Mind & Matter


Contamination and Reuse

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Contaminated Chinese drywall. Photo by Casey Templeton, The New York Times.


The recent scare concerning contaminated drywall is yet another shocking disappointment related to Chinese exports. As a recent Times article reported, thousands of U.S. families have been forced to evacuate homes in which Chinese drywall was installed, due to chronic headaches and respiratory problems they claim to have developed as a result of sulphur compounds and other contaminants. Homebuilders ordered the drywall when U.S.-based supplies ran low prior to the economic bust. Now, Philadelphia lawyer Arnold Levin claims “there could be 60,000 to 100,000 homes that are worthless and have to be ripped completely down and rebuilt.”

While this is certainly more bad news for China, the story raises additional questions related to incorporating waste materials in construction products. As virgin resources become increasingly valuable and manufacturers look for ways to reduce the embodied energy and CO2 emissions related to processing these resources, waste and recycled content will be increasingly incorporated in the fabrication of new products. Architects are already familiar with the widespread use of fly ash—a waste product from coal burning that is loaded with heavy metals—in structural concrete. Countless other products are likewise taking advantage of low-quality repurposed materials in order to save on production costs while diverting resources from landfills. While this practice has obvious environmental benefits, there could also be downsides if the proper safety testing is not conducted on these materials.




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About the Blogger

Blaine Brownell

thumbnail image Minnesota-based architect and author Blaine Brownell, AIA, is a self-defined materials researcher and sustainable building adviser. His "Product of the Week" emails and three volumes of Transmaterial (2006, 2008, 2010) provide designers with a steady flow of inspiration—a 21st-century Grammar of Ornament. Blaine has practiced architecture in Japan and the U.S. and has been published in more than 40 design, business, and science publications. The recipient of a Fulbright fellowship for 2006–07, he researched contemporary Japanese material innovations at the Tokyo University of Science. He currently teaches architecture and co-directs the M.S. in Sustainable Design program at the University of Minnesota. His book Matter in the Floating World was published by Princeton Architectural Press in 2011.