Beware the great tide of waste that is coming to engulf us all
This month's RIBA Journal contains a more than usually interesting article. The magazine has questioned 127 architects on their use of innovative materials, and more than half of them have denied using any new materials at all. Without going too deeply into the reasons given - high cost, insurance problems, failures, lack of technical back-up - all of which are undoubtedly sound, it is nonetheless an astonishing result.
Either the grass roots of the profession turned its back on technology long ago, or the term 'new materials' has been widely misunderstood: especially by conservationists who can hardly deny that they use an array of laboratory products that would do a plastic surgeon proud. The whole thing reminds me of the time I interviewed Quinlan Terry many years ago and he said that Fosters' Renault distribution centre in Swindon would have been better with a good solid slate roof on it.
The thing is that 'new materials' is a surprisingly elastic sort of term. In one sense it obviously does mean membrane roofs, titanium cladding, PTFE, ETFE, translucent glass fibre and other rocket science, but it also includes substances that are part of chemical compounds including paints, many types of adhesives, or finished assemblies such as window and door systems, fasteners, moisture barriers and other items.
Nor are these the true limits of the term. It could also include the sort of materials that might have to be used to build with if we ever got serious about solving the waste problem.
This is a difficult one. None of us wants to hear another lecture about how every day we throw away enough rubbish to fill the Albert Hall, but it is true. Just as it is true that the government is building another 70 waste incinerators around the country. Surely there must be a way to connect 'new materials' to things we throw away that would not be entirely unmeritorious.
For some years the illogicality of crushing glass bottles before trucking the bits to landfill sites has offended environmentalists of a sensitive disposition - why not truck them straight to building sites unbroken to use as bricks? Glass bottles are certainly strong enough to build with.
In any case, that little offence against nature has now been joined by bigger ones - the great refrigerator mountain, the dumped TV jungle, and the discarded tyre swamp. Of course, a great deal of rubbish is toxic, dispersed, impossibly uneconomic to sort and suitable only for compaction or incineration; but a lot is composed of steel, aluminium, plastic, glass, wood products and other high-quality materials.
Stuff that in any other context would be recognised as having potential in the construction process. Right now would be an arresting time to start building out of refrigerators.
The expansion of the category 'new materials' to include new uses for waste would also greatly expand the range of possibilities for sustainable development.
After all, it has been done before by indigenous populations - nothing could be more difficult than turning trees into houses - and by Hippies in the 1960s, constructing the oncefamous Drop City geodesic domes in Colorado, made from the roofs of abandoned cars.
Of course, it is not really as simple as this. For a start, it would take a newer, more forensic approach to design to give waste materials sufficient value, and a vast arcane knowledge of alloys, synthetics, composites and their production processes to make sense out of what could probably only end up as a tuft of insulant or a minor piece of cladding.
How seriously 127 architects would view this prospect rather depends on how seriously they take the prospect of the huge amount of waste heading our way.