A Case for Modular Materials

Our cities are living systems, evolving over time, mutating and undergoing constant processes of change. Why are we using relatively permanent and inflexible building methods to craft such a dynamic environment? When building a car, for instance, would you weld the hood shut? Would you permanently attach a light bulb to a socket so you’d have to throw away the whole lamp when it burns out? We engineer our infrastructure as if it will last forever, in a static state, but is that really the case?

There is understanding these days in the manufacturing world of the embedded costs of materials and a push to make products that can be “disassembled” and the parts be recycled when no longer useful. Isn’t this a much better method than either throwing the item away or having to demolish the item down to some elemental state to recycle? How can we better incorporate this type of thinking into the landscape?

Anyone who has lived in even a moderately-sized American city can attest that our urban environments have become constant construction zones as we rely on a massive amount of heavy machinery, and the fuel that drives them, in this never-ending cycle of building-destruction-rebuilding. The permanent “din” of diesel engines destroys the peacefulness and quality of life that the infrastructure is supposed to support.

One thing I noticed while visiting Prague, a city that has been around for centuries, is that most materials are of a modular nature, such as the tiny cobblestones that together form the massive street and sidewalk system. The materials themselves are long lasting and of high quality but the nature of construction is much more adaptable than ours. In the past they were, no doubt, limited by the technology of the day but it still makes good sense today in an urban environment.

It’s actually easier to maintain the integrity of an area as a whole if parts can be repaired or replaced individually rather than is massive sweeps of demolition and reconstruction. Can you successfully craft a more permanent environment by using more temporary methods & materials? Using this approach, a place may mutate more slowly over time without the perilous cycles of rapid growth and decay inherent in less resilient systems. Could some of our urban neighborhoods have escaped the wrath of urban renewal if a more modular and less destructive method of redevelopment had taken place?

Another benefit to this approach is the positive impact on employment and local economies. Our current system of construction relies on relatively few workers but massive amounts of expensive machinery (manufactured elsewhere). In a more modular world an increased amount of work can be done by hand, necessitating far less machinery and employing far more blue-collar workers. While in Prague I saw virtually no heavy equipment but saw workers removing cobblestone by hand to repair water lines, then simply replacing them when done. Similarly, workers chipped away old stucco from centuries-old buildings then replaced it by hand, leaving the essence of the structure intact but simply giving a needed face-lift. It was actually peaceful to watch, as contrasted with the near-deafening noise levels of our local Raleigh construction sites.

We currently have over 10% unemployment nationwide, much more in some areas, we have declining cities, a shortage of fuel oil. Can this be one answer to the problems we face? Is this heresy in modern society? Much like the example of the Civilian Conservation Corps during the depression era, the rethinking of our cities into a more modular, worker-friendly system can help employ the nation (with jobs that can’t be outsourced) and help our environment at the same time.

I encourage us all to at least think about issues like these as we infiltrate the working world and begin to have an influence on how our environment develops. We might not be able to make sweeping changes to such entrenched development systems but even little SHIFTs or changes to any system can, by nature, have ripple effects that multiply to produce much greater effects in the future.