header2Walter Segal Self Build Trustheader2




The life and death of buildings

pvale1As many self builders come to realise the business of completing a building can become an infinitely extended process. This need not be a subject for concern or disenchantment, rather it is better to see the construction, use and eventual disposal of a building as parts of a continuum: different but complementary aspects of its life-cycle.

Most buildings exhibit signs of how they have been altered and adapted by their occupant or occupants over time. Such changes are brought about in response to the different needs, uses or fashions that have affected its users. A good, wholesome building can adapt readily to these changing demands, becoming more interesting and satisfying to behold and to use as time goes by. A poor one will be awkward or expensive to adapt and eventually will be better demolished and replaced rather than re-used. In ecological terms this is wasteful of both materials and energy.

The periodic maintenance required of any building is an integral aspect of the life cycle of the building, and so is something to be carried out routinely and regularly rather than only in response to something going wrong. Having participated in the design and construction of their houses, self builders are generally far better placed than most householders not only to see where maintenance is required but also to carry it out themselves, promptly and economically.

Furthermore, the long term maintenance and future adaptability of a building should be considered from the earliest design stages and then throughout the construction period. Buildings should be designed to minimise maintenance, but inevitably some will be required, and this should be able to be carried out safely and easily using simple, economical and readily available components and materials. You should ensure that particularly vulnerable areas are capable of regular inspection and give easy and safe access for cleaning and repairs (for instance by building in ladder fixings).

When changing needs call for adaptation a good, wholesome building allows alterations to be made easily and economically and with minimal disturbance to the essential fabric. Changes to the services, the cabling, pipework and so on can be done without interference with the finish of the building. Internal alterations to rooms, and to door and window openings, can be carried out without affecting the main structure. External alterations, extensions and additions should be as easy as possible to make.

Eventually, even allowing for periodic adaptation and assuming regular and preventative maintenance, most buildings will reach the end of their usefulness and will be required to be demolished, with the land then being used for some other purpose. Ideally the old building should be capable of being dismantled piece by piece with minimal damage to the individual components, so that they can be directly re-used in subsequent projects. Those components that cannot be directly re-used should be capable of being recycled to provide the raw materials for new products, or as a final option, be readily disposed of in a way that releases no toxins into the environment, but that breaks down naturally to provide benign organic or inorganic matter.

Such possibilities depend on the choices made at the very earliest stages in the design and specification of the building. It may seem rather perverse to be anticipating the eventual demise of a building that is not yet started, but this is what is required if an holistic approach is to be taken to the design, construction, use and eventual demolition of a structure. By considering all these aspects of the life cycle of the building together, certain themes will re-occur: flexibility, adaptability, extendibility, repairability and replaceability that will allow the building to be reponsive to the changing needs of its users and to have minimal impact on the wider environment.

With the passing of a building aim to leave the site that it occupied in no worse a condition than it enjoyed before the construction began. The legacy of a good building will be an enhanced environment, an improved landscape, suitable drainage, and perhaps increased shelter. Above all it will live on as a happy memory in the minds of all those who had the chance to use it.


  • Design and build to allow for future inspection and access for repairs. Photograph the building under construction, this will provide a very useful record for use during later works. it will also show how the building is ageing and highlight areas of future maintenance.
  • Compile a manual of routine repairs and when they were carried out. This might also contain service guarantees and references for future suppliers.
  • Choose products that can be repaired. Do not assume that products marketed as ‘low maintenance’ will never require looking after. Some of them are actually very difficult to maintain and are really designed to be discarded if they become degraded.
  • If materials are bolted or screwed together they are easier to dismantle than those that are nailed or glued. Similarly, soft mortars make masonry easier to re-use than hard, cement-based products.
  • Untreated organic materials such as timber, straw, cellulose or wool will decompose safely when no longer required. If properly incorporated into a building, they are durable enough. Avoid timber treated with toxic chemicals as is difficult to dispose of safely.
  • Minimise the use of highly processed materials particularly those that rely on finite resources, generate toxic by-products or require high energy inputs in their manufacture. where these elements are used e.g. metal pipework or cabling, incorporate them into the building in such a way as to make their eventual removal and re-use as easy as possible.


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