Building materials as a service

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Here’s a fun idea: providing building materials as a service. Instead of the owner of a building possessing all the materials in it forever, they simply rent them. It would be like a music or television streaming service. A ‘Netflix’ or ‘Spotify’ for the construction industry. ‘Rentacrete’ if you will…

The Guardian Cities series has been discussing the idea this week in a feature on whether buildings should be demolished at the end of their lifetime. The feature largely looks at the ideas of Dutch architect and commentator Thomas Rau, the author of Material Matters. He talks about his ‘materials passport’ concept whereby all the materials in a building are logged with their properties to highlight their value when the structure is demolished. This is a refinement of the Building Information Modelling (BIM) system. Rau has put his passport premise into action for a couple of projects through his firm and the Madaster Foundation promotes its use.

The next steps that he envisages are buildings where the materials that constitute it are simply rented from the manufacturer. Since the material owners would now become companies they would have an interest in efficiency where the materials can be refitted, such as lighting, and/or recycled for when the building is torn down. In Rau’s view these companies would be in a better position to recoup the value of these materials when a building is demolished. He estimates that 18% of a building’s original construction cost can be preserved in this way. Suddenly, sustainability becomes much easier by changing one’s perspective on who owns what exactly in a building.

How this idea would work in practice raises all sorts of questions. For example, most buildings in the developed world last for as least as long as humans do. Which companies could be relied on to hang around this long? Building materials as a service might work for soft materials that are replaced more often, such as lighting and other interior fittings, but could this extend to a structure’s shell? One answer to this is that people invest in pension schemes and use banks quite happily over long periods time, so why not a building’s very fabric? Another issue is of liability and whether a manufacturer would want to take on additional responsibilities for its products decades later. This, and the idea in general, have similarities to the extended product responsibility strategy. Obviously someone needs to try out building materials as a service for real to tackle these questions and many more.

Building materials as a service is compelling but one reason that the construction industry has proved resistant to the digital revolution across the entire business, so far, is because it ultimately deals with physical products that people need permanently. Consumer digital renting services for media, like Netflix and Spotify, are ‘disposable’. Hence, the mindset is different. That’s not to say that building materials as a service is impossible just that it is a harder shift in thinking. A country with a high level of residential renting, for example, might find it easier to move to this model than one with high levels of home ownership.

One more thing to consider is that the media renting companies mentioned above are dependent on other companies producing the content. Due to this they have moved towards vertical integration as the producers themselves, notably Disney in 2019 which has started to set up its own online rental platform. The point here being that in a product rental environment, whoever produces the product, holds a large amount of influence. Building materials manufacturers take note. Building materials as a service might just be a talking point on the lecture circuit along the road towards sustainability in the construction industry. Yet if it did happen at any scale then the producers of concrete, mortar, bricks, steel and all the rest would be well placed to benefit from it.


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