Some of the core materials construction uses have become scarce - eventually everything we use will be. We have to stop jettisoning materials and design so they can all be recycled

chris wise

On the train I overhear three old blokes talking: “I can’t get too excited about the Olympic swimming, ‘cos you can only see their heads”. It makes me think of the captain of the Titanic saying something similar about icebergs. From the Titanic, it’s a natural jump to hearing the construction industry saying the same thing about its use of materials. Watch out for the bit you can’t see, I want to shout.

Now we have Sophie Thomas and Nat Hunter at the Royal Society for the Arts (RSA) pushing for everything we design to be recyclable. In their upcoming Great Recovery programme, supported by the Technology Strategy Board (TSB) and launched on 17 September, they want us to design everything so it can be recovered at the end of its life. Great idea but, surely, idealistic. I recall small kids trying to prise rare metals out of old computers in the film Manufactured Landscapes.

It will be even harder when it comes to recyclable buildings, bridges, rails and infrastructure. The pragmatists always win, don’t they? Thomas and Hunter have persuaded the TSB to part with a seven-figure sum to support up to 50 partnerships of designers, makers and users, in the hope of funding a fully recyclable house prototype.

The RSA is trying to cue up great examples of the marriage between expert materials knowledge and great design. But when I marry modern construction technology to the Great Recovery, I only get a Grand Unified Theory of Lego, which wasn’t quite what I was hoping for.

Deep down what lies beneath the Great Recovery? It’s simple: they probably want us to ensure we don’t chuck away our core materials - especially the rare ones. Because although we recycle a lot, we still jettison about a quarter of all the material used in UK construction. By weight, most of this is commonly available stuff - for now. But eventually we will lock up more of the rare materials, until everything becomes scarce. We all know about platinum in catalytic converters, and lithium in batteries. But what about stainless steel? It contains not only plentiful iron, but also about 10% nickel and 18% chromium - both endangered elements, according to the TSB and its Knowledge Transfer Network’s periodic table of “endangered materials”. Glass might use relatively common elements, but low E glass is coated with an oxide of tin, also endangered.

We all know about platinum in catalytic converters and lithium in batteries. But what about stainless steel, which contains endangered nickel and chromium?

Why are some of these elements so rare? The answer could offer a glimpse of the critical importance of the Great Recovery - it lies not in the building regs, but in the lifecycle of stars. The Earth’s crust has six orders of magnitude, less tin, nickel, zinc and chromium than things like iron, silicon, and aluminium. It turns out stars can only make lighter elements, those in the periodic table up to iron. They can’t make the endangered elements.

These heavy elements, some of the most useful to our industry, are only produced when a star explodes cataclysmically as a supernova at the end of its life. Supernovae create and blast out the heavier elements into clouds of gas, which eventually cool into new stars and planets, including Earth. Then we come along, hunt them down, dig them out of the ground and specify them in a curtain wall without a second thought. We never stop to wonder whether there will be any more. This behaviour is worthy of reflection, because supernova explosions only happen in our galaxy once every century or so.

When we run out of these rare elements, we will have to wait for another supernova, and that’s going to be a project management headache. So, the Great Recovery is asking us to respect the cosmic origins of our materials. Use them wisely, recycle them always, or design something else. At last, if not a Unified Theory, something a bit better than BIM for us to focus on. So, well done the RSA and TSB for supporting what might turn out to be a sort of WWF for materials.

Chris Wise is director of Expedition Engineering