Modular Building Institute

MBI and BD+C Modular AdvantageSpring 2012

- A Green Life Cycle -

By Dru Meadows


Dru Meadows, principal with theGreenTeam Inc., is an architect, specifier, author, teacher, and environmentalist with 20+ years experience in sustainability consulting. She is a fellow with the Construction Specifications Institute and with ASTM International. Her work has received recognition from the City of Los Angeles, the state of Oklahoma, the White House, and the United Nations. She is a recognized expert in sustainability standards and has contributed to numerous programs, including development of the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) standards for Service Life for which she chaired the U.S. Technical Advisory Group and served as the American Delegate from 1999 – 2005.

Learning Objectives

To earn one AIA/CES learning unit, read this article and the test questions, then submit your answers by clicking the Submit Test Answers link at the bottom of this page.

1. Apply Building Service Life Planning (BSLP) concepts in the management of environmental impacts over the life cycle of a building.

2. Distinguish between reuse and recycling as waste management techniques.

3. Explain closed-loop life cycle concepts for building design using modular systems and relocatable modular building as examples.

4. Identify categories for deconstructable connections, materials, components, systems, and assemblies in terms of design characteristics.

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The demand for all things “green” was growing
prior to the 2009 economic meltdown. Subsequently, green was one of the few market survivors. Green has become the hip, modern ethic. Green is pure. It is functional. It is serviceable. It is durable. It is adaptable and flexible. In the aftermath of bursting bubbles, bankruptcies and global downsizing, there is a new market alchemy that blends environmentalism with streamlined practicality. 

The modern green ethic is both environmentally correct and economically pragmatic. Value is determined through consideration of a product’s full life cycle impacts. This is not necessarily a formalized process.  Academics may examine metrics for inputs and outputs. But, consumers tend to be more subjective. And, they tend to balance environmental concerns with economic concerns. For both academics and consumers, the ideal product is one that has a green life cycle. One that is reliable and adaptable. One that closes-the-loop, eliminating both environmental and economic waste.

Modular systems inherently possess green life cycles.  Modular systems are designed for flexibility, reconfiguration, upgrade, and reuse. In the new green market, modular systems can excel. Modular building products, for example, streamline modification of the space needs of a buidling owner. In the case of modular buildings, whole buildings may demonstrate – through intentional design – a green life cycle. The modules are prefabricated and so are able to optimize material use and minimize waste. They are designed with attention to right-sizing and dematerializing components. They can be easily deconstructed and reused, repurposed or recycled. Commercial modular building is reliable, adaptable and durable.

Until the early years of the 20th century, reliability, adaptability and durability were the top qualities for most industries, including the building industry. The successful business model was to develop a good, long-lived utilitarian product at a reasonable price. Businesses grew primarily through the development of new technologies and the new products associated with them. But, as people collected all the different gadgets, the market became saturated and advertisers began selling fashion. The latest and newest became the most desirable traits. Advertisers targeted "wants" instead of "needs." By 1925, for example, the Crane Company was promoting color in the bathroom.  Until then, everything was white. No one knew what they were missing. But, they learned quickly! Virtually overnight, demand for new colors penetrated the market. Various colors for sinks, tubs, and toilets spurred redecorating with matching colors of paints, flooring, and linens. Across industry sectors, perfectly useful items were replaced with new colors and models of the same thing.  Consumer demand for the latest fashion was shaped primarily by a new market philosophy – planned obsolescence. By 1930, planned obsolescence was a cornerstone of the economy. 

Planned Obsolescence

Design objective in which the goal is for a product to become obsolete after a certain period of time or after a certain number of uses.

Planned obsolescence is when a product is designed to become obsolete after a certain period of time or after a certain number of uses. Obsolescence may be a factor of function/performance, technology or of fashion. 

  • Function/performance. Cheap materials break. Buy a replacement.
  • Technology. Upgrades do not support the previous version(s). Buy the new model. 
  • Fashion. Styles change (again). Buy the latest. 

Planned obsolescence and waste go hand in hand. The fundamental intent of planned obsolescence is to shorten the lifespan of a product. The shorter the product lifecycle, the more frequently the customer must purchase a replacement. And, the more profits a company makes.

In an expanding economy, planned obsolescence may be a successful business model. However, in an economic downturn, customers start to challenge that approach. They examine their own desires and needs more closely. Where a need is long term, they want a product that will last. Where a need may be temporary, they rent instead of own. No industry sector demonstrates this more clearly than the building industry. The news consistently reports that homeowners are downsizing. And, financial gurus recommend renting instead of owning as the optimal investment strategy. Everyone aims to be more flexible, adapting what they have instead of replacing it.


The process of taking a building, or portion thereof, apart piece-by-piece, with the intent of repurposing, reusing, or recycling as many of the materials, products, and components, or assemblies as possible.

These are economic life cycle concerns. They align with environmental life cycle concerns. In other words, market demand is getting even greener – driven as much by economic factors as by environmental. Once again, flexibility and durability are optimum attributes. Once again, efficiency is prized. Waste is not acceptable.

Flexibility and deconstructability represent the opposite of planned obsolescence. Products should be durable and designed for adaptive reuse. Can you take it apart and repair it or rebuild it better? Can you upgrade it easily? Does the manufacturer offer support services for repair and replacement such as: diagnostic services, parts availability, upgrade notifications, customer service contact information, and online technical support? Buildings and building products should be designed for deconstruction. That is prerequisite for flexibility. It also makes it easier to recycle materials, supporting downstream waste management.


in economic terms, the absolute or relative reduction in the quantity of materials required to serve economic functions in society; in common terms, accomplishing the intended purpose with less materials (i.e. doing more with less)


to reduce to an optimal amount

Waste is money. Using resources (material, energy, water, and/or labor) that do not lead directly to creating the product that customers want, when they want it, is waste. Eliminating non-value added activity drives down costs and improves efficiencies in the manufacturing process.i Is the product dematerialized or right-sized? Is it designed for ease of transportation? Is it wasteful in operation or at the end of its useful life? These are the considerations for waste management.

Early efforts in waste management focused on end-of-pipe solutions. How to clean up the mess after it is made. Later, moving further up in the waste stream, efforts focused on pollution prevention. How to avoid the mess in the first place. Today, pollution prevention, while still important, is no longer cutting edge. The shift now is to closing-the-loop. The ideal is not waste minimization but waste elimination. Closing the loop means that materials cycle; they stay in a use-reuse-recycle-use loop.

reclamation or reuse in an enclosed process; utilization of a waste material as a resource

Waste stream
the total flow of unwanted material from human

Closing-the-loop is a completely different approach to managing a product life cycle than planned obsolescence. Planned obsolescence tries to make a product life as short as possible. Waste is good. Products should be used and disposed frequently. Closing-the-loop, on the other hand, seeks to eliminate waste. The full life cycle of the product is considered. Waste that may be produced at any phase, including the end of the product’s useful life, is identified and options to utilize that waste as a resource are developed. Resources cycle.

Evolution of Sustainable Product Designii 

Building Service Life Plan (BSLP)
a plan for building operation that manages performance requirements for the duration of the design life, the intended lifespan, of the building

Even though a closed-loop life cycle is designed for a product, it may not be realized. It takes continual management to implement a closed-loop life cycle. In the building industry, this may be best accomplished through a Building Service Life Plan (BSLP).

BSLP is a building operations and maintenance plan that specifically examines and helps manage the life cycle of the building and the materials, products, systems, and components within it. BSLP involves consideration of the likely performance of the building under the physical conditions applicable to it over the whole of its life - from design through construction, operation and maintenance, and deconstruction (or demolition). BSLP examines anticipated future repairs, removal, reuse, dismantling and disposal. It informs design decisions and guides construction, operation and maintenance.

BSLP is not a new concept although the term may be unfamiliar. In new construction, most building owners examine initial costs and return on investment when undertaking a project. In existing construction, most building owners evaluate the purchase of a new product in terms of the life cycle costs of the product relative to the length of time they expect to own the building. At a very fundamental level, that is Building Service Life Planning (BSLP).

Although BSLP utilizes and documents life cycle considerations, it should not be confused with a life cycle assessment (LCA). An LCA evaluates environmental impacts. An LCA is an estimate regarding the life cycle impacts of a product. It does not provide guidance to help realize the LCA projections. A BSLP, on the other hand, provides the plan for implementation. It is not a guarantee or warranty. It is a plan.

A critical portion of a BSLP is the plan for end-of-useful life of the building components and of the building itself. To support a closed-loop life cycle, the plan for end-of-use should address options for reuse, repurposing, and recycling.

Reuse and recycling are not interchangeable strategies because design for reuse is almost always preferable to design for recycling. The Scottish Ecological Design Association (SEDA) outlines the "hierarchy of waste minimization" for a building as follows, with number one being the highest and best use: iii

  1. Adaptive re-use of existing building
  2. Design for adaptability and longevity of new buildings
  3. Re-use of building elements/assemblies
  4. Re-use of building components
  5. Recycling of materials
  6. Reclamation of energy from building elements, components or materials
  7. Landfill

Reuse of buildings is not uncommon. It is very green. Adaptive reuse of buildings is often the best option environmentally, economically, and socially. There are over 75,227,000 existing owner-occupied homes in the U.S.iv There are over 5 million commercial buildings in the U.S., covering 72 billion square feet of floor space.v Why not use an existing structure? Vacancy rates that were fairly low prior to the global economic decline of 2009, have increased. There are a lot of opportunities for creative owners and renters to adapt existing buildings to new purpose. 

Reuse of building components is also green and can be very cost-effective. Unfortunately, salvage and reuse of building components tends to be an afterthought. It is usually a downstream solution to waste management. Without upstream effort, without the intentional design that facilitate deconstruction and repair, refinishing, upgrading, and reuse, it may be difficult and expensive to implement. To support a closed-loop life cycle, buildings and building components must be adaptable and flexible. They must be designed for deconstruction. 

The demolition of buildings produces enormous amounts of debris that in most countries results in a significant portion of the total municipal waste stream. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has estimated that 92% of all construction-related waste produced annually in the U.S. is the result of renovations and demolitions, and that this waste is upwards of 30% of all waste produced in the

"These are economic life cycle concerns. They align with environmental life cycle concerns.  In other words, market demand is getting even greener – driven as much by economic factors as by environmental. Once again, flexibility and durability are optimum attributes. Once again, efficiency is prized.  Waste is not acceptable!"

Deconstruction is emerging as an alternative to demolition around the world. The International Council for Research and Innovation in Building Construction (CIB) convened a Task Group in May 1999 to produce a comprehensive analysis of, and a report on, worldwide building deconstruction and materials reuse programs. The final report, "Deconstruction and Materials Reuse –an International Overview," was released in 2005.vii It is a state-of-the-art report on deconstruction and materials reuse in ten countries: Australia, Germany, Israel, Japan, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Turkey, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Numerous programs recognize the importance of designing for deconstruction in sustainable building. Some programs offer specific credit on the topic. For example, the Collaborative for High Performance Schools (CHPS) assessment methodology includes an Innovation Credit for Design for Adaptability, Durability and Disassembly.viiii 

The amount of resources contained in our existing building stock is significant.  Deconstruction is a critical tool in mining these resources. A BSLP should support deconstruction. It should include deconstructable connections, materials, components, systems, and assemblies. Generally, these fall into three categories:

  1. Modular components, systems, and assemblies.
  2. Mechanical connections and attachments.
  3. Materials, components, systems, assemblies, and modules intended for reuse or repurpose.

Modularization, in particular, can support a closed-loop life cycle. Modular systems or modular component systems (meaning entire portions of a building or building system constructed and shipped to site) tend to generate less waste and allow more recapturing of waste for recycling and reuse. They can be easily reconfigured, expanded, and/or transitioned for reuse in other projects. Modular systems also tend to require less labor and less skilled labor (think of assembly line versus field constructed). The systems allow for mass customization. Flexibility and originality of design are not lost, but are managed specifically to balance with efficient materials use.

Modular design and systems are available for many building products including: lighting, flooring, cladding, and furniture. All share similar advantages for flexibility and adaptability. All are designed for scalability, adding or removing modules as needs change. Most demonstrate efficiencies in performance and waste management that simply are not attainable without modularization.

At the pinnacle of modularization are modular buildings themselves. Commercial modular buildings are non-residential structures that are 60 to 90 percent prefabricated off-site in a controlled environment, with final assembly in the field at the building site. Modules may comprise the entire building or be components or subassemblies of larger structures. They may be intended for long-term (permanent) installations or for short-term, (relocatable) applications. 

Modular Building

prefabricated unit(s) designed to be transported to and assembled at a project site

Modular buildings inherently operate with a closed-loop life cycle. Because modular buildings are prefabricated, they are able to optimize material use and minimize waste. Because modular buildings are designed for transportation in component modules, they have both size and weight limitations. So they are design with attention to right-sizing and dematerializing components. Because modular buildings are designed to assemble modules in the field, they support deconstruction as well. Simply reverse the process.  Relocatable modular buildings in particular are designed for disassembly. And, for reassembly. Relocatable modular buildings are utilized for schools, construction site offices, medical clinics, sales centers, and in any application where a relocatable building can meet a short term space need. These buildings offer fast delivery, ease of relocation, low-cost reconfiguration, accelerated depreciation schedules, and enormous flexibility. Relocatable modular buildings are designed and built to be demountable.   

Relocatable modular buildings are uniquely green. They are one of the few building types that are expressly designed for reuse. 



AIA Continuing Education Test

1. Planned obsolescence:

a. aims to shorten a product’s life cycle
b. dominated the market by 1930
c. promotes waste
d. all of the above

2. Economic life cycle concerns align with environmental life cycle concerns.

a. True
b. False

3. Flexibility and deconstructability represent the opposite of:

a. planned obsolescence
b. the warranty period
c. life cycle assessment
d. dematerialization

4. Sustainable design for both buildings and building products should target a closed-loop life cycle in order to:
a. provide an end-of-pipe solution
b. promote pollution prevention
c. meet green building requirements
d. promote waste elimination and cycle resources

5. Reuse and recycling offer the same green approach to waste management.

a. True
b. False

6. Implementation of a closed-loop life cycle may be best accomplished through a

a. Life Cycle Assessment (LCA)
b. Building Service Life Plan (BSLP). 
c. Third-party inspection agency approvals.
d. Modularization.

7. The demolition of buildings produces approximately:

a. 30% of all construction-related waste produced annually in the U.S
b. 92% of all construction-related waste produced annually in the U.S
c. 92% of all waste produced annually in the U.S
d. 15% of all construction-related waste produced annually in the U.S
8. Categories for deconstructable connections, materials, components, systems, and assemblies include all but which of the following:

a. modular components, systems, and assemblies.
b. mechanical connections and attachments.
c. recycled content materials.
d. materials, components, systems, assemblies, and modules intended for reuse or repurpose.

9. Modular design and systems are available for many building products including: 
a. lighting, flooring, cladding, and furniture.
b. lighting, painting, cladding, and furniture.
c. lighting, plumbing, and mechanical distribution systems.
d. office furniture and interior wall finishes.

10. Relocatable modular buildings are uniquely green because they:

a. are 60 to 90 percent prefabricated off-site in a controlled environment.
b. optimize material use and minimize waste.
c. are one of the few building types that are expressly designed to be deconstructed and reused. 
d. are design with attention to right-sizing and dematerializing components.

In order to maintain high-quality learning experiences, please access the evaluation for this course by logging into CES Discovery at and clicking on the course evaluation link on the left side of the page.



i - For more information about Lean manufacturing, visit the National Institute of Standards and Technology Manufacturing Extension Partnership. To learn more about the connections between Lean manufacturing and the environment, visit EPA's Lean and Environment Initiative.

ii - OECD; Sustainable Manufacturing And Eco-Innovation: Framework, Practices And Measurement – Synthesis Report;  2009; (accessed January 17, 2011)

iii - SEDA: Scottish Ecological Design Association (SEDA); Design for Deconstruction; SEDA Design Guides for Scotland : No. 1;

iv - Census Bureau 2006

v - EIA (2006) 2003 Commercial Buildings Energy Consumption Survey.

vi - DfD Seattle: DfD: Design for Disassembly in the Built Environment; City of Seattle, King County, WA, and Resource Venture, Inc. by the Hamer Center for Community Design, The Pennsylvania State University;

vii - CIB: Deconstruction and Materials Reuse –an International Overview; CIB Publication 300, Final Report of Task Group 39 on Deconstruction; Edited by Abdol R. Chini, University of Florida; CIB, International Council for Research and Innovation in Building Construction - Task Group 39: Deconstruction;

viii - CHPS BEST PRACTICES MANUAL RELOCATABLE CLASSROOMS © 2009 CHPS, INC: (see CHPS Innovation Credit: LEI 3.2 Design for Adaptability, Durability and Disassembly) 


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