How Can We Stop Designing For Disposal?

The construction industry needs to see a strong link between the conservation of resources and cost savings.

By Dan Sullivan, AIA, NCARB
From the February 2023 Issue

The term “sustainability” means different things to different people. In fact, it’s thrown around in so many contexts, it’s hard to attribute a consistent meaning to it at all. With the construction industry accounting for a disproportionate share of the world’s CO2 emissions and landfill contributions, it’s not hard to point to a moral responsibility to evolve. But that’s simply not the reality of our development budgets and operational protocols. In order for us to be motivated to achieve sustainability standards, we have to be able to make a strong link between the conservation of resources and cost savings.

construction industry Adaptive Reuse
(Image by Adobe Stock)


We already make this link from an operations perspective in the choices that we make day one, for example, with mechanical systems. We can see the link between the increased CapEx of a heat pump and the lower OpEx over its lifecycle. In order to see real adoption of sustainable building solutions, we must take this approach with other building systems, choosing disassemble-able, reusable building products that return their investment over time.

Address Discourse And Advocate

Sustainable and climate-conscious solutions have proven to be a hard sell, time and time again, due to rebuttals citing increased cost as a deterrent. Therefore, developing and innovating less harmful building and design solutions to reduce the industry’s carbon footprint and help manage unnecessary waste requires more than simply appealing to environmental stewardship and moral imperative. Sustainable practices will only be implemented if we make them worth the investment, and at price points that are within reach of more projects.

In design and construction, final decisions almost always come down to the bottom line—the conservation of time, human, and cash resources. Manufacturing and supply chain, similarly, need to be part of the equation in managing resources and waste. And sustainability, at its core, is really about the same thing—resource conservation. The most productive arguments for sustainability are going to arise when there is good alignment across these disciplines.

The most resource conscious sustainable products are the ones that can be purchased and installed for near cost parity with traditional ones, that perform better than their traditional counterparts, provide for maximum flexibility, and which we can reuse or repurpose when our needs for them inevitably evolve on day two. They need to stand up when they’re on the value engineering (V-E) chopping block. Independent of a position on sustainability, this is what decision makers should demand, and architects, general contractors (GC), and product suppliers should prepare to deliver.

Adaptive Reuse And Modularity

Adaptive reuse is a great example of one way we can achieve the principles of sustainability at lower cost. While there are certainly anecdotes that speak to the contrary, in principle the most sustainable, cost effective building will be the (well-selected) one that we don’t have to demolish, dispose of, and build new.

Greenfield sites in desirable locations are becoming less and less available, entitlements are more and more challenging, and the cost of ground-up construction has increased out of pace with real estate values—so it makes sense that developers are choosing adaptive reuse. And here, the principles of sustainability are largely aligned with development: fewer virgin resources are used, less waste goes to the landfill, fewer human resources are used, and the overall construction process is shorter. Adaptive reuse tends to appeal to us as humans as well—and thus future tenants. The old brick or wood or exposed concrete speaks to our human sense of tactility, and communities benefit from the preservation of structures that contribute to rich urban textures and our collective cultural memories.

construction industry Adaptive Reuse
Designing new buildings for resilience and reuse is as important as adaptive reuse is . (Photo by Adobe Stock – Suzi media)


That said, as important as adaptive reuse is designing new buildings for resilience and reuse. That means choosing appropriate building sites with appropriate adjacent amenities, choosing versatile structural grid dimensions, using appropriate floor-to-floor heights, and durable, timeless materials, among other principles—so that a building can be adapted again in the future … and again … and again!

And, as important as the approach to the core and shell, is creating interior spaces that perform better than their traditional counterparts, that provide for maximum flexibility. These spaces can be reused or repurposed when our needs change, and solutions that can be purchased and installed for near cost parity with traditional systems.

Well-designed, thoughtfully-implemented modular or productized interior systems can be a solution. The best modular wall systems and modular rooms can offer the flexibility to change our floor plates on demand and will perform as well acoustically as traditional drywall. Well-considered modular bathrooms and plumbing assemblies can be plugged and played where they are needed in a floor plate. And, properly configured raised access floor systems enable us to run mechanical and electrical systems independent of the spatial layout of a floorplate. And, when we’re done, we disassemble, we reassemble elsewhere, or redeploy this kit of parts to other purposes. Ultimately these systems enable buildings to evolve at the speed of humans.

Quicker To Adapt

The Design and Construction industry has been slow to change, but the most innovative among us are reexamining our roles in creating lasting impact for humans and the planet without sacrifice to our bottom lines. The most courageous among us are reexamining our most established practices and asking the hard questions about the future of our industry—the role of the owner, the facilities manager, the architect, the supplier, the GC, and labor—and considering how we can work together to carve a more sustainable, efficient path to a world inevitably filled with more and more humans. One thing is for certain is that we need to be quicker to adapt.

Technology can help us with these objectives. With human resources being both natural and financial resources, we need to engage technological solutions that can help us scale to build (and operate) faster, smarter, and more effectively. For architects, this means leveraging AI-assisted design for the more rote aspects of their work so that they can apply systems-level thinking to the less tame, more complex challenges of design and building. For owners and facilities managers, this means leveraging data and analytics to precisely compute return on investment in their own terms. For labor, this means using robots and computer assisted fabrication technologies that are exponentially safer than on-site methods.

One thing is for sure: it will take all of us working together to evolve the industry, leveraging our existing building resources, and enabled by new products and technologies to create an environmentally and financially sustainable future.

 Dan Sullivan, KOVASullivan, AIA, NCARB is the Vice President of KOVA. Inspired by his unconventional journey in the A&D industry, he has set out to develop material solutions that enhance building performance and longevity. Prior to joining KOVA, Dan was the Head of Design for Google Architecture’s R+D Lab for over four years. Throughout his career, Dan has continued to put his passions into practice: creating building solutions that lend to a healthier built environment, enhance end-user outcomes, and improve neuroaesthetics.

Do you have a comment? Share your thoughts in the Comments section below, or send an e-mail to the Editor at

Click here for more news about Construction.

adaptive reuseConstruction Begins For Adaptive Reuse Project In The Carolinas

The historic redevelopment “The Thread” in Rock Hill, SC is the largest available adaptive reuse project in the Carolinas. Read more…