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How much is your building worth in the circular economy, Mr Foster?

Emily Booth
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Material passports will help to support and grow demand by showing and demonstrating a building’s material worth, writes Emily Booth

‘How much does your building weigh, Mr Foster?’ goes the famous question posed by one famous architect to another. Like all the best questions, it is one that makes you stop, think, and reframe your terms of reference.

More frequently heard in the property world is: ‘How much is your building worth?’ Given the UK’s obsession with building and property values – and with an economy skewed towards this obsession – it’s easy to answer with a rough estimate and underpin it with the adage: ‘Whatever someone will pay for it.’

Well, perhaps it’s time to rethink and unpick that question of worth. If someone took your latest building and, heaven forbid, wanted to take it down and replace it, what would be the value of all the materials within it? The bricks, the steel, the glass, the wood … what is all that worth?

It’s a question that those exploring and instigating material passports are trying to answer.

If you knew the value of each element within your building, you could know which parts could be reused and recycled. Your building would become more than just a here-and-now balance sheet asset. As Isabella Kaminski writes in her news feature: ‘It could change construction economics, revolutionise design, result in more sustainable use of finite natural resources and slash carbon emissions.’

Material passports specify the position, availability and value of the materials in your buildings

Material passports specify the position, availability and value of the materials in your buildings. They support the circular economy by making it easier to identify and reuse products, tapping into inherent value rather than squandering it and starting from scratch. Instead of ‘crushing buildings into pretty useless rubble,’ as circular economy expert Duncan Baker-Brown of BBM Sustainable Design explains, material passports make beneficial deconstruction, or even keeping a building, more likely.

The Resource Rows housing project in Copenhagen by Lendager is an inspiring example of materials reuse. Its panels of recycled brickwork are made from cut-out segments of old brick walls complete with mortar, and form a pleasing patchwork.

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Mainland Europe may be well ahead of the UK in upcycling materials, but there’s no reason why we can’t adopt the practice here. Material passports will help to support and grow demand by showing and demonstrating a building’s material worth. And with or without them, it’s perfectly possible to recycle and reuse whenever you build. So go on: how much do you think your building is worth now?

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