Pens, Single Use Plastics & Modern Construction

Posted by on Aug 24, 2018 in Building Surveying

Pens, Single Use Plastics & Modern Construction

Having recently read a few Philip Hesketh books, an anecdote of his about a fountain pen made me think. For anyone technical, or who likes brands and design, pens always hold an allure, particularly expensive ones. The technology, although simple compared with many walks of life, is basic but often elegant. The different variations on the holding and dispersal of the ink can be particularly innovative. The implications for use of materials in the different approaches is an interesting case study in how a little more thought, and perhaps up-front investment, changes the way the parts are used through the lifetime of the pen.

The biro is a great invention, often reliable, cheap, mass produced but very quickly the whole thing is in the bin. Or no-one cares when they misplace one and pick a new one from the box of 50.

The ink pen with disposable cartridges is often pricier, and the pen itself might last longer. But the cartridges (which technically can be topped up) are often binned when empty.

Other systems exist. I’ve seen one with a screw-driven plunger arrangement which draws the ink in. No parts need be disposed of between refills.

I’m sure it’s obvious how initial purchase cost changes between the three options.

A similar effect can be seen in construction, whereby some buildings are designed so their elements either last a very long time, or simple cheap maintenance can be carried out which extends the life of the element almost indefinitely. Design can allow for easy maintenance. Good detailing provides complementary materials and arrangements so one element protects another, or ensures the cheaper part fails first. This is more often the case in older buildings, constructed in a time when materials and the energy to make them were harder to come by.

In contrast many modern buildings have an effective design life of thirty years. We see properties built in the 90s being torn down now. Modern construction may pay lip-service to BREEAM or LEED, PFI schemes may be delivered with Facilities Management partners, but no-one plans for it to last all that much longer. Even if the structure lasts sixty years, or a hundred, flexible elements of the external walls and roofs might last fifteen years or even ten. Active mechanical systems have significant elements replaced after ten or fifteen years.

This “Kleenex culture” of planned obsolescence, or worse just a lack of care for the impact on energy use and materials over the long term, has been in place for decades. I recall reading about it when I was in school. It is all pervasive and is the same thinking that results in the abuse of single-use plastics now at the top of the political agenda.

We work with old buildings at GLM not because of some romanticism of the past (although that can come in to it, look at some of the things we work on!), but because we believe in sensible stewardship of our natural resources and the built fabric we already have as much as possible. This extends to our new builds such as John O’Groats and St Comghan’s Chapel, constructed with sustainability – true sustainability, not eco-bling greenwash – built in.

If you also care about truly sustainable construction, that works economically, socially and financially then please get in touch.

Aythan Lewes

Associate Director

Chartered Building Surveyor