Design for Deconstruction: Architects should Plan for Less Waste


Since nearly every building will be torn down eventually, the task falls on architects to make sure that a) it doesn’t happen for a LONG time and, b) not all of it ends up in a landfill. Designing for deconstruction means not just reusing materials but making sure they are reusable. Here’s what we mean.

“All Architecture is Waste In Transit”

What does that mean? Basically that every building currently standing – or planned for future development – is already waiting in line for its place at the landfill. That’s not entirely accurate (some notable buildings of antiquity have prevailed and will probably continue to last). But, generally speaking it is true of every suburban house, rural outbuilding and skyscraper.

Note: this concept is a quote from a 2002 lecture by Cambridge professor of Engineering for Sustainable Development, Peter Guthrie).

How can we avoid the waste of our buildings?

Design to avoid waste is, in many cases, simply design for quality. Good quality buildings, finishes and furniture last. In particular, focusing our attention on “good bones;” beautiful, long lasting structures rather than artistic decorative elements, increases the odds that our designs will last. People update and adapt their lives while keeping certain elements in place.

Living spaces, bedrooms and other areas of the house are far more likely to stand the test of time – if they are sturdy and well designed. On the other hand, it would be silly to assume that the design of kitchens and bathrooms that moss oversees this year will be in style and up to modern standards for appliances and materials 10, 25 or 50 years from now.

Designing for (and with) Deconstruction 

So a question we should ask ourselves is … how can we design with the long term future in mind. Can we select finishes, and even structure that is not only less likely to get quickly dated but can be easily removed and re-purposed, after the fact.  

In many ways moss already does this every day – our preference for using real materials makes for reusable for construction. We prefer solid wood to veneers, stone countertops to laminates and exposed concrete floors to carpet. All of those preferences have the side benefit of being potentially disassembled and reused later rather than being automatically destined for the dumpster.  

What moss and other designers could give a lot more more thought to, is designing for ways attach materials in a removable way. Here are a few examples: screw on metal finish panels as opposed to tile cemented so a surface; screws in general vs nails;  no glue. Using whole slab material for counter tops means that it can be cut down to size to fit a second or third application.

This idea of dis-assembly or deconstruction can even be applied to structure. A timber frame and brick building can potentially be broken down into its component pieces again. A 2×4 or “stick frame” one likely can’t. Building with more durable discrete “elements” increases the odds that those components can stay out of the trash, long term.

What can we learn from the Romans

We wrote a few weeks ago about assessing good buildings by the standards of the Roman architecture critic Vitruvius. His advice to designers was to make:

 Buildings sturdy enough to stand the winds of time, useful or adaptable enough to stay in use, and likable enough that people will want to use them

That’s good advice.  

But the Romans also demonstrate that point (above) about designing with simple materials for easy deconstruction. Buildings become harder to disassemble as they become more complex (wiring, insulation, plumbing, etc). Medieval builders had NO TROUBLE robbing Roman buildings for parts (the 11th century cathedral at Pisa is one of my favorite examples) because the stone blocks were as usable after holding up a Roman temple for several centuries as before. 


The Chicago common brick which is so often salvaged from local demolition sites for popular reuse is another example. Brick pickers are able to collect and stack bricks from demolished buildings which go on to be used an any number of secondary applications.  

So, Designers, don’t waste time trying to anticipate the next development of electrical outlets. To make buildings that last (and can stay out of the landfill) focus on beautiful simple structures made out of solid materials.