Close-up view of the Lloyds of London building. Credit Harry Sowdon. Copyright Arup.

+ Recognising the value of the ‘hidden assets’ in buildings is key to encouraging building designers to use materials that can be easily recycled.

Imagine if buildings were electronically tagged during construction to identify all the valuable materials they contained. Then, at the end of their life, you could easily extract the value from those materials by reusing or recycling them. 

I don’t think this is as far-fetched as it sounds. There’s already a market for copper, steel and concrete recovered during the demolition process. And we’re seeing the role of demolition companies change – they’re going from being paid to take away waste to buying the privilege of taking materials away and reselling them. 

I think this trend will continue as the cost of materials increases, driven by the costs of processing them. Recycling glass and steel, for example, requires less energy and costs less than manufacturing them in the first place. And it’s this that will make widespread recycling economic. 

Currently, I think it’s still generally assumed that materials will have to be thrown away when a building or piece of infrastructure reaches the end of its life. I believe we can change this attitude by demonstrating the viability and cost-effectiveness of reuse and recycling. And there are projects out there doing this. 

Take glass, for example. Glass from buildings is not widely recycled because it’s not as straightforward as taking empty bottles to the bottle bank. There are issues such as contamination from silicone sealants to consider, for example. But when Arup worked on refurbishing the Lloyd’s of London building, we showed it could be done. 

Here, Arup worked with glass manufacturer Saint-Gobain to reuse the building’s special translucent sparkle glass in the new façade. Any glass that couldn’t be reused was recycled in the system set up by Saint-Gobain to recycle cullet (waste glass) from processing plants into new float glass. 

This gives us a model for taking material out of a building and returning it to a supplier for recycling. The recycled material can come back to site on the same lorries as the new material, keeping costs and transport emissions down. And there’s no reason why this approach couldn’t be applied to a range of materials. 

If the value of the ‘hidden assets’ in buildings is recognised I think it will encourage building designers to ensure materials can be reused or recycled easily. Environmental assessment methods like LEED and BREEAM® are already putting more emphasis on what will happen to a building at the end of its life. And in the future, I think those looking for the greenest of green buildings will have to take reuse and recycling even further. 

Who knows, maybe a building’s market value will one day take into account the potential for reusing and recycling the materials it contains.