Concrete, Part 2

by Don Friedman on March 6, 2019

The first article I read in the Guardian’s Concrete Week series was last Monday’s piece “Concrete: the most destructive material on Earth.” It’s an odd piece in terms of its organization, jumping around a bit. Eventually I realized that the problem I was having is that the article is discussing several quite different topics, linked only by the word “concrete.” If you tease apart the threads, each is worth discussion on its own.

First: concrete as an environmentally hazardous material. As the article points out, properly-made concrete is inert, and therefore not in itself hazardous. However the creation of cement – the binder needed for concrete – releases an enormous amount of carbon into the atmosphere, which is obviously an issue. And curing that cement takes a lot of water. Both of these problems are in the article and are, to me, the most serious strikes against concrete as a material.

Second: over-building as an environmental hazard. If Houston were paved entirely with asphalt, the paving would be just as impervious as concrete and the flooding from Hurricane Harvey would have been just as bad. In other words, we in the west have a problem with paving over ground and filling in the wetland “sponges” that naturally mitigate flooding. In this case, concrete is one of several possible means by which the dubious goal of paving over everything can be accomplished. As I write this, of course, I’m located in Manhattan, which is one of the most heavily human-altered landscapes in the world. But the problem isn’t really in cities: cities cover a small percentage of the land. The problem is all of the land-use issues everywhere.

Third: over-building as a societal problem. Even with environmental studies before major projects, we have surprisingly little overall planning. I make no claim to have the answers, but (as an example) the cycle of rebuilding on barrier islands that subject to hurricane damage on a regular basis suggests that we’re not doing a great job of thinking ahead about our construction. This issue has little to do with concrete per se: if the badly planned construction were entirely in wood, it would still be badly planned.

Fourth: concrete has led to certain architectural forms. Some of them, such as brutalism, are not very popular and have led to people incorrectly correlating concrete with bad architecture. This is very much a concrete issue, but one based on a lot of misleading critical polemics.

All interesting topics, all important, but only loosely tied together. From my perspective, the most important part of the article is a point I’ve made many times: more reuse and less new building would reduce all of these effects.

Part 1 is here.

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