Reduce, reuse, recycle. The three R's have been imprinted upon us since childhood, and for most of us they govern our daily household waste management. Yet when it comes to the construction industry, the three R's seem to be conveniently ignored. Tear down, dump in a landfill, and build new seems to have been the leading mantra for much of the past century. More recently, however, with the climate crisis approaching critical benchmarks, industry professionals across the construction sector are taking a closer look at just how much their industry wastes and how many emissions it produces, and are making a concerted effort to direct it toward a more sustainable and less wasteful future.
Adjacent to their 2 Tecumseth development site, TAS hosted a panel discussion focusing on solutions to adopting a circular economy and a culture of material reuse in the development industry. Circular economy, or circularity, is a concept that emphasizes the reuse of a material or product rather than creating new. In the construction industry, circularity focuses on reusing building materials to reduce emissions and preserve their embodied carbon, advocating for a holistic approach examining their inherent value and balancing that with the impacts of resource extraction and fabrication associated with new materials.
The panelists at the event included Liza Stiff, Vice-President of Impact Implementation and Innovation at TAS; Tessa Vlaanderen, Associate at Dillon Consulting and circular economy specialist; Marc Ryan, Principal and Co-Founder of PUBLIC WORK, who are the landscape architects at 2 Tecumseth; and Tim Coldwell, President of Chandos Construction. The discussion was moderated by Alex Bozikovic, Architecture Critic at the Globe and Mail.
Much of the discussion focused on TAS and Woodbourne Canada Management Inc's 2 Tecumseth development, where they are implementing circularity in the design and construction process. The project includes two high-rise towers and one mid-rise comprising a total of nearly 1,000 residential units, proposed to be built on the former site of the Toronto Abattoir. Also included in the larger development is the adjacent Wellington Destructor, where the City has engaged TAS as head lessee to restore and repurpose the existing building. Though the abattoir is not a listed heritage building, TAS saw the opportunity to preserve a quirky piece of Toronto history while implementing the values of circularity in the process, and is making a concerted effort to reuse as much building material as they can.
Most of the retained building material from the abattoir is being integrated into the new landscape design of the 2 Tecumseth development. Bricks are being repurposed as retaining walls, eliminating the need for new concrete while giving the wall character and texture. Precast concrete panels, previously used as wall finishes, are being reused as concrete pavers, once again reducing the need for new concrete while giving the landscape a unique materiality. There are plans to reuse the existing abattoir chimney as an exhaust for the new district energy systems. The design team is also exploring ways in which the heavy timber posts and beams of the existing building can be repurposed as landscape furniture.
"How do we not just rip everything down and create a place that's generic and void of spirit and life?" asked Stiff. "How do we take some of this special place that's there and integrate it into the design?" She explained that focusing on circularity necessitated a different perspective when it came to planning the development. TAS and the design team worked closely with the demolition contractors and reviewed all of the available materials in the existing building to assess what could and could not be reused, and how. The complex analysis had to take into account the process of deconstructing, rather than simply tearing down the building, as well as storing the materials until they could be reused.
It is a meticulous process to deconstruct rather than demolish, but one that Coldwell argues has plenty of value. He used a recent example of the demolition of a parking garage in Edmonton, where the demolition contractor took the existing precast concrete panels, crushed them into gravel, and sold the gravel to be used as a road base. This is an increasingly common practice, where building materials are broken down or recycled and used to make other products. Coldwell envisions a future where building owners pay demolition contractors only for their labour, and then either reuse or sell the deconstructed building materials themselves to recoup some costs.
At 2 Tecumseth, Ryan explained that in the process of implementing circularity, they wanted to allow for the visibility of the repurposed materials in the new development. Rather than having the retained materials crushed and reconstituted into other products, PUBLIC WORK sought solutions where the materials could be preserved in their original state, and could be seen, touched, and experienced by visitors to the site. Beyond the financial and environmental benefits of preserving these materials, they saw the design and cultural value in them, using them as a way to allude to the city's history while bringing a richness and vibrancy to the landscape design.
The concept of circular economy is already advancing in Europe, with countries like the Netherlands implementing national policies that encourage and incentivize the practice. Vlaanderen explained that there is much to learn from our European counterparts, and used the example of open source software that exists in eight European countries to help companies internally manage and track retained building materials with the ability to share this data with others in the industry. While steps are being taken in Canada to move towards a circular economy, there is still much work to do before it becomes the industry standard.
In the meantime, 2 Tecumseth is aiming to set a precedent in Toronto for the integration of circularity in the development process. As Bozikovic pointed out, development in Toronto often follows two extremes: either completely erase what was on the site and replace it with something new, or preserve it in its current state as a heritage facade or building. Circularity opens the door for many options in between, while adding not just environmental value, but also financial, cultural, and design value as well. The future of the construction industry may just be built from the past.
UrbanToronto will continue to follow progress on these developments, but in the meantime, you can learn more about it from our Database files, linked below. If you'd like, you can join in on the conversation in the associated Project Forum threads or leave a comment in the space provided on this page.
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