text and graphics: Theo Deutinger, Stefanos Filippas and Liam Cooke
Architects, structural engineers and clients build for eternity. In the world of accountants, however, buildings are written off rather quickly. In the United States, commercial buildings have a financial lifespan of 39 years, while in the Netherlands and Germany their life expectancy ranges from 30 to 50 years. Another interesting statistic relates to the 10,000+ apartments that are torn down annually in the Netherlands, where buildings seem to be treated no differently than printers or company cars. The wrecking ball hangs as the proverbial sword of Damocles over almost any building nowadays, with little regard for even magnificent architecture. A good example is OMA’s stunning building for the Netherlands Dance Theatre in The Hague, which was demolished only 29 years after its opening.
As sad as such cases might be for the world of architecture, for those in charge of demolition, the task is purely a matter of figuring out the best and most efficient way to break the building into pieces small enough to be transported by truck to a landfill site. Generally speaking, there are three options: manual demolition, machine demolition and deliberate collapse. Although the last is the most spectacular and always good for a crowd of spectators, it is difficult to separate the waste afterwards and is feasible only for high-rises surrounded by sufficient space. The Cut and Take Down Method is a relatively recent, highly advanced development: work starts at the bottom by ‘cutting’ one floor and then lowering the entire building on computer-controlled hydraulic jacks. One floor a week is removed in this way, allowing all work to be done safely at ground level.
Dismantling seems to be as much a part of the architecture profession as designing and building, but except for temporary structures and projects that take a ‘cradle to cradle’ approach to design, scarce thought goes into how to get rid of the stuff we are building. It gets even dodgier when you realize that so much of today’s extensively used insulation material will become the toxic waste of the future. It’s good to build with permanence in mind, but it’s also wise to consider the wrecking ball.