have been involved in many refurbishment and reuse projects over the past decades. There’s generally a judgement call that is required but often existing elements of a building can be retained with some careful thought and ingenious design, and this often yields secondary benefits through cost saving and bringing originality to a place. Why bring more stuff into the world when it’s already on site?

That’s just the tip of the iceberg it seems, when compared to the stuff that’s available to put into the finished building shell in the form of finishes and furnishings. But again, clever and thoughtful design can make most efficient use of these, by planning simple areas with natural terminations in surfaces and applying limited but durable high-quality materials, or even keeping the construction materials on display. You can often afford that higher quality finish if you use it wisely, and it then provides an overall feeling of high quality to the rest of the project. Whilst highlighting the materials of construction will create an ‘honest’ aesthetic that brings a theme into the building, outside to inside and throughout all areas. Examples of this might be the use of exposed masonry, timber and steel structure, polished floor screeds and exposed cast concrete. This approach won’t necessarily be less costly, however, and requires careful detailing.

At ADG for the last few years we have limited our demand for ‘owning too much stuff’ by buying our Secret Santa presents from charity shops. It’s a small step but has a better outcome all round. Whilst within our work we’ll continue to help our clients be efficient in the delivery of their projects because this is the right thing to do for everyone. As with finding a present in a charity shop it sometimes takes a bit more thought and effort, but that’s the nature of good design.

Dale's experience spans a wide range of project sectors, sizes and stages and has particular interests in environmental design and earth-sheltered construction. His favourite projects reuse and breathe new life into under-loved existing buildings.