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Repurposing of floors and the circular economy

Richard tackles the subject of repurposing, a type of recycling that offers many environmental benefits, and why some types of floors are more suited to this than others.

THE global construction industry has traditionally been one of the largest consumers of raw materials and has generated millions of tonnes of waste annually. It’s only relatively recently we’ve been forced to question the choice of these materials, how they’re used and what happens to them at end-of-life. For many clients, designers, and manufacturers this requires a top- down re-evaluation of their products and systems

There are many facets to recycling in the UK flooring industry; the recyclability of the material itself, the availability and viability of recycling schemes, the financial and environmental cost of reprocessing, and weighing up options for reuse. It’s clear our collective effort to move to a net zero economy is causing considerable pain and risk for some, but we don’t often talk about the new opportunities recycling can bring to others.

In this month’s column I’d like to talk about repurposing; a type of recycling that offers many environmental benefits, and why some types of floors are more suited to this than others.

What do we mean by repurposing? I’d define it as reusing the material in a different location, in its existing unaltered form and for the same or similar purpose.

This is different from recycling which usually involves reprocessing the material in some way so it can be used for another purpose eg, recycling plastic bottles into textiles or using recycled glass in tarmac paving.

Repurposing an old floor provides more environmental benefits compared with recycling because you use less energy, make fewer demands on raw material resources, and reduce the need for waste disposal and landfill. All this helps to reduce carbon levels and global warming, which is of course our ultimate goal.

Repurposing also meets the aims of the circular economy. A good definition of this is provided by LETI (London Energy Transformation Initiative):

A circular economy is an industrial system that is restorative or regenerative by intention and design. A circular economy replaces the linear economy, and its ‘end-of-life’ concept with restoration and regeneration, shifts towards the use of renewable energy, eliminates the use of toxic chemicals, and aims for the elimination of waste through the design of materials, products and systems that can be repaired and reused.

Source: LETI: Embodied Carbon Primer
Which benefits and opportunities does repurposing of flooring materials provide to the members of the supply chain?

For contractors repurposing can present new opportunities in a growth area of the flooring market. This is a good time to enhance your environmental profile and reclaimed or repurposed floors are popular, with the interior design and home improvement media often featuring them, most of them being timber floors of some kind, a material that readily lends itself to reuse.

As far as the client is concerned, what will persuade a client to choose a new floor finish that has the potential to be repurposed when they’ve finished with it?

This will depend on whether they have long-term interest in the building. If their interest is only short-term, they may not be so concerned about the end-of-life strategy, though there may well be companies who’ll make such a choice because it enhances their company profile, or their guiding ethics will persuade them to do so.

Larger corporate clients may try to win architectural awards for their new landmark buildings, and I think we can take for granted that environmental performance will feature very high on the judge’s checklist.

For clients who are landlords, choosing a long-lived floor finish can avoid disruption to tenants by not having to replace finishes so often. This can also mean lower maintenance costs.

When purchasing an old floor for reuse clients can acquire a floor that may well be unique and for many customers the idea of having a floor with a ‘back story’ is very appealing. Often their decision will be based on ethical reasons.

Looking at the ‘replacement stage’ of the lifecycle, the old floor may well provide some residual value. For corporate clients, giving their old floor a new lease-of-life by repurposing makes a good case study and shows they’re taking some action in a situation where all too often statements of intent outnumber meaningful actions.

Many design practices use environmental building design as one of their founding principles. As part of its ‘2030 Climate Challenge’ the RIBA has set some stringent targets that require its members to reduce embodied and operational carbon in their designs.

Specifying floors that can be easily repurposed, especially those that also have a long service life, can help them achieve their aims. By adopting these policies designers can enhance their company profile, and all the better if they achieve industry awards along the way.

Why would a manufacturer be enthusiastic about marketing a product with a long life that in later years can be repurposed? This surely means they’ll sell fewer newly manufactured floors. The response, from an environmentally responsible company is that when their old floor is repurposed it will probably replace the sale of a competitor’s less environmentally sound floor, rather than reducing sales of their own products.

A manufacturer which successfully uses its environmental credentials in its marketing strategy will tend to gain market share by persuading customers to move away from less environmentally sound floors.

Why not extend these ideas and design buildings in a way that makes the path to repurposing as easy as possible? Repurposing forms part of a wider movement in building design; that of ‘design for disassembly’ or ‘tectonic construction’.

This is often called ‘tectonic’ construction to express the idea of the building elements being ‘together but separate’. Part of the strategy includes the use of fixings that can be unfastened rather than being permanently bonded or welded. The designer will also aim to restrict the variety of building materials as far as possible, so handling and processing of the materials will be easier and cheaper.

Tectonic construction also can make first-time construction times shorter- and reduce costs, but may also improve the client’s corporate image, achieve awards, and demonstrate their values, I can illustrate how this works in practice by using two recent building projects where repurposing has been a key design strategy. The two buildings focus on repurposing at different stages of the process. One is a new building in Denmark that has been designed for repurposing at end-of-life, and the other a project that used an older repurposed floor.

Case Study: Braunstein Tap House, Koege, Denmark
This building was designed for disassembly at the end of its life. It’s a visitor and community centre connected with a nearby microbrewery and is designed for a 10-year life because its waterfront location is deemed to be under threat from rising water levels in the future. The building materials were chosen for their sustainability and ease of reuse.

The method of construction was also carefully designed so materials are not mixed, welded, or glued any more than necessary. The main floor finish is Junckers 22mm solid oak which has a lifespan of over 60 years and is a low embodied carbon product. Installed with Junckers’ clip system, the floor is easily lifted and re-installed elsewhere.

Case Study, ‘Rockvilla’; National Theatre of Scotland, Glasgow; Hoskins Architects
A repurposed Junckers 22mm beech sports floor was used in an office and social space. The architect decided to use only a limited range of materials to facilitate recycling and repurposing at the end of the building’s life. The client liked the appearance of the floor with the fragments of court line markings remaining. As the surface was in such good condition the floor was used with its existing finish.

Some flooring products and installation methods are more suited to a sustainable approach than others, and the decision process will involve balancing various aspects of the material’s environmental pros-and-cons. Let’s look at what might make a flooring product more or less suitable.

Low embodied carbon
This is a given, although a designer could conceivably consider a floor with higher carbon levels if it offered an extended lifespan, could easily be reused beyond its original installation, and could be disposed of or reprocessed cleanly at the end of its life.

Long life
The ideal floor will last at least as long as the building, and if it has a life beyond that, all the better. A shorter service life may be acceptable if the product has sufficiently low embodied carbon, and disposal or recycling doesn’t harm the environment.

Ease of dismantling
This is a fundamental requirement of the ‘Building for Disassembly’ philosophy. The preferred floor types might be loose-laid rather than fully bonded down, and joints between sheets or flooring elements will be dry-jointed rather than glued, grouted, or welded.

Easily recovered units
The flooring must be in an undamaged and re-useable state after it has been taken up. Any residues or contamination must be easy to remove. Damage to units must be largely avoidable and all the better if the material can be refurbished or refinished to provide a ‘nearly new’ floor for hand over. Full bonding to the subfloor will often prevent any form of reuse, not only because of contamination but because the floor finish itself may be too severely damaged for reuse. Use of ‘low tack’ adhesives may provide the answer for some floor types.

Suitable format for reuse
A floor made from discrete standard-sized units, eg, carpet tiles, wood blocks or planks may be easier to reuse than one
formed from large sheets. However, it should be possible to reuse looselaid sheet coverings provided the recovered material is of sufficient size and can be rejointed.

Cost effective
While reclaimed materials are often relatively cheap there will usually be additional cost for decontaminating, sorting, and repairing the floor for reuse. Waste factors will also be higher than for new material.

Comparing the installed cost of a repurposed floor may not be significantly less than new one, but when you factor in the environmental and climate change benefits, choosing the right kind of repurposed floor will show clear benefits.

Availability of additional new material
Repurposing may be limited by availability of materials. However, the availability of useable reclaimed material is significantly increased if the original manufacturer can still offer the same product as new, thereby enabling smaller quantities of reclaimed flooring to be used. If new product is available, you still need to know if there’ll be batch colour variations or if the old floor has changed colour over time.

In the case of my own company, Junckers’ many products have been in continuous production for many years so new, matching material is often available, and the fact all solid wood floors can be sanded and refurbished means the new material will be a good match with the old.

We’ve looked at the gains and advantages repurposing can bring to the parties in the supply chain, but what can they do to maximise the contribution repurposing can make to the environment and the circular economy?

How can flooring contractors help?
Contractors can improve their skills and specialist knowledge working with reclaimed flooring products, enabling them to provide the best advice to clients and carry out cost effective installations. When stripping out old floors the contractor can play a key role in repurposing the floor if this concept is new to the client.

For installations of new floors, carrying out the installation to the highest possible standards will help avoid premature failure owing to incorrect installation.

How can manufacturers become involved and help facilitate the process?
Manufacturers (likewise trade associations) can play a role in creating the infrastructure required for recovery and processing of the old floors ready for re- installation. They can also provide advice and training for contractors.

We’re beginning to see the creation of buy back schemes by manufacturers, but this will only work if the infrastructure exists to bring these materials back to the market, keeping them within the circular economy.

Fashion trends don’t always evolve to the benefit of the environment and so manufacturers, designers and other influencers may have to look again at how style and taste is managed. Fashion and the marketing activities associated with it often relies on constant change and this will often undermine environmental aims by encouraging clients to replace their floors long before they’re worn out.

So perhaps a new approach is needed, by focusing on floors with long lifespans or those that can be resurfaced using different colours and textures, as the customer’s tastes evolve. The market opportunities will increase for innovative finishing products, specialist installers and finishing and refurbishment services.

Changes like these may be difficult for some manufacturers to adapt to. The idea of making a floor finish last as long as possible may be counterintuitive for manufacturers who rely on shorter lifespans and obsolescence to sustain sales. However, the crux of many environmental campaigner’s arguments is that some difficult changes are long overdue.

It’s increasingly apparent that for the circular economy to work there’ll need to be a significant culture change beyond the characteristics of the physical product and materials – and for us to abandon the idea that keeping up with the latest fashions means we have to throw out the old and replace with the new.

But this could have some interesting consequences, for example a designer may intentionally create a floor using a mix of different materials and textures to emphasise the fact the materials have been reused. There’ll undoubtedly be new challenges for designers to innovate and create.

Are there any ‘green’ alternatives to repurposing?
Given the current state of the climate crisis and the fact that some companies won’t be able to change quickly it’s perhaps inevitable some types of flooring will be used less frequently – especially short-lived, high embodied carbon materials that cannot be adapted. We’ll undoubtedly see some less sustainable products being developed to become more sustainable by sourcing new raw materials and using new processes.

Wholesale repurposing is desirable for many reasons, but what if demand outstrips supply? With very strong environmental pressures could we see increasing demand making reclaimed floors more expensive than brand new? (The cost of sustainability perhaps?).
This would require a significant change in our perception of ‘used’ flooring. It may present interesting challenges or opportunities for manufacturers, some of whom may decide to engage more directly with the market for repurposed floors as well as new.

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