Wasted opportunities: a model for the sustainable recalibration of suburbia

Susannah Howlett

[email protected]
Hero Img 2 Susannah Howlett
The linear vs circular economy

The single, detached dwelling on the sizeable section drives the development of the suburban environment in New Zealand. However, a growing population and increasing pressure on available land contribute to the rising unaffordability of residential housing. In response, a built landscape has emerged dominated by the replicated economic formula of the detached dwelling, resulting in a banal suburban condition. Failing to respond to the demands of a modern population, this unsustainable mode of living presents a wasted opportunity. 

As we seek more sustainable housing options for shifting family dynamics, how can the suburban house be reinvented to offer a society accustomed to the autonomy of the quarter-acre dream; a gentle introduction to density?

In focusing on the bottom line, the construction industry has mostly disregarded its social responsibility and currently contributes to 50% of all waste sent to landfill in New Zealand. With a growing population and continued demand for housing, high levels of construction and demolition waste materials will keep increasing the strain on our fragile environment. However, with the introduction of the Auckland regional focus for a target of zero waste by 2040, the construction industry is under growing pressure to take a broader view of its responsibilities, particularly those directed at waste minimisation.

This thesis centres on the principles of the circular economy, which have become widely accepted as the most sustainable option for waste reduction. Despite the circular economy being recognised by public authorities as the favoured approach to waste minimisation, the construction industry continues to operate within an outdated linear methodology. This thesis supports an industry that is circular in nature, where construction and demolition waste is diverted from landfill. It questions how we can close this loop with a system which facilitates the endless reuse of materials.

This thesis pursues these two interrelated but distinct agendas: the reinvention of the suburb and the closed-loop circular economy. The project investigates an online application designed to facilitate the exchange of reclaimed construction and demolition waste. Implications of the application are applied at the scale of a typical Auckland suburban site, to demonstrate how to use the principles of a circular economy in support of an architectural condition without compromising on cost, quality or aesthetic.


Operating within a linear model of resource consumption, the construction industry currently follows a 'take, make, dispose' methodology where natural resources are extracted from the environment and manufactured into components to be sold, consumed, and ultimately disposed of as waste at the end of the value chain.

Demolishing existing buildings and disposing of materials is not a resource-efficient practice. As resources become harder and more expensive to access, it is critical that the construction industry closes this 'loop' and finds an alternative means of sourcing materials. This thesis explores how the concepts of a circular model can be applied to facilitate the transition of the construction industry towards an industry that is circular in nature, where resources are reused, re-manufactured, or reassembled instead of discarded. 

At its core, the circular economy aims to design out waste by transitioning away from a linear model towards an approach which is regenerative by design and where natural capital is preserved and enhanced through repetitive loops and materials maintained at their highest possible intrinsic values. This thesis focuses on the practice of 'deconstruction': the method of dismantling buildings to maximise the reuse potential of its components, as opposed to 'demolition,': erasing a building in such a way that its components are fit for nothing more than landfill. 

Being able to extract intact components from buildings is essential to applying the principles of the circular economy. Buildings that are undergoing renovation or that have reached end of life will contain materials that can be reused or recycled. Careful, selective dismantling and separation will reduce the volume of waste disposed of to landfill.

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The exploded axonometric quantifies and catalogues the construction material tied up within a typical Auckland suburban detached dwelling, which would be directed to landfill under existing linear construction methods of demolition


To transition to a zero-waste industry, there needs to be an active market for reclaimed materials. Technological advances and an understanding of sharing economy benefits are encouraging a shift in the way that resources are used and accessed. The sharing economy is an economic model defined as a peer-to-peer based activity and is a means of acquiring, providing, or sharing access to goods and services, often through a community based online platform. 

Matching supply with demand through an online market place makes it easier to locate, share, and exchange goods and services, saving both time and money. A digital marketplace provides an accessible platform for resource optimisation, a concept central to the methodology of the sharing economy, and one that is integral to the development towards a circular economy.

This thesis supports the formation of a system based application designed to enable the exchange of reclaimed construction and demolition waste within New Zealand. The proposed application ‘ReSource’ is an online material marketplace, through which the public and private sectors can locate and procure reclaimed and recycled materials. Once materials have been uploaded, they can be sourced via an interactive map linking to a library of material components and their geolocations. The application will operate alongside localised distribution centres (together with private entities), providing a nationally accessible, online catalogue of recyclable materials which would have otherwise been hard to find or sent to landfill. As a resource for facilitating the exchange of recovered waste, the ReSource app closes the loop on the construction industry, while providing architects and designers with access to quality reclaimed materials enabling the opportunity to design with 'waste.’

3 5 Diagram Susannah Howlett

Finished Product

4 2 Map Susannah Howlett
Incremental transition towards a more sustainable density of living

The implications of the ReSource application were tested back at the scale of a typical suburban site to demonstrate how architects can use reclaimed materials in the retrofit of existing suburbs into more densified living conditions. As a result, this thesis proposes a conceptual housing schematic for applying a gentle, incremental densification framework across several adjoining suburban sites. This densification framework intends to start on a typical Auckland site before becoming a catalyst for expansion across the block and finally, a model to replicate across other established suburban locations. 

The housing schematic proposes the deconstruction and reconfiguration of a single stand-alone house on a 300 square meter site at Sohlue Place. The existing dwelling will be re-configured into three smaller stand-alone houses on the same site. It is proposed that the construction of these new houses will use materials from the existing stand-alone house, together with reclaimed materials sourced locally through the ReSource app. The design increases the number of dwellings on the neighbourhood block from 5 to up to 15. While small in footprint, increased density is achieved, which does not compromise liveability. The design adopts a ‘build less, give more’ mentality that endeavours to maximise opportunities for collective benefits through a density that fosters community. 

As incrementality is achieved across the block, perimeter fences will be removed, and houses will become linked by neighbourhood commons spanning multiple backyards, providing for the establishment of quality, shared, open spaces for gardening, recreation and play. The intimate scale of the houses will enable privacy, but the absence of high fences encourages the possibility for spontaneous social interaction and community involvement, a condition currently lacking in our suburban environment.

The ReSource application demonstrates that by using reclaimed materials sourced through the app, new living conditions can be achieved within the parameters of social and environmentally sustainable construction practices. Cost savings achieved through the use of reclaimed, but not inferior construction materials, evoke a sense of empowerment by enabling whole different sections of society to define their own living standards. A collective societal involvement will be the impetus towards a more sustainable mode of living.

4 5 Render Susannah Howlett
4 6 Render2 Susannah Howlett
4 Scheme Susannah Howlett
4 1 Site Map Susannah Howlett
Proposed site plan
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The exploded axonometric of the proposed dwelling at Sohlue Place quantifies and catalogues the amount of construction material tied up within this new dwelling. The material catalogue separates materials recovered from the existing dwelling together with materials accessed through the ReSource app to demonstrate the possible reuse of demolition waste

Critic's Text

Susie engages with a very real issue in a tangible way right on the cusp of significant industrial change. She looks at stand-alone, market-driven housing stock and resulting issues of consumption and waste (of land, materials, resources and social potential) presented in its construction and operation. Susie takes an entrepreneurial approach to the problem of how we might create a circular economy inside the house building sector. Through the work, she asks ‘what if we start joining some of the existing dots together to create a solution to the issue of material recycling?; what if we make this small tweak here? what measurable change might result?’ This approach allows her to reach across disciplinary boundaries as she surveys the opportunities.

Her project is brave for an MArch(Prof) thesis in that the central output of the research is not architectural but is technological – an ‘app’ that she envisages would become commonplace within the local building industry. It would establish a network of recycling centres where used building materials could be collected, curated and traded. Susie brings a sense that her app is the key, and we are so very near realising her vision. The project is entirely credible.

Susie then looks at the possible architectural implications of her app through an architectural project that critically recasts the kind of neighbourhood that has created the conditions of consumption and waste her research addresses. With that, she closes a sophisticated critical loop while also demonstrating her practice and where she wants to go: it is a forward-looking piece of research.

— Mike Davies, supervisor