Buildings, Architecture and Concrete

Buildings are said to use one-third of all the electricity created. They also gobble up hard materials by the millions of tons and control our living and working environment. James Kunstler assures us that it is buildings which define our public spaces. They are so important that many organizations have devoted much thought to their design.

Recently attention has been directed to the hidden role of SAND as a critical resource for concrete which is becoming exhausted.  See this discussion at: Sand


There are green building design organizations by the score. Search for them on the web. But the foremost organization is called the United States Green Building Council which publishes the LEED standards. Here is how Architectural Week describes them:

LEED stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design. They are a set of routes to a way to make housing more efficient for producer and end user and in maintenance over the life of the building. The target is not wasting, and using what sun and water you get naturally, instead of shunting them away. Ideally a structure adds more oxygen than the C02 it produces, even in the use of equipment and materials. The emphasis is on limiting impact on resources and maximizing beautiful design for a space that is more ergonomic to live and work in.

LEED is measured by these criteria,
Sustainable Site
Water Efficiency
Energy and Atmosphere
Materials and Resources
Indoor Air Quality
Innovation and Design Process

The top score for a building is 69. The score determines the ranking of Certified, Silver, Gold or Platinum

The LEED rules are innovative, far reaching and effective. They are referenced in green designs over and over. They cover many principles that do not flow overtly from a Zero Waste strategy (even though the avoidance of waste is a pervasive subtext). Yet they are not based on Zero Waste principles but on recycling principles. Therefore they fail some important Zero Waste tests, because they rely on wasteful recycling methods. At the time they were developed, the creators had only the recycling perspective to make use of but now there is a need for a more advanced view.



When green building depends on the recycling of materials it accepts a low level reuse strategy. The concrete, plaster and other heavy materials are not conserved as completed forms but are viewed as basic materials to be broken, smashed up and if possible, reused for minor and wasteful applications, such as broken aggregate for roads. Their high functions (as fully formed building components) are ignored. The recycling designation of C & D (Construction and Demolition) debris is adopted. Anytime that C & D is invoked, you know that you are dealing with a low level of reuse. This is garbage dump diversion notation and has been widely adopted by the garbage industry as well as the recycling industry.

The pernicious idea that crushing up cement is the best we can hope for was explicitly stated in a recent NY Times article:

“But making cement means making pollution, in the form of carbon dioxide emissions. Cement plants account for 5 percent of global emissions of carbon dioxide, the main cause of global warming. Cement has no viable recycling potential; each new road, each new building needs new cement.

The author is speaking from ignorance, believing the mythology of recycling which finds most products suitable only for dumps. Of course you cannot reuse something when you decide in advance that you can’t and then design your products to have no reuse mode.

What is needed in building is to develop modular assemblies of concrete and plaster parts which can be disassembled after the building is no longer useful, taken away and used for a new building. There are many ways in which this can be done and the thinking can be extended to roofs and floors and many other parts.

At present, LEED emphasizes the use of recycled materials in creating the building. What it needs to do instead is set up cycles of functional reuse which will result in the availability of whole components that can be reused, rather than mere materials. Of course, for as long as the recycling paradigm rules, it is better to use those materials than to make no attempt at all but to anyone with vision, that is small consolation.

There are also built-in features that needs to be reused whole. Kitchen cabinets are typically built in in ways that necessitate their effective destruction at the end of the building’s life, or even during a remodel. Instead they need to be made as modular components that can easily be removed while preserving their function as cabinets. Distributed utilities (wires, plumbing) are another such feature. Tile work and closets demand a Zero Waste analysis. Windows and doors need to be designed not to simply go to a reuse yard but to be supremely reusable when they are removed. This may require standard (and reversible) fastening methods for holding them in place and standard sizes and hardware. RFID’s should label each one so that they can be scanned for inventory in their next applications (these would be useful in replacing or remodeling as well since they can be scanned for a model, size, design etc.). (see book design, this website, for a comparable application of RFID’s or RFID answers).

To see a stinging critique of the failure of LEED designs to even  save energy by a construction engineer, see

LineFor far too long, the basic conceptual building block has been building materials. We must get beyond this. The basic building block of the future must be the reusable module.



Habitat for Humanity is an organization for building housing for people without it. Former president Jimmy Carter prominently works with them. Here they propose a pop-up hospital that can be assembled when there is a medical emergency (like a pandemic) and stored in a warehouse when not needed.

My question is: why restrict sustainable design, with interchangeable modules, to an emergency? Why not built that way all the time? It makes a lot more sense than forming buildings in haphazard ways from willy nilly cut lumbers, custom glass and steel and new plaster and cement, as we usually do today.

The Canopea House Design Wins European Contest

A French design team has won an architectural contest for a house that appears to have stackable and removable modules that can extend the building indefinitely. The conventional thinking focuses on the solar panels on the roof but from a ZW point of view, building in modules is the least common and most exciting part.
See the design

This advertisement for modular buildings goes on and on about the economy and ease of buying and assembling buildings. Not one word is mentioned anywhere about disassembly after the buildings are no longer wanted. Nothing! See it here


Concrete, in its generation as dry cement,  uses up a huge proportion of the fuels used for all purposes. The fraction has been estimated at 3 to 5%. Even worse, because making cement requires heating calcium carbonate to white heat to where it gives off its carbon dioxide to become lime, cement making produces about ten percent of all the carbon dioxide emissions in the world. The only way to nip this environmental assault in the bud is to stop making new cement and to start using existing concrete for many lives. The way to do this is do design modularly for disassembly and reassembly. One large use of concrete that can serve us as an example, is the use of concrete to make floors that underlie warehouses, houses, parking lots and many other buildings. Let us then make concrete in “tiles” of roughly four feet by four feet that can be tied together into large floors with hardware that also allows the blocks to be taken apart. A good application would be in making sidewalks. Here is one suggestion for a way to tie two concrete blocks together. The vertical shaft in the center would be turned by a wrench. The jaws would engage the two pins that are molded into the blocks and pull them together. The central grabber can be released and removed vertically, thus freeing the two blocks to be lifted vertically as single blocks. An essential feature of any design is to allow a single block to be untied from all its neighbors (it if cracked for example or a sump were needed at that spot) without having to start at an edge of the floor and work inwards.

Once such a new design for floors is worked out, can cement walls (like for tilt-ups) be far behind?


Recently (August 2020) the New York Times finally recognized that cement is an environmental disaster because its manufacture emits a huge amount of the carbon dioxide that is driving climate disruption. What was their take on how to ameliorate that fact? Yes, the usual. Recycling of course. Create the emissions, but then afterward try to stuff the genie back in the bottle. Or find recycled other wastes (crushed glass) to replace some part of the cement mix.  Fiddling while Rome (the planet) burns. Making sure always to just diddle around the edges and not actually solve the problem. Of course they don’t want to reuse any of the cement (unless it’s by absurdly expensive destruction back to its elemental parts) because reuse might result in less cement being produced and that might mean less profit. Read the NYT article: ConcreteEmitsNYT-8-20

In 2020 a video appeared, apparently generated by the pressure of environmentalists to do something about the overwhelming contribution of cement manufacturing to the carbon dioxide burden of the atmosphere. It is titled Is Concrete The Most Destructive Material on Earth?   At last the problem is officially recognized. Unfortunately most of the video is taken up with hand wringing over the environmental crises caused by concrete. There is some discussion of changing the chemistry to produce less CO2 a bandaid solution. However, amazingly for this author who has been urging new building design for thirty years, there is finally a nod to changing building designs. However, there is not a a single suggestion of how to actually do that.  One wonders if the rich concrete industry is serious about new designs. See the film screenshot at First frame and the video at

Scientific American had this article on the wastefulness of concrete in 2023. This is the first time I have seen even a mention of using whole assemblies instead of demolition, but as usual they have no idea what that means, they put it at the very end and they can come up with no examples. Note that many of their “solutions” depend on magical fantasies like carbon sequestration which will never exist. But Scientific American treats this unimaginative review as the best it can come up with. Read the article.

In 2023, this article explored the use of microbes to create concrete at room temperature. Read article.  As usual, the analysis is completely on the level of materials, not on reuse of finished products, so ultimately it will fail to solve the waste problems it pretends it will tangle with.


There is one important case where the reuse in question is ultimately the entire building. Can you think of a large building that already has the practical ability to be easily dismantled and reassembled? I am referring to steel buildings, such as commercial warehouses. It is entirely possible to assemble these out of standard frames, steel panel skins and bolts or screws. However, most of these are put together with no thought at all as to how they will be reused after a first life. Welding and non-standard parts are the rule. Furthermore, we are mostly burdened by a backward, politically primitive permitting system which dictates the primacy of a demolition industry. This industry, like the garbage industry that underlies it, should one day be but a mere memory, when all construction is done by zero waste standards and is made for reuse. For now, even if a steel building is perfectly dismantlable and reusable, that won’t happen. Political considerations will force a permit to be given to a demolition contractor who is therefore certified to charge a large amount of money for his work. Every contractor will tell you that he cannot afford to dismantle anything but must crush and destroy everything. They will all proudly report though, that they salvage 5% of the value by taking the steel in for recycling and concrete for crushing. The remaining 95% of the value never enters their minds. After they get their permit, and their huge fees, they may graciously allow some more ecologically minded reuse group to dismantle the building. This group will receive no fee, will be notified at the last minute, will be given a punishing schedule that may be impossible to meet, will have to deal with a design that was not made for dismantling and, worst of all in the grand scheme of things, will get no official recognition and will be barred from becoming the preferred contractor for such projects, for a variety of biases having to do with the subsidies given to dumps that destructive demolition can well take advantage of but reusers can’t.

There is a crying need to reform the building permit process so that destructive demolition is barred from touching any building until a Zero Waste group or company has had adequate time and opportunity to design a plan for as close to total reuse of the building as possible or has certified that certain parts cannot presently be reused. Of course this would accompany the need to change the building permit process so that one-way-trip buildings could not be built at all except under the strenuous objections of any concerned party. A non-reusable building could well come under the Environmental Quality Act and require an environmental impact review (EIR).


There is another situation where an entire building – or quasi building – can be reused in a startlingly effective manner. I am referring to the recent use of steel shipping containers to create housing. SG Blocks is a company doing this as is Global Portable Buildings. The shipping containers are outfitted in clever ways with utilities, bathrooms, kitchens and more, usually in highly compact forms but sometimes a number of containers are joined together to form multistory or large footprint housing. Sometimes, many more container-houses are arranged in a community to enclose a space or a field that all can share. For Mexican applications, see their website. All of these outfits are proud, and rightly so, that they are using unwanted, almost discarded products in innovative ways.

So what does Zero Waste theory have to say about these efforts? Leaving aside the wonderful housing opportunities these companies are exposing, could it be done better? Of course it could! ZW theory requires that discard can never be built into any product. The shipping containers are unwanted and were it not for their obvious scrap steel value, would be discarded (melting down formed, high function steel is a form of discard). It is cheaper to build them in China and ship them one way. The Chinese, in that old familiar song, build them to be used once, for shipping, and then abandoned. They take no responsibility for their fate after their first trip. In this garbage oriented world, which takes egregious waste for granted, this kind of irresponsibility is considered normal. But what if the Chinese (or any other manufacturer) were required, by law or by the World Trade Organization, to make full arrangements for the further fate of their shipping containers after their first trip. What difference could that make?

Once again, here are just a few ideas, to show that it can be done. A detailed study would surely refine or replace these ideas with better ones.

Since we can see that the shipping containers serve well as housing units, would it be too much to ask the initial manufacturers to build in the panels that need to be removed later on, the crude way, with a torch? What if each container had a preformed front door, with the kind of reinforcement that has to go around a door frame, but with a panel that was screwed in place from the inside? Then putting in a door would not require a torch and welding but would simply be a matter of removing the door panel and fitting in the prefabbed door. Ditto for windows. And most especially, let us ask how utilities could be wired and plumbed in, in special channels, using special entryways built into the original containers. Do you want to join two containers side by side? Why not have large side panels also premanufactured for quick removal? Are legs needed to raise up these containers? Put in prefabbed supports on the corners to make attaching legs a piece of cake. Every modification that the conversion to housing requires could probably be assisted in some way in the original design, if the world were run efficiently.

See this video about the construction of shipping containers from steel plate. This makes it quite plain that simple design changes could replace much of the welding with removable fasteners. Tabs could be added to the panels to attach them by screws into threaded holes. Welding is just used because it is fast and cheap, not because it has any particular advantage for fastening. Critical connectors on skyscrapers and bridges use rivets or bolts for joining members, not welding.

As usual, if there is to be a second life, this adds value to the original shipping containers and allows them to be more robustly built, out of stronger materials if needed. The removed panels, being flat and efficiently stackable, could justify the return trip to the manufacturers or could be cleverly designed for some special uses. And the modifications recommended above can be paid for out of the projected sale for housing.

Quite  a few houses have been creatively designed for using shipping containers. For example see this video about a building in Seattle. This kind of innovation is needed to point the way but it is still just the reuse of a tiny, tiny fraction of all the wasted shipping containers. Once the many designs are absorbed and improved, it is necessary to send the designs back upstream to change the construction of the containers themselves to make their total reuse much easier.

Also, see the discussion for packaging on this page. Shipping containers are just a heavy steel package, and the same ideas apply to them as to cardboard boxes.

This will give just a hint of how Zero Waste analysis can reduce the wastefulness inherent in even good green building today.


For a look at some great modular designs that won the 2007 Lifecycle Building Challenge, read about it here.

You can also find winners for subsequent years with a Google search.

At the West Coast Green conference in 2010, Michelle Kaufman showed off her new prefab buildings that use a basic 700 sq. ft. module but make use of all the water and sunlight conserving tricks that recent generations of innovators have developed for green housing. Rooftop gardens, greywater systems, roof water collection, solar panels – it’s all here in one neat package. See the video. And don’t forget the module concept, which allows a building that is no longer needed in one location to be picked up and moved to a new location where it will get new love.


Dan has a different way to view the topic on TED.

“In this funny and insightful talk from TEDxHouston, builder Dan Phillips tours us through a dozen homes he’s built in Texas using recycled and reclaimed materials in wildly creative ways. Brilliant, low-tech design details will refresh your own creative drive.”

This report from 2015 shows a nod toward modular design though it is not clear how that is implemented:

Modular House


(2015) A recent video shows how a Chinese company can build a 57 story skyscraper in 19 days by using prefabbed components, like whole floors and walls. Exterior wall panels are shown being fitted in place. A half dozen cranes keep climbing the skeleton to pull up the components. Some of the support modules, like floors, are made of welded steel honeycombs. Windows and doors are standardized and just fit into the existing frames.

So is this some kind of Zero Waste construction? Of course not. But it points the way to gradually approaching a Zero Waste style of design by starting with the need for pre-designed and pre-constructed modules on the front end. The next stage could be not far behind. The video gave no hint of how the modules were fastened together. Could they be slotted together and secured with a pin? Or screwed together? Or, much worse, welded and plastered and glued? In other words, can the notion of prefabrication be extended to creating larger modules such as whole rooms that can be reversibly fastened together? Even if the dismantling can be done on the level of removing windows, doors, panels and floors by standardized methods, that would be a giant step forward if all the parts were reused and none of them were smashed up to rubble.

Look at this video: It shows how skyscrapers in the recently build megacity of Shenzen in China are being carefully deconstructed to reuse the concrete and other parts. One building they select from the early days of explosive city growth is now obsolete. Should they demolish it? No, they decided that that would be wasteful. So they are renewing the building to serve a new purpose as a women’s and children’s center. The video doesn’t say what happened to the concrete so I assume it was smashed into rubble and used in some low grade manner, but I can hope something better was done with it. The rooms and parts of the building were probably not removed and reinstalled but even better, they were left in place in the renovated building and used again. The Chinese are forging a superior path when it comes to actual reuse.  The videographers were not aware of Zero Waste considerations but it is to be hoped that at some point, the concrete sheathing will be attached in a way that allows it to be uninstalled as modules and reused somewhere else. Ditto with any other part that cannot be part of the renovated building.


Here is an interesting story of how an entirely new way of building can be imposed. It is my way of saying that there is nothing so radical about changing to modular designs if the will is there. And it involves our favorite inventor of the late nineteenth century, Thomas Alva Edison.

Edison was the quintessence of the American obsession with progress at any cost. No one was better or worse depending on how you choose to view it, at inventing things that had no obvious need or purpose. Overall, Edison was immensely successful and a huge generator of wealth. By 1920, it has been estimated, the industries his inventions and refinements spawned were worth in aggregate 21.6 billion dollars. But he was terrible at working out which of his interests had the best commercial prospects. He simply persuaded himself that whatever he invented would make money. In fact, more often than not, it didn’t. And nowhere was that more true than in his long and costly dream to fill the world with concrete homes. For years Edison was captivated by concrete’s possibilities and around the turn of the century he decided to act upon the impulse in a big way. He formed the Edison Portland Cement company and built a huge plant near Stewartsville NJ. By 1907 Edison was the fifth biggest cement producer in the world . His research had patented more than four dozen improved ways to make quality cement in bulk. Edison’s cement built Yankee Stadium and the world’s first stretch of concrete highway but his abiding dream was to fill the world with concrete houses. The plan was to make a mould of the complete house into which concrete could be poured in a continuous flow, forming not just walls and floors but every interior structure. Baths, toilets, sinks, cabinets, door jams and even picture frames. Apart from the few odds and ends like doors and light switches, everything would be made of concrete. The walls could even be tinted, Edison suggested, to make painting forever unnecessary A four man team could build a new house every two days, he calculated. Edison expected his concrete houses to sell for $1200, about a third of the cost of a conventional house of the same size. It was a wild and ultimately unrealizable dream. The technical problems were overwhelming. The moulds, which were the size of the house itself, were ridiculously cumbersome and complex. But the real problem was filling them smoothly. Concrete is a mixture of cement, water and aggregates, that is gravel and small stones, and it is in the nature of aggregates to want to sink. The challenge for Edison’s engineers was to formulate a mixture liquid enough to flow into every corner of every mould, but thick enough to hold its aggregates in suspension in defiance of gravity while hardening into a smooth uniform consistency of sufficient quality, to persuade people that they were purchasing a home and not a bunker. It proved an impossible ambition. Even if all else went well, engineers calculated, the house would weigh 450,000 pounds, causing all manner of ongoing structural strains. All the technical challenges plus problems of oversupply generally within the industry, which Edison’s huge plant did much to aggravate, guaranteed that Edison would always struggle to make money on the enterprise. Cement making was a difficult business anyway because it was so seasonal, but Edison pressed on and designed a range of concrete furnishings; bureaus cupboards, chairs, even a concrete piano, to go with his concrete houses. He promised that soon he would offer a double bed that would never wear out, for just $5. The entire range was to be unveiled at a cement industry show in NY in 1912. In the event, when the show opened, Edison’s stand was bare. No one from the Edison company ever offered an explanation. It was the last that anyone ever heard of concrete furniture. As far as is known, Edison never discussed the matter.  A few concrete houses were built and a few actually still stand in New Jersey and Ohio but the general concept never caught on and concrete houses became one of Edison’s more costly failures. That is really saying something because Edison was excellent at making things the world didn’t yet have but terrible at seeing how the world would actually make use of them.

(Taken from Bill Bryson’s At Home, CD No. 7 on the audiobook)

It seems a real shame that Edison didn’t see clearly to toning down his concept of an integral house to a modular house.  Many modules of the house could have been poured separately and the gravel settling problem could have been dealt with by rotating the moulds as the concrete hardened. Then they could have been bolted together. In addition, new fillers like styrofoam balls could reduce the weight while the kinds of chemistry developed for fracking could have controlled the timing of the setting of the concrete. Today, this kind of construction might have a better chance of succeeding, while truly building modularity and standardization into construction.


Recently I ran across a surprising innovation that is already in place. Eggrock construction supplies a modular bathroom that can be placed into any building and just plumbed in. Here is their short ad:

Eggrock is North America’s largest manufacturer of prefabricated bathroom pods. Using lean manufacturing technology, Eggrock produces custom, ready-to-install bathrooms for hotels, hospitals, dormitories, military barracks and other multiunit construction projects. By replacing on-site bathroom construction, Eggrock reduces construction schedules, improves quality and eliminates the logistical hassles of building the most problem-ridden part of a construction project. Eggrock prefabricated bathrooms are manufactured by Oldcastle.

I haven’t seen a whisper about the ease with which a modular bathroom like this (or any room) could be removed from a building and reinstalled into another building, thus destroying very little. Reuse has little cachet in our society compared to ease or low cost of construction but someday, it may be the conservation aspect of post usage removal that will come to dominate.

For a fuller treatment of modular bathroom design, see Treehugger.


The Formablok company has taken on the question of what to do with the excess concrete that is invariably sent to a site in a concrete truck when any pour is scheduled. The amount of concrete that will be needed is calculated and then ten percent more is added to make sure that the pour doesn’t come up short, which could be a disaster.

The excess left after the pour, if any, cannot be left in the truck to harden so it is usually squirted onto the ground – blaaatttt – in a huge lump that is now the contractor or homeowner’s problem.

Steve Thorpe of Chemainus on Vancouver Island did the hard work to come up with forms that can be brought to the site somehow and used to absorb the excess concrete. Each form consists of an aluminum enclosure which is held together at both ends by HDPE plastic caps and the whole is secured by straps. Each form has a filling hole and includes projections on one side that are designed to fit into recesses in the other side. Bring enough of these to use up all of the excess concrete and instead of a useless lump, you have dandy, usable, garden blocks that can build walls, walkways, protectors of decorative elements.

Phone Steve at 250-210-0154 for more information or go to