Architecture and Design Reboot

How architects and designers are lending existing structures and materials a new life in order to save the planet.

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Recycling is great…in theory. In practice however, it is only as effective as the effort that is collectively put into it.  Sadly, recycling is not keeping up with the speed at which things are designed; that is to say with continually shorter lifespans and calculated obsolescence. The result is growing mounds of outmoded clothing, used furniture, empty buildings and other items we no longer have any desire to use, let alone all the plastic litter that is accumulating in our seas.

Curiously, the idea of recycling might be the very problem, since it creates the false illusion that as long as we toss that single-use plastic bottle into the recycling bin, then we can go on consuming all we want.

The reality is that only a fraction of our rubbish actually ends up recycled (50% at best, in Switzerland, much less in most other countries), a process that moreover requires a great deal of energy. Clearly, as every waste hierarchy diagram shows, it is more effective to reduce waste in the first place, followed by re-using things we already have. As unfashionable as that may seem in the architecture and design world where ‘new’ is always ‘more desirable’, this is precisely what a handful of practitioners are doing.

A good example of design that aims to reduce waste is the Elastic Living Unit by Austrian architect Angelo Roventa. If we could live in much smaller dwellings without sacrificing comfort too much, then we would go a long way toward consuming less land, construction material, and energy. Roventa’s flexible dwelling prototype permits spaces to be expanded or reduced as they are needed by way of sliding partitions that incorporate built-in furniture. When the kitchen, which is not needed while we sleep, is reduced in size it creates a bigger bedroom (and vice versa). Suitable for singles or couples living in dense urban centres where space is a premium, the ELU, if implemented widely, would create a significant impact on waste and energy reduction.

Camper Barcelona by Curro Claret

For the interior design of a Camper shoe store in central Barcelona, industrial designer Curro Claret collaborated with a team of homeless persons through the Arrels Foundation to make furnishings largely out of broken pieces of furniture retrieved from dumpsters. A steel joint that allows diverse supporting legs and an upper surface to be joined together into stools, benches, tables, or lamps lies at the core of this re-use strategy, resulting in a unique furniture line in which no two pieces are alike. Lampshades were crafted from slightly imperfect Camper shoelaces that could not be sold, saving those from the dustbin as well. The result is a store interior that revels in a mix-and-match approach toward re-use, all the while helping to shore up the Camper brand as socially and environmentally conscious.

Revamping unwanted buildings is another way of reducing waste. Lacaton Vassal saved a late 1950s Parisian housing block from the wrecking ball after convincing authorities that transformation was advantageous to demolition and constructing anew. The 16-storey, 96-unit Bois le Prêtre tower block was extended outward with winter gardens and balconies to enlarge dwellings and improve energy efficiency, rejuvenating the building’s urban presence at the same time. Remarkably, construction work was carried out with inhabitants continuing to live in the building, reducing disruption and maintaining the social character of the neighbourhood.

NL Architects/XVW Architectuur. © Stijn Poelstra

NL Architects together with XVW Architectuur also transformed a building originally slated for demolition, in this case a heroic late-modernist slab on the outskirts of Amsterdam containing no less than 500 dwellings. The transformation involved re-purposing the first two floors into live-work units alongside more generous double-height entranceways and passageways, creating a better interface with the city. The units were delivered structurally ‘raw’ for occupants to finish according to their needs, making them more affordable while providing greater flexibility.

Sala Beckett by Flores Prats © Adrià Goula

When architects Flores Prats were selected to transform a 19th century union hall into the new home of the Barcelona experimental theatre Sala Beckett, they decided to save and catalogue all architectural elements —doors, windows, even an entire wooden staircase— for eventual re-use in the theatre. Although the original building had to be completely adapted for its new function, and many of the elements needed to be adjusted to fit new locations, the result of this effort maintains much of the original building’s character and memory, not to mention much fewer skips having to be dumped at a landfill site.

As these examples demonstrate, architecture and design that aims to reduce or re-use waste can be every bit as creative and ‘novel’ —in spirit— as any other. By themselves, these projects are merely a drop in the ocean, of course, but their real value lies in opening an inspirational pathway toward less wasteful architecture and design. Besides, when it comes to sustainability, every little step in that direction adds up. What is needed now, if we want to seriously reduce the amount of waste we produce, is a move toward more projects like these, making reduction and re-use the new normal.

Main Image Sala Beckett by Flores Prats @ Adrià Goula

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