Designing This Building, and the Next

About the author: Saskia van Gendt works on green building and resource conservation for EPA’s Region 9 office in San Francisco, CA. She has helped run the Lifecycle Building Challenge since its first launch in 2006.

Rejecting dolls as a child, I preferred building blocks. I favored blocks that locked together, allowing endless reconfigurations and providing the durability that a rambunctious child requires. My childhood hobbies provided a foundation for my work on deconstruction, or taking buildings apart to preserve the materials for reuse.

The competition I help run, the Lifecycle Building Challenge, seeks to move deconstruction into mainstream practice. Each year, the United States landfills over 100 million tons of construction-related materials. In its second year, the Challenge continues to reverse that trend by developing buildings that facilitate recovery and reuse of construction materials.

I will highlight a few of the judges’ top entries, but the ideas speak for themselves. You can check out all of the submittals from the past two years at

Winning designs allow for adaptability, creating plans where occupants can convert single-family dwellings into offices or retail. Schemata Workshop’s The Workshop employs a flexible live/work space with plumbing and electrical systems delivered separately in prefabricated pods, allowing future owners to reconfigure the existing layout to suits their needs.

Lifecycle building entries provide innovative alternatives within conventional patterns of use. Carnegie Mellon University’s TriPod is a residence that adapts to a growing family by enabling residents to add or swap rooms with a neighbor.

As a new focus to this year’s competition, the Challenge asked the contestants to quantify the embodied energy related to materials reuse. Embodied energy is the total energy from a material’s lifecycle including extraction, manufacturing, and disposal. To combat climate change, green builders must reduce not only operational energy, but also embodied energy. KieranTimberlake Associates’ Loblolly House calculated that through the easy disassembly and reassembly of the building core, the House conserves 93.4 metric tons of greenhouse gases.

Lifecycle buildings also serve as educational tools. Bolts and connector systems remain exposed, demonstrating how a building could be deconstructed. HOK Intern Program’s Trans/Spot Awareness Center serves as a mobile tool for educating the City of Chicago.

In the Innovation category, contestants strived to close the loop on reusing building materials by designing processes, tools, or policies to facilitate deconstruction. The winning entry provides an on-line platform for connecting reclaimed building materials with buyers.

Drawing from contestants’ innovative and creative entries, the permanent library on will inspire. I am even inspired to revisit my childhood building blocks to test out some of the ideas myself.