Reuse, retention and renewal: Establishing accountability for existing materials

Melbourne Design week is focused on a central imperative, “Design the world you want”, considering how, through the pillars of transparency, currency and legacy, we can use design to create a better world. During Design Week, Woods Bagot Associate Phoebe Settle will join a panel of industry experts to discuss the designer’s role in the chain of custody of products and materials.

What is “chain of custody” and how does it apply to the architecture industry?

Phoebe Settle: It’s a way of describing the life of a product, a building, or a material, and ascribing who is responsible for it during its lifetime. It applies to everything from an entire building to a chair or piece of fabric. We’re trying to work out who is responsible for materials and when the responsibility starts and stops, or if it ever does stop.

How has the industry previously been held accountable (if, indeed, it has been held accountable) for its carbon generation and waste production?

I don’t think it has been held accountable. Sustainable design still seems aspirational, something nice to have if there’s budget left over. That’s frustrating because it really shouldn’t be like that; it should be in every single decision that we make. Legislation needs to catch up to enforce accountability – there are practices out there, like Woods Bagot, that want to do good things and want to be held accountable, but the impact isn’t enough if it isn’t industry wide.


What are the barriers impacting the popularisation of reusing existing materials?

I think it’s still not always seen as an attractive outcome. There’s an expectation when you do a fit-out that everything will be new, shiny and fresh. Even from the designer’s perspective, it can be viewed as a bit of an inconvenience to have to think about reusing.

But that mindset is definitely changing. Our project with The University of Tasmania is a great example of reuse, retaining 40 percent of the existing architecture, weaving together old and new to bring a new lease of life into the historical site. It’s a better outcome for sustainability and it’s a richer outcome for the surrounding community.

Mentalities are starting to change, but designers need to be driving it more than we have been. And as global citizens, we all have a responsibility to educate ourselves more in the space, whether you’re a designer or not.

“There are practices out there, like Woods Bagot, that want to do good things and want to be held accountable, but the impact isn’t enough if it isn’t industry wide.”

“Legislation needs to catch up to enforce accountability.”

What is one provision that decisionmakers could practically implement for greater sustainability and circularity in the built environment?

I think there’s a series of questions that we all need to be asking ourselves when we embark on a new project, the first being: is it essential to the functional outcome of the project? And if it’s not, then we need to think hard about why we’re considering using that material or the piece of furniture or whatever it might be.

In our project for UTas, we interrogated the specifications of the furniture package, looking closely at product warranties, where it has been manufactured, the kinds of materials used, and whether they were designed for disassembly.

All these factors help to inform our decisions, because if a manufacturer couldn’t answer the question, or they answered it in an unsatisfactory way, it changed our own design response.

Instead of separating sustainability as a discrete topic under design, it should be part of every single design review: it comes into the structural review, it comes into the interior design review, it comes into every single part of what we do.

“As global citizens, we all have a responsibility to educate ourselves more in the space, whether you’re a designer or not.”

What steps is Woods Bagot taking to ensure better environmental outcomes in its projects and practice?

The climate playbook is a really great starting point to capture our commitment to sustainability. It outlines how we embed sustainability in our design process, business operations and industry advocacy. It’s as basic as minimising air travel, through to how we document and measure carbon in the projects that we design and build. 

The design review system is something we’re adjusting to include sustainability, which, as I was saying, means not singling out Environmentally Sustainable Development (ESD) as one topic, but making sure it’s present in every aspect of our reviews. It’s about making people aware of what they are doing or what they’re not doing and why they’re not doing it.

I’m passionate about education and knowledge sharing. As the Interiors Global Impact Group (GIG) leader for Melbourne, and I’ve often felt like it’s a huge mountain to climb; it can seem quite daunting. But I’ve realised the more people talk and share ideas, the more we understand what’s possible or what we’re already doing in this space, and the more enthusiasm and positivity it generates.

The theme of Melbourne Design Week is “Design the world you want”. What are your ambitions for the future of the built environment?

How cool would it be if it became competitive to acquire “scrap” or “waste” materials? If people were paying good money for building materials that were being ripped out of old buildings because they had a way to innovate and turn them into new resources. They could become a real asset – they would retain value, or even, increase in value because of their history. Imagine if there was a system in Australia that could manage that, because so much of our materials either end up in landfill or get shipped across the world to be recycled somewhere else. I would love Australia to catch up, or even lead the way, in becoming better at valuing existing resources.

Melbourne Design Week

Phoebe will be speaking at Melbourne Design Week on a panel presented by Woods Bagot, Euroluce, Arup and Woven Image, entitled “Chain of Custody, Understanding your Responsibility” on Tuesday 23 May at 6pm, Euroluce headquarters.

For eleven days, Melbourne Design Week offers a diverse program of talks, tours, workshops, exhibitions, and installations across various design disciplines including architecture, urban design, fashion, and communication design. Click here to view the full program.


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