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An end to demolition? Considering the future of our built environment
January 31, 2024
It may not be part of your vocabulary yet, but domicology is a vital part of the world around you. Pronounced “DOH-mi-KAHL-uh-gee,” it’s the study of the life cycle of the built environment: the economic, social, and environmental impacts of the structures people make and what happens when they no longer fulfill their function.
MSU Museum Director of Exhibitions Teresa Goforth interacts with a Lego display at a reception for the EGLE-cosponsored "Domicology" exhibition at the museum through March 30. Photo by Aaron Wood, courtesy of the MSU Museum.
Now through March 30, it’s also the subject of a first-of-its-kind museum exhibition co-sponsored by the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE).
“Domicology: Creating a Sustainable Built Environment” at the Michigan State University (MSU) Museum’s Sandbox Gallery is curated by faculty and staff from MSU’s Center for Community and Economic Development; the MSU School of Planning, Design and Construction; and MSU Surplus and Recycling. It focuses on the need for sustainable and “circular” innovations, such as deconstruction, material salvage and reuse, and the development of resale markets. The concept of “designing for deconstruction” explores how structures can be built with sustainability in mind.
The relatively new science aligns with recent modernization of Michigan solid waste laws to prioritize materials management and recovery over landfill disposal – “higher, better use,” according to Rhonda Oyer, manager of the solid waste section in EGLE’s Materials Management Division and an advisor on the exhibition.
Oyer said scrap from building construction waste and demolition is bulky and takes up lots of landfill space. Much of it – like salvaged lumber – could be recycled or reused if undamaged. Better planning and innovation, such as flexible design and modular construction, could even extend buildings’ useful lifespan and make them easier to take apart rather than tear down when the end comes. Keeping demolition waste out of landfills also reduces greenhouse gas emissions by averting the release of methane and carbon dioxide from decomposition of the materials.
“Michigan is transitioning from a focus on landfill capacity to a focus on a sustainable materials management strategy – keeping materials out of landfills,” Oyer said, noting that 80-90% of building materials are potentially recoverable. “Whatever tiny fraction is left after a building is disassembled, that’s all that should be going into the landfill.”
According to an article on domicology in The Conversation, most abandoned structures currently are removed by demolition and landfilling – often paid for with public funds. Demolition of more than 300,000 U.S. houses a year generates about 22% of the country’s solid waste stream.
Visitors to the exhibition will see the consequences of noncircular building life cycles, including depictions of blighted communities and the results of abandoning structures. But the exhibition also presents a hopeful vision of a circular approach to the end-of-life stages of structures, including deconstruction, material salvage reuse possibilities, and the development of resale markets.
Oyer said sponsors are looking for other hosts for the exhibition after it leaves the MSU Museum at the end of March.
Visit Michigan.gov/SolidWaste to learn more about Michigan’s transition to a circular economy, EGLE’s Virtual Materials Management Conference, and current deconstruction efforts with MSU, the Mid-Michigan Environmental Action Council, and the Ingham County Land Bank.