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Reclamation and reuse of building materials in UK agriculture

Have you ever dismantled and rebuilt a farm building? Bought or sold a second-hand steel portal frame?

 

Within architecture a group of us look upon the farming industry as leading the way in this fundamentally ‘sustainable’ construction practice, writes Samuel Little.

In a world of ever-increasing waste and dwindling natural resources, the reuse of building materials is becoming an increasingly important conversation.

 

At the Architectural Association, while investigating the UK’s diminishing reuse of structural steel, we have found one place where it remains alive and well. That is within agriculture.

 

It would seem that us architects have a lot to learn from you farmers about reusing building materials, especially steel. To see a second hand portal frame building, a used grain store or prefabricated poultry shed for sale within the classifieds of farming publications is not unusual.

 

Anecdotal evidence suggests it is a rural economy widespread throughout the country. But why should we take note of this phenomenon to reuse steel buildings? To farmers building material reuse might seem unremarkable. Granted it was once widespread throughout the construction industry.

 

But what is remarkable is that having largely disappeared it has remained within agriculture. Reusing a structurally sound steel frame should have no fundamental barriers. So perhaps unknowingly, the farming industry is that last bastion of common sense.

 

A point of resistance to society’s consumer-driven urge to ‘buy new’. Other industries would shout about it and celebrate this as a ‘circular economy’. That enviable economic system that is a hot topic with academics, industry and governments alike.

 

As a society (now and into the future) we are to minimise waste and pollution, keep products and materials in use for as long as possible. ‘Reuse’ should therefore be encouraged, not only because it prevents materials heading to landfill but preferred to ‘recycling’ because it requires very little energy or processes to carry it out.


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Reusing a steel frame saves the planet from the manufacture of new steel, a material whose production accounts for up to 9% of global carbon emissions.

 

The concept of ‘embodied carbon’ refers to the emissions produced during the extraction, processing, manufacture and mtransportation of new materials. In other words it documents how environmentally harmful specific building materials are when used in a new building project.

 

Because reclaimed materials already exist, their levels of ‘embodied carbon’ are negligible or do no exist at all and are the most ‘sustainable’ materials on the mmarket.

 

You may be quick to state that the ‘reuse’ of materials has always been present in farming, or that it is largely not a question of ‘saving carbon’ but ‘saving money’. Does this distinction matter?

 

Being conscious of the cost benefits of reuse often accompanies a greater awareness of the material implications of construction projects.

 

Multinational companies are quick to jump on any opportunity for their working practices to be seen in some ways ’sustainable’ even when often they originate for pragmatic reasons. I think the farming industry should embrace this corporate approach.

 

From an outsider’s perspective contemporary farming has been under intense scrutiny in regards to sustainability. Farmers should respond by being proactive in embracing those areas where they are leading the way.

 

If the only surviving niche for structural steel reuse is agriculture, the farming community should be proud of this and celebrate it. If ‘reuse’ is the new thing in architecture, farmers should stand up and demand acknowledgement that they have been doing it all along.

 

My ongoing project at the Architectural Association on the subject of reuse is hoping to reach out into the fields and hear about your farm buildings. Have you ever reclaimed materials? or reused a steel frame?

 

Please get in touch with photos and examples to samuel.little@aaschool.ac.uk. However mundane, we rely on tangible documentary evidence for a number of research and future publishing projects. We look forward to hearing from you and watch this space.

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