Why Simplifying a building’s structure is the surest way of lengthening it’s useful life.

Why Simplifying a building’s structure is the surest way of lengthening it’s useful life.

One of the core beliefs at Bao is based on the notion that in the near future the importance of embodied energy will be higher than the energy in use.

Embodied energy is the sum of all the energy required to produce any goods or services, considered as if that energy was incorporated or ‘embodied’ in the product itself. The last couple of decades the focus for improving energy efficiency in buildings has primarily been on the operational energy expenditure throughout it’s useful life. It is estimated that around 30% of the total energy expended throughout the lifetime of a building is embodied within the materials (this percentage varies based on factors such as age of the building, climate and materials). In the past, this percentage was much lower. It’s looking like embodied energy will become a more important aspect of the overall sustainability of a building.

A percentage overview of the embodied energy in an average construction project.


Some examples of embodied energy include: the energy used to extract raw materials, process materials, assemble product components, transport between each step, construction, maintenance and repair, deconstruction and disposal. As such, it is important to employ a whole-life carbon accounting framework in analyzing the carbon emissions of buildings.

As buildings become greener, the energy needed to make them becomes more and more important. Soon it could add up to 40% of the total lifetime carbon footprint.

With the upcoming European Union Energy Performance of Buildings Directive all newly constructed buildings need to be nearly zero-energy in use by the end of 2020. The logical result of this directive is that embodied energy will make up a much greater proportion of a low-energy building’s total lifetime carbon footprint. This begs the question, once a building has reached zero-energy status how do you further decrease the environmental impact? This can be done in 3 ways:

  1. Choose materials that use less energy to produce
  2. Make production processes of the materials more fuel efficient
  3. Extend the amount of time you use your materials.

For the purpose of this article, we will take a look at number 3.

The longer the main structure of a building can be in effective use the wider the initial embodied energy costs can be spread out. This results in a lower amount of maintenance and postpones the ultimate demolition of the building to make way for something new. Both of which would mean extra financial and environmental costs. This can be done by simplifying the structure of a building by, for example, eliminating load-bearing walls and the supporting beams for the ceiling. By doing this one arrives at a frame that is completely independent of the floor plans of the apartments. This results in a building that is easier to maintain and one that provides greater freedom to reconfigure the space to the needs of society.

A great, but slightly dated, example of this school of reasoning is the Dom-ino house. Dom-Ino House is an open floor plan structure designed by noted architect Le Corbusier in 1914–1915. The name is a pun that combines an allusion to domus (Latin for house) and the pieces of the game of dominoes, because the floor plan resembles the game and because the units can be aligned in a series like dominoes, to make row houses of different patterns.

Architect Valentin Bontjes van Beek and students from the Architectural Association in London built a full-size model of
Le Corbusier’s seminal Maison Dom-ino in the Giardini of the Venice during the 2014 Venice Architecture Biennale.


Re-configurable housing is not new, in the beginning of the 20th century it was clear that the potential for a building that evolves with time as materials, fashions, technologies, and uses change is HUGE! Not only for the savings during the actual construction process but also for the ease of recycling. Simplified buildings have less materials embedded within each other (i.e. wiring plastered in the walls) that are easier to separate upon deconstruction. The EPA (the United States Environmental Protection Agency) recently reported that doubling the reuse and recycling of construction and demolition debris would result in an emissions savings of 150 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent per year. This equals the entire annual carbon emissions from the state of North Carolina, and this in the United States alone!

Of course the above mentioned example is no longer feasible in an era obsessed with customization. However the Dom-ino is a pure system, stripped of architecture, it invites us to complete it and inhabit it in any way we desire. More than the specific system itself, it is the idea, the school of thought, that is so relevant today and one that we strongly believe in.

At Bao we think there is a great opportunity in creating a system that still delivers the desired customization possibilities for the end user but at the same time decouples the technical aspects of a building to the structural ones.

More on this is the coming months!

Below are a couple of examples from the same “school of though” but from the 21st century:

Modular Design for Deconstruction
David Fleming, University of Cincinnati, Richfield, MN


This construction trade school design redefines “building” as a temporary resting place for materials to be traded, upgraded and reused. Rather than attempting to find an infinitely reusable module, the project creates a framework for creative materials reuse.

Yosuke Kawai and Ikue Nomura,
University of Pennsylvania, Dayton, OH


This school building focuses on feasibility and maximizing flexibility. The usual constraints of fixed areas are resolved by combining modular (M), open (O), and dual structural (D) systems. This technique allows any individual to build with locally available materials to meet immediate needs while providing the opportunity for future growth.

Kira Gould, William McDonough + Partners,
Charlottesville, VA


The visitors’ center design roots the building firmly in its woodland context by blurring distinctions between the indoors and outdoors, and by incorporating the surrounding forest into the building’s lifecycle analysis. Construction emphasized safe, closed material loops of biological nutrients, which break down to safely return to forest soil; and technical nutrients, which can be re-manufactured into new objects. The mechanical connections and reconfigurable modules allow for building alterations.


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