Material Passports: How Embedded Data Can Rethink Architecture and Design

Material Passports: How Embedded Data Can Rethink Architecture and Design

Too often buildings end up as waste at the end of their lifecycle. How can the built environment move towards a circular economy, and in turn, reimagine how valuable materials are tracked and recycled? Looking to address this issue, material passports are one idea that involves rethinking how materials are recovered during renovation and demolition for reuse. The result is when a building is ready to be demolished, it becomes a storage bank for useful materials.

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The Circular Pavilion, Encore Heureux Architects. Image © Cyrus Cornut

The idea is seemingly straightforward; our physical world embedded with data to track and organize finite resources. This is the definition of material passports, a document containing a detailed inventory of all the materials, resources, and components of a product or building, as well as detailed information about their location—providing materials with identities that are independent of their current use. Currently there are an enormous amount of components and products that come together in architecture and construction, and in turn, these also have a great potential for reuse. As we look ahead, a possible second-hand material market or material-bank could also become a reality in the future. 

Alliander HQ / RAU architects. Image © Marcel van der Burg

The EU project BAMB – Buildings As Material Banks was created for practical applications of Material Passports. Explaining how material passports can work as “depots” and storage banks, Thomas Rau and Sabine Oberhuber note that, “when a building is designed in a way that materials can be taken out again, it automatically turns into a kind of depot for materials: a storage of resources, kept safe for future use. Every building is in essence a material depot, however unorganised—unless we knock it down the minute it stops fulfilling our temporary need. Buildings that were built for disassembly and equipped with material passport in hand are depots.” Taking these ideas a step further, the BAMB Material Passport Best Practices guide envisions augmented reality platforms allowing auditors and surveyors to walk through buildings and view material data superimposed on the components they are looking at.

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Towards a Common Practice of Material Recycling

Triodos Bank / RAU Architects. Image © Bert Rietberg

There are, of course, inherent challenges. As architect and urbanist Andreea Cutieru has explained, making material recycling commonplace within the architectural field would require an approach in adapting the industry’s processes and standards as a framework for the task. A material passport should include information on maintenance, replacements, and changes to the building that can be difficult to ensuring tracking over time. As many different parties are developing their own passports, there is currently a lack of a unified approach, and there may also need to be systems like blockchain to ensure that building data addresses privacy and security concerns. But by introducing circular economic practices, material passports could transform the construction sector and our cities at large.

Triodos Bank / RAU Architects. Image © Bert Rietberg

It will likely take both industry and government involvement to make material passports standard in construction. Testing out ideas with the public sector, there are already projects that have been built to test out the idea of material passports. The Triodos Bank is a great example, an office is the first large-scale, 100% wood, re-constructible building. This building also serves as the first temporary material bank, and the CO2 footprint is minimal. The origin and planned re-use of all products, components, and materials are carefully documented in order to be able to easily offer them new usage in the future. 

There are also many great ideas being explored by Superuse Studios, a practice that is developing strategies for cities to connect different flows and integrate these systems into the existing urban environment. While they may not be utilizing material passports in every project, the team believes the latent properties of used materials and products offer added value to new products and buildings. This applies to building materials as well as energy supplies, human resources, water, traffic and food cycles.

Afvalbrengstation with Wessel van Geffen Architects, Den Haag, Scagliola Brakkee. Image Courtesy of Superuse Studios
BlueCity. Image © Frank Hanswijk

Material passports hold the potential to reshape how we design. On a larger scale, information from multiple materials passports can add up to inform development in urban reuse and recycling. From owners and contractors to developers and architects, stakeholders in the process will need to continuing exploring the possibilities of passports if we are to move to more circular construction practices. In an effort to slow down the usage of resources to a rate that meets the capacity of the planet, material passports offer a promising method to design with more sustainable strategies, as well as triggering and enabling new circular business and investment models.

This article is part of the ArchDaily Topic: Local Materials. Every month we explore a topic in-depth through articles, interviews, news, and projects. Learn more about our monthly topics. As always, at ArchDaily we welcome the contributions of our readers; if you want to submit an article or project, contact us.

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