Image of a house being bulldozed in the snow
Courtesy Circular Construction Lab, Cornell

Cornell’s Circular Construction Lab Champions Building-Material Reuse

Founded by assistant professor Felix Heisel, the CCL wants us to shift from linear to circular thinking around material consumption.

Is there a way for us to construct buildings for easy disassembly so their materials can be reused in new projects? Felix Heisel, an assistant professor at Cornell University College of Architecture, Art, and Planning, founded the Circular Construction Lab (CCL) to help answer that question.

“The CCL is essentially a cross-disciplinary research lab that tries to move ideas of the circular economy forward and implement them in the construction industry,” says Heisel, director of the lab.

According to him, the lab has two tracks: On one hand, it thinks about existing building stock as a material bank for future construction. “That means we need new technologies and new methodologies to access these materials, understand the material content, and then process materials and bring them back into the construction industry,” he explains.

“If we continue building the way we’ve built, we’re going to run the earth into the ground.”

Felix Heisel, assistant professor and director, Cornell’s CCL

The lab’s other mission is looking into ways the industry can design and build differently. Ideally, new buildings would be designed in a way that makes them easy to take apart for salvage.

Heisel says the lab is working on different tools to help the industry build with reuse in mind, including an innovation that allows users to scan buildings and get a quick estimate of their material contents, construction complexity, and how much value is present. 

Ultimately, the problems are complex and don’t have easy answers. Older buildings, for example, tend to have high-quality materials and are assembled in ways that favor deconstruction. But they’re also more likely to have contaminants such as lead paint and asbestos. Younger buildings tend to have less of these contaminants but a lower quality of materials.

“The most pressing thing is that if we continue building the way we’ve built, we’re going to run the earth into the ground,” Heisel says.

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