A dreamed up future of designing for reuse
I met up with various people and companies over the last couple of weeks and talked to them about material reuse. Many of them I know well, so we quickly found ourselves sharing ideas and discussing the good things that are happening on projects.
One thing that struck me was that businesses are really leaning into this.
I heard “we’re building a tool for something” multiple times. Of course some will be more sophisticated than others, but it’s great to see that people involved in trying to make this happen are receiving the support, time and resource to try and unlock this at a larger, and more efficient, scale.
Of course, you don’t need to build a tool to be able to play a part in material reuse, but improving the way we deal with the mass of data around second hand materials is definitely a big positive.
More significant than the tools though, was the shift in perspective that I experienced. This came after hearing a couple of businesses talk about how they see the reused material market evolving, with specific attention on how design teams interact with stockists or inventory holders.
My general approach (and I think the approach of most of us) when talking about material reuse, has been to assume that the design team, or contractor, have a design and they go off in search of materials to fit into that design. The ‘heavy lifting’ is on the project side, not the stockist. This did make sense to me, after all the designer or contractor knows and holds the design. They assess what is out there ‘in the ether’ and judge what is appropriate, if anything, to use (physical fit, availability etc.). The design is at the centre of the project, so it feels right that a stockist’s inventory list is issued to the project.
But stand back for a moment and ask yourself whether this makes sense.
A designer has to interrogate multiple inventory lists, which are often out of date the moment they are issued. Stockists might have different data formats, so dealing with this is a real challenge for designers - no wonder there are lots of tools being built to try and codify/automate this!
Then there is the fact that the design is often well progressed by the time a team would go out to scour the market for reused materials. Not only does this make it less likely of finding a match (because the design is already finely tuned), but it could disincentivise the reuse of materials, because anything more than a minor change to the drawings/spec will have to be agreed/instructed (not to mention redrawn) - all extra work!
I think this is how we operate right now. I’m not saying this is wrong, or that these challenges that cannot be overcome, but let me show you an alternative...
I’ll call this Optimised Design for Reuse (ODR).
So what’s different? Well, everything is kind of flipped on its head. Instead of designers holding their design tightly, they send it out to stockists, early. And we are talking as soon as practicable (once you have planning, approvals, viability proven etc.), so let’s say early RIBA 3 - much earlier than a normal procurement route.
Now of course, a RIBA 2 or RIBA 3 design is going to change, but the massing, grid, spans and general scale of the design will likely remain fairly static. I appreciate some aspects of a design may not be fully established at RIBA 3, so some materials might need sourcing later (but still earlier than you would normally)… you get the idea.
In ODR, the stockists are the ones who would need some new tools and skills. They would take a design (say a Revit model) and pass it through their ‘tool’, which looks for the material they specialise in. They would be able to identify stock matches on their inventory, perhaps offering for it to be reserved.
And it would’t stop there. The tools could interrogate and optimise for:
Splits - extra analysis could occur in the tools to not just marry the design up with items on inventory, but also to test things like cut lengths and module sizes to get the highest amount of reuse from the available inventory
Oversize - can a heavier beam, or a thicker board be used? If the designer has offered some criteria (rules) for this, then the pool of suitable materials in the inventory just got larger. Yes, we need to be careful with utilisation, but our clever new tools can probably estimate this and stay within a set limit.
Commons - what materials or types are popular in the reuse market. Suggestions are made to change the design to make it more ‘reuse friendly’ and more likely to be able to find matching materials
Futures - perhaps the stockists inventory is time-based, meaning that there is a current inventory but also a list of soon-to-be-held items which have not yet arrived from a deconstruction project. Including these when analysing the designs will likely mean an item is already allocated for reuse before it arrives with the stockist. A perfect reduction of storage needs.
Grids - if you do this exercise early, then the grid can be checked to ensure structural arrangements are sized appropriately for reuse.
Maybe this is crazy. Will every stockist have sophisticated tools and software to do this, not to mention the resources to manage such a process? Probably not, although I think some key players will do something along these lines. Some may also offer a full ‘material service’ whereby they guarantee to supply a material requirement in full, but within a window of material reuse (say, 70-90% with benefit for higher performance, and penalty for being below) - this puts on onus on the stockist to hold a strong, diverse inventory and to maximise reuse.
And if it isn’t a stockist, then maybe there is a market for broker, who literally sits between designers and stockists with their own software to analyse and make matches.
If you think there is something to this, get in touch. I wonder if some of us in the industry put heads (and funding) together we might be able to test some of this thinking out…