The architectural production chain: the reasons for choosing local building materials

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The architectural production chain: the reasons for choosing local building materials

The construction industry is known to be one of the most polluting industries on the planet, but we often find it difficult to associate the role of architect and planner with this industry, thus avoiding the responsibility of to be involved in one of the most harmful production chains in the world. It is therefore imperative to emphasize the importance of questioning not only the materials used in the projects but also the manufacturing systems involved.

The construction industry is considered one of the most important economic activities in the world while being one of the main causes of environmental damage due to the large consumption of natural resources, the modification of the landscape and the waste generation. Since it is a global production and supply chain, the processes involved also affect the whole world socially and culturally.

© ashkan forouzani Via unsplash
© ashkan forouzani Via unsplash

A supply chain is a process of collecting resources and transforming them into goods. The production chain of the construction industry is however quite heterogeneous. Simply put, it starts with the extraction of raw materials such as wood and minerals. Processing companies then modify these raw materials to create new intermediate or final products, for example iron which becomes aluminum or steel, then used to produce window frames, rebar and steel. other metallic structures. These goods are then sold until they reach the final consumer on the construction site.

Construction industry product chain diagram.  Image via Fundação Getúlio Vargas Projetos and ABRAMAT
Construction industry product chain diagram. Image via Fundação Getúlio Vargas Projetos and ABRAMAT

So, to understand the full extent of this chain, it is essential to be able to follow the path of the material from its extraction to its use in construction. The construction industry is responsible for the consumption of 40% to 75% of all raw materials in the world, including iron ore, used for the production of steel and aluminum. Brazil is one of the largest producers of iron ore and in 2021, this material accounted for 1.64% of Brazil’s total exports, with an estimated value of $2.6 billion from January to July 2021 alone. making it the 13th product in the ranking of the country’s total exports.

Map of Brazilian pig iron exports from January to July 2021. Image via COMEXSTAT do Governo Federal do Brasil
Map of Brazilian pig iron exports from January to July 2021. Image via COMEXSTAT do Governo Federal do Brasil
Diagram with destination countries for Brazilian pig iron exports from January to July 2021. Image via COMEXSTAT do Governo Federal do Brasil
Diagram with destination countries for Brazilian pig iron exports from January to July 2021. Image via COMEXSTAT do Governo Federal do Brasil

This material was exported to China and the United States, together accounting for almost half of the country’s production, the Netherlands, South Korea, Japan, Singapore, Mexico and others. Brazil is also one of the biggest producers of pig iron, which is extracted from the ground, transported by rail to a port where it is transferred on a ship and then exported to China, for example. In China, this material is added to the iron that is also mined there and transformed into steel for construction, which is then used to build the tall buildings and skyscrapers that make up large cities like Shanghai. This trip is very profitable but has devastating consequences.

Shanghai skyline from the Bund.  Image © Wilson Hui Via CC
Shanghai skyline from the Bund. Image © Wilson Hui Via CC

The mining industry has many environmental and social impacts, as described in reports prepared by the International Federation for Human Rights, and the Map of Conflictos (conflict map), an organization that reports on places with environmental risks and impacts caused by industries, almost always in the construction sector. Even if iron is only one example, it reveals a very striking situation. On the one hand, iron is an essential resource for the development of cities and advanced technologies, while on the other hand, it causes serious environmental and social impacts that can wipe out entire lands and communities. This conflict goes far beyond the construction industry supply chain, requiring the involvement of authorities to control and contain the damage.

Piquia de Baixo.  Image © chaim87 Via Visualhunt
Piquia de Baixo. Image © chaim87 Via Visualhunt

At the same time, it is important to understand the role of architects in this scenario. As end consumers in the production chain, architects have the opportunity to promote and encourage transformations in these processes. An architect must be critical of this system and look for other ways of building, other materials and other stories for his projects. When it comes to using vernacular skills and local materials, it is necessary to go beyond aesthetics and techniques and consider the whole production process: extraction, transport and transformation process of materials. With this approach, we inevitably realize that we are talking about much more than construction techniques, we are also addressing the transformation of our notion of city and territory.

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