Making yesterday's commonplace today's innovation

Barbara Lambec is an architect and a heritage specialist.  © 2024 EPFL / Alain Herzog

Barbara Lambec is an architect and a heritage specialist. © 2024 EPFL / Alain Herzog

How can we renormalize reuse? Barbara Lambec, an architect, heritage specialist, and researcher at EPFL’s Structural Xploration Lab (SXL), answers to this question in a column published in three daily newspapers in French-speaking Switzerland.

The construction industry is responsible for 15% of global CO2 emissions and 33% of the waste produced in Europe. As the climate emergency unfolds, construction practices need to change – or rather, return to how they used to be. The industry reinvented itself less than a century ago with the advent of machines and globalization. Today, raw materials and products are sourced from far-flung reaches of the globe, labor is minimized and outsourced, waste is transported across borders, and land and profits take precedence over materials and jobs. Yet the concept of reuse – i.e., that a stone, frame, or other construction component can be used multiple times and never be considered waste – has been around since ancient times.

Although this simple, commonplace practice has been a mainstay of the construction process for centuries, it remains poorly documented. A study at EPFL’s Structural Xploration Lab (SXL) analyzed the digitized archives of newspapers in French-speaking Switzerland. It found that, until the late 1960s, the newspapers carried numerous adverts offering materials from deconstructed buildings for exchange or sale, demonstrating the persistence of reuse as both spontaneous and intuitive.

Reuse in practice

In North America, governments are increasingly throwing their weight behind reuse initiatives. To assess the industry's challenges, the EPFL study interviewed 35 deconstruction and reuse experts, asking them to share their experience and provide practical examples from their own work. The conclusions shed a more nuanced light on the perceived barriers and levers of reuse and how this practice can be promoted. The identified challenges include regulatory issues, workforce requirements, the need for a comprehensive supply system (encompassing extraction, processing, storage, and sale), and the fact that components and construction processes are unusual and non-standardized.

Deconstruction and reuse are more beneficial to public health and the environment than current practices.

Barbara Lambec

The study also confirmed that deconstruction and reuse are more beneficial to public health and the environment than current practices. Moreover, they create local jobs, help build a trained and versatile workforce, and promote community development. The experience explored in this research provides valuable examples that could inform European regulation and practice.

Normalizing reuse

Also, following these studies carried out for a PhD thesis, a corpus of 21 European and American protocols evaluating the reuse potential of construction components was compared, analyzed, and summarized. A standardized protocol was then developed, outlining a step-by-step approach as the best way to meet current needs, accommodate existing systems, promote the practice, allow comparisons, and provide a way for practitioners and policymakers to (re)normalize reuse.

Barbara Lambec is an architect, heritage specialist, and researcher at the Structural Xploration Lab (SXL), Smart Living Lab, and EPFL Fribourg.

  • This article was published in May 2024 in three local dailies – La Côte (Vaud Canton), Le Nouvelliste (Valais Canton) and Arcinfo (Neuchâtel Canton) – under a joint initiative between EPFL and ESH Médias to showcase the R&D being carried out at EPFL on advanced construction techniques.

Barbara Lambec, “Assessing the reuse potential of building elements,” PhD thesis supervised by Corentin Fivet, EPFL, 2024.