Notes on building local

This month I am writing an article on that explores what if we restricted construction material use to those from a local catchment. Rather than a global supply chain of materials that is disconnected between source and use, what if we could use materials that were a more locally relevant, resilient and regenerative resource?

Today at the third of James Norman and my sessions exploring regenerative design with Buro Happold in Bath, we heard about the example of the machine shed at Westonburt Arboretum that was built only timber from the site.

The showstopper was the enormous timber trusses enabled by the use of Corsican pine available on site, a great example of what is possible when you work with what is available in the system. As the engineers involved described, when you work with what is in the system you have to change your design process. You have to figure out how you work with what is there rather than what you want. I see this as a much less wilful, but no less creative process than just starting with a blank sheet of paper.

A social regeneration angle to this project is that the timber elements were prepared by local craftspeople being trained in this kind of wood work.

Going from the specific to the general, this project is a lesson in looking at what is available in the system. Whilst for more projects the abundance won’t be in a supply of trees, it could be in a supply of existing construction materials, natural renewable energy and local skill.

As one engineer asked in the follow-up discussion, why don’t we start each project with an inventory of what is there? I agree. This very much fits into to the permaculture doctrine of starting by observing. Looking at what is there, how it works and what can be harvested.

As James and I keep coming back to in our discussions, it is much easier to understand regenerative design at a system level than on an individual project. So rather than think about what are the materials available for an individual project, a more regenerative approach might be to look at a whole neighbourhood or city and start to assess what are the materials, skills and energy available in the system.

At a wider, system level, scales of operation that might not make sense on an individual project may become viable, and the scale of impact may be higher.

This way of thinking points towards seeing engineering and construction as much more long-term engagements. Not just the time to throw up a building, but the time necessary to create a regenerative economy of material supply that makes the best use of local skill, material and energy to minimise impact and maximise benefit.

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1 Comment

  1. Peter Hill

    The problem I can see is that the decisions about regenerative design will not be made by engineers but by clients who are advised by accountants, financiers, project managers, etc who have other priorities. In my experience in the construction industry the engineer is frequently engaged too late in the procurement process to advise on fundamental decision making such as choosing to use locally sourced materials.

    Do you have a proposal for engaging with key decision makers?

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