There are various ways to make something sustainable. As this post about toasters demonstrated, you could take one of at least three different approaches. You can make something easy to repair. You can make it 100% recyclable. Or you can make it indestructible.
These approaches can be seen in architecture too. Waste is a serious problem in construction, and in many places houses are built as cheap boxes to live in. They might last a generation or two, and then they will need to be demolished and replaced – a waste of energy and materials that we can’t afford in an age of environmental crisis.
So can we use that same logic, and design buildings to repair, to recycle, or to last forever?
Here’s an iconic example of that first approach. There has been a mosque at Djenné, Mali, for hundreds of years. The building is made of mud, and as Barnabas Calder describes in his history of architecture, it is constantly eroding and being rebuilt. Regular refurbishment is done by the community as part of their culture of worship. The wooden beams that jut from the walls are decorative, but also serve as user-friendly scaffolding platforms for replastering. So easy repair, using readily available materials, can be an approach to longevity.
You can recycle a building too. There is growing interest in buildings as ‘material banks’ that can be reused by future generations. I wrote about the corporate headquarters of the Triodos Bank recently, which is designed to be dismantled and reused. This is a more formalised and systematic way to do something that people have been doing for a long time. Visit my hometown of St Albans, and you’ll see that the stone used in building the cathedral is the same as the Roman ruins a short walk away. Medieval builders treated the ruined Roman city of Verulamium as a giant materials bank.
Finally, you can build something to last forever – or at least a very long time. This isn’t theoretical, given that Britain has dozens of truly ancient buildings that are still in use. St Martin’s church, Canterbury, was completed in the year 597 and has hosted a worshipping congregation for 1,425 years and counting. The oldest continuously occupied house in the country is youthful by comparison, but a succession of people have called Saltford Manor home for almost 900 years.
These are rare examples of course, but they prove it’s possible. So if you were to purposefully design a home to last for a thousand years, could you do it?
The architect Clay Chapman has attemped exactly that in the new town of Carlton Landing, Oklahoma. It looks like this:
Chapman is reviving the brick construction techniques that were common in the United States before the Second World War, and that have been almost entirely forgotten post-war. They rely on thermal mass to provide insulation, and the basic structure of the building is very solid. The idea is that the brick shell of the house will endure for as many as thirty generations, with the interior re-fitted every once in a while in-between. A metal roof and exposed conduits for utilities make it easy to refit, so there are elements of repair here as well as overall durability.
This style of building will be more familiar in Europe, and I see mass brick buildings re-fitted here in Luton. It’s normal to make use of existing structures where possible, saving materials and preserving heritage. It’s much more unusual to see houses created specifically for longevity, and designed for easy refurbishment in future.
Interestingly, Chapman had to build his home, and then a further development of 16 brick homes, in a new town. Building codes make it difficult to get permission to build in brick elsewhere, and so cheap boxes are built by default. That’s something that needs to change, and projects like Chapman’s can help to demonstrate the alternative.
Hope for Architecture is a campaign Chapman set up in order to advance his ideas, “born out a hope to subvert our disposable building.” You can find out more about that here. And you can read more about the award-winning mini-village at Carlton Landing here.