From dismantling to re-use as fast as possible

At NEST, the research and innovation platform of Empa and Eawag, the new Sprint unit is currently under construction – an office unit built largely from recycled materials. Sprint aims to set new standards for circular construction. However, the office unit is also a reaction to the current COVID-19 situation, which made it clear that we need to adapt our buildings more flexibly and quickly to changing needs.
The flexible offices of the new Sprint unit will be built on the lowest platform of NEST.

Circular construction is a basis for achieving our CO2 emission targets. An efficient approach is the reuse of materials and entire components. Although this is already being implemented in some construction projects, a number of questions arise when dismantling and reusing materials – for example, with regard to standards or warranties.

The Sprint unit therefore focuses on finding solutions that are universally applicable to challenges that arise and thus simplify the re-use of building materials. The project is a collaboration between various stakeholders from research, industry and the public sector. "For the first time, Empa is combining the approach of re-use and the market requirements of 'fast and flexible construction'. With the new Sprint unit, we want to show that these needs can be met together", says Enrico Marchesi, Innovation Manager and project leader on behalf of NEST.

The ground-breaking ceremony at NEST will take place these days. The Sprint unit will be installed on the lowest platform of NEST and will deliver COVID-compliant office space. The Sprint unit is scheduled for completion in the summer.

Rethinking in the planning phase as an opportunity

Already in the planning phase, special attention was paid to the re-use process and its challenges. Among other things, the question arose as to what added value reused materials offer and whether this would be cheaper than new materials. Oliver Seidel, architect and partner at baubüro in situ ag, says: "Reusing materials is often associated with lower costs. But the added value lies in another area: Re-use is more sustainable. And in terms of quality, there is no loss. On the contrary: Depending on the material, one can even speak of an increase in quality, for example in the case of an old wooden parquet floor, which receives an additional aesthetic component." 

The advantages of planning a deconstruction and reusing the materials are obvious: The fact that the detailed study has to be taken into account already in the preliminary project – i.e. earlier than according to the standard planning phases – makes the construction process more dynamic and flexible in terms of time. For example, the project can be defined in parallel and at the same time, used materials can be sought and tested for their suitability for use.

Design for disassembly as the basis for re-use

The Sprint unit follows the "Design for Disassembly" concept: The design takes dismantling into account right from the start, and the construction method facilitates future modifications and disassembly for the recovery of systems, components and materials, thus ensuring that, at the end of their regular life span, buildings can be transferred to another use cycle – a second life, if you wish – as efficiently as possible. Not all building components and materials installed today can be easily dismantled. Industrial buildings are more suitable for dismantling than residential buildings, for instance, because of their simple construction. "It is all the more important that we construct today's buildings in such a way that their components can be returned to materials cycles", stresses architect Kerstin Müller, member of the executive board at baubüro in situ ag and managing director of Zirkular GmbH. She also sees opportunities for the value and supply chains: When components and materials are reused, jobs can be created locally, and ecological as well as architectural values can be preserved.

During the entire construction process of Sprint as well as its later use phase, both opportunities and challenges of the re-use process are continuously documented and compiled – with the aim of making re-use more marketable as a construction method. Further information on the various innovation processes will be made available on the Sprint website on an ongoing basis.