Apr 19th 2023

How Design and the Circular Economy can Lead to Endless Building Resources

Condemned buildings are often viewed as unsightly and problematic, resulting in their demolition—which is often not the most sustainable or economical solution. However, an IIT College of Architecture professor sees this dilemma as an opportunity to shift our approach to architecture from a linear path of consumption—take, make, throw—to that of a circular economy—take, make, reuse, repeat.

Dillon Pranger, who joined the faculty last fall, is interested in applying concepts of the circular economy to the built environment to eliminate waste in architecture. “Through rethinking the way design, build, and, ultimately unbuild projects, we as architects can make more efficient use of the finite material resources we have left on this planet,” says Pranger. 

The idea of designing for disassembly, with plans to reuse materials as they near the end of life, should become a part of every building design, Pranger says. “We should look at buildings not as icons, but as material banks able to be reused and reappropriated in the future,” he says.

Pranger has proven that reuse is viable in smaller projects through a recent design/build project he led, titled BoardWalk, as part of the 2022 Bethel Woods Art and Architecture Festival. Constructed entirely out of 100-year-old reclaimed lumber, the project uses no glues, adhesives, or mechanical fasteners, with the intention that the structure can be disassembled, moved, and reused over and over again with ease.

Over this past summer Pranger guided a team of students from Cornell University through the process of building deconstruction, material recovery, refinishing, and CNC prototyping. As a result, each component was then prefabricated off-site and test-fit for ease of assembly before being packed and transported to Bethel, N.Y., ahead of the festival opening.

“Through this process, we were able to test and prototype atypical details and assembly methods in a controlled environment to omit the use of nails and screws one typically might find in conventional wood construction. Additionally, we were able to use digital scans of each recovered piece of material to design around found anomalies such as existing knots in the lumber or embedded nails from the lumber’s previous life,” Pranger says.

As part of his research at the College of Architecture, Pranger is currently working with industry partners in the Chicago area to develop better methods for building disassembly and material reuse. His research looks specifically at ways of reclassifying materials deemed as waste with the goal of reducing the staggering volume of construction and demolition waste that is produced—a figure that currently sits at 4.13 million tons annually in Chicago alone.

Pranger is teaching first-year students and planting the idea of environmental and material awareness early in their education. “By introducing ideas that consider the repercussions of design and material decisions on the planet’s environment from the very first moment of one’s education, there is a hopeful outlook that these students may approach the future built environment with a greater consciousness towards environmental stewardship than we have had in the past,” he says.