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The second most used resource on this planet after water is – wait for it – sand. Sand is literally the foundation on which our urban landscape is built. Why is this interesting to innovation? In a nutshell, we’re running out.

Thinking of sand as a finite resource may seem strange. But desert sand is too smooth to be useful in construction, so we mine it from river beds, coastal deposits and sub-soil. The trouble is, modern day construction is running at such a rate that the planet’s natural ability to replenish sand stocks can’t keep pace. The UN forecasts that the number of mega-cities (those with more than 10 million inhabitants) will rise from 31 to 40 by 2030. China claims to have built over 32 million houses between 2011 and 2014, using more cement than the USA got through in the whole of the 20th century. Whole islands have disappeared through a combination of sand mining and rising sea levels.

Recycling materials like concrete can help to reduce the pressure on sand; but any such initiative must be part of a bigger, holistic change. When plastic was first created as an easily processed and multi-functional material, we didn’t look for downsides. We know differently now. In today’s design environment, where the absolute need for speed isn’t the primary driver for planning approval, things can change. Buildings are no longer necessarily considered permanent, and design hasn’t always anticipated a second use for the materials used.
We’re slowly waking up to the need for a new way of thinking. Reduce, re-use, recycle isn’t enough. Built-in recyclability seems like an obvious thing to plan for and yet it’s a pretty recent concept.

Alongside design thinking, which puts consumers at the top of the design decision tree, circular design is becoming an important concept. While sand mines may not take notice of a single architect making a few different decisions, as the price and ongoing access to a traditionally cheap material gets harder to maintain, alternatives will be sought and worked into product design.

Without a huge change in consumer awareness and our individual willingness to get involved in the specification of building materials, the rate of change will inevitably be slow. It may be too late for some rivers, beaches and even eco-systems. But the long-range signals of change are there to see.

This is where you can read about circular design. Please take a look.

Future thinking. Future proofing. It’s what we do.

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