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When it comes to architecture, upcycling is the new recycling.
Man standing in front of a wall made of crushed plastic bottles
image © Project.DWG

What Is Sustainable Architecture?

In the recent decades, the terms “sustainability” and “ecological” are popping up at an increasing and alarming frequency. The concerns about climate change are at an all-time high in today’s world, and the impact of the built environment contributes a significant and cumulative damage to this crisis.

Sustainable architecture seeks to minimize this negative impact, by prioritizing efficient and deliberate use of materials, energy and design. The aim is energy and ecological conservation integrated into the design of the built environment to minimize its environmental footprint.

Sustainable architecture seeks to leave a more ecologically responsible world for the future generations.

A Second Life

There are many approaches to achieving a more sustainable design in architecture. Recycling, or upcycling, materials is an interesting one, with many possibilities and potential for new discoveries. Also known as creative use, upcycling transforms discarded products into new materials for a more sustainable or better quality usage. It allows an innovative and resourceful approach that allows for experimenting room for the designers.

The reuse or exploitation of waste as raw material restarts the life cycle of the discarded material.

A second life, reborn from the ashes of its previous. The cradle-to-grave effect reversed into the cradle-to-cradle one.

Inspired by the use of roof tiles as brise-soleil in 2018 Serpentine Pavilion, we take a look at projects that have repurposed and recycled materials at their heart, whether for structural, aesthetic or experimental purposes.

Structuring the Recycled

It is possible to argue that the use of recycled materials in construction is at its most functional when integrated into the structure itself. Far from any aesthetic concern, the discarded materials are transformed in such a way as to form the supportive skeleton of the building.

One of the simplest yet most interesting and known examples of this is the work Shigeru Ban, with his use cardboard paper tubes. Integrated into various projects such as The Cardboard Cathedral in New Zealand and The Japan Pavilion Expo 2000 in Hannover, the columns of cardboard tubes provide a simple elegance to the space, as well as a sustainable approach to design.

Interior of the Japan Pavilion Expo 2000, with a structural mesh of cardboard tubes
The Japan Pavilion Expo 2000 – image © Hiroyuki Hirai

The ingenious, low-cost and sustainable use of the paper tubes as structure also led to Shigeru Ban’s design of disaster relief shelters, which were later used in Turkey, India, Sri Lanka, China, Italy, Haiti and Japan among other countries.

23 cottages in a row with large cardboard tube facades and tent-like roofs
Shigeru Ban’s Paper Log House – image © Takanobu Sakuma

Shigeru Ban has also designed emergency shelters reusing the rubble, which also brings us to our next architect, Nicolàs Campodonico. In the Capilla San Barnardo project, Campodonico has designed a chapel in Córdoba, Argentina with a façade made of bricks recycled from a rural house. The result is an impressive structure interwoven with local history of more than 100 hundred years.

A cube-like building sits in the middle of a garden with a low arc opening as an enhtrance
Entrance to theCapilla San Barnardo – image © Nicolàs Campodonico

Perhaps, the most commonly seen example of using recycled materials in the structure of the built environment is the use of shipping containers. Almost like Lego blocks, the shipping containers lend themselves to new functional purposes due their simple shapes, and modular nature.

Notable examples are the many projects of Freight Farms, ranging from shops and offices, to a nightclub, stadium and even a farm. It is also possible to find many examples of shipping containers transformed into housing units, such as the intriguing Carroll House by LOT_EK and the beautiful Grillagh Water House by Patrick Bradley Architects.

Grillagh Water House, where the entrance floor is a container with a rusted metal  finishing, and the top floor is perpendicularly placed glass and metal container
Grillagh Water House made of shipping containers – image © Aidan Monaghan

The Aesthetics of Recycling

There are also many projects that use upcycled materials for creative, visual purposes. A wide range of scrapped items are given a second life in these projects, not just to be hidden away in the structure, but to serve as the aesthetic focus.

In Gallery of Furniture, CHYBIK+KRISTOF Architects & Urban Designers have created a whole façade out of recycled plastic chairs. Arranged in an alternating pattern, the chair seats act both as an eye-catching surface and a banner for the furniture showroom inside the building.

The Gallery of Furniture with the whole facade covered in black plastic chair seats
The Gallery of Furniture – image © Lukas Pelech

Another simple, yet eye-catching example of upcycling can be seen in the Luxury Pavilion by Fahed + Architects. The Abwab 2017, designed for the Dubai Design Week, features a lightweight, translucent mesh made of recycled bedsprings, proving that a luxury structure can be made from discarded materials.

A curved, semi-transparent building in the middle of a square with a copper-colored mesh facade
The Luxury Pavilion – image © Fahed+ Architects

Project.DWG and LOOS.FM have created a temporary structure in Netherlands called the PET Pavilion to draw attention to issues of sustainable building and recycling. The thought-provoking pavilion is made up of a steel framework structure, covered with a translucent wall made of 40,000 plastics bottles and caps.

Outside of the PET Pavilion, a rectangular building with a facade layer of crushed plastic bottles, and a large group of people standing outside in the garden
The PET Pavilion – image © Project.DWG
Man standing in front of a wall made of crushed plastic bottles
The bottles create a unique translucent effect – image © Project.DWG

A more innovative approach to upcycling materials comes from the Emerging Objects studio in their Backyard Cabin project. The studio has recycled agricultural and industrial waste products, ground and mixed them into 3D printed tiles that make up the façade. The result is an intriguing, joyful mosaic of earth-toned tiles, arranged like chocolates in a box, with lively bursts of colour from the planted succulents.

Left: exterior of the Backyard Cabin with its tiled plant facade, a girl enters the building. Right: close-up of the tile mosaic
The Backyard Cabin – image © Matthew Millman

Experimenting With Waste

Transforming a no longer needed product or material into a new one isn’t a new notion. However, with the evolving technology, upcycling opens up new paths for experimenting with new materials and structures for future designs.

An impressive example of this is designed by Emerging Objects, the studio who provided us with The Backyard Cabin. Made of 3D printed salt panels, Saltygloo is a lightweight shelter-like structure that can be replicated in large scales. The locally harvested salt mixed with glue creates a waterproof, strong and cheap material that can be used in any structure.

Girl inside the translucent Saltygloo pavilion reaching up towards the salt panels
Saltygloo – image © Emerging Objects

The company Stonecycling, founded by Tom van Soest and Ward Massa, does exactly as promised: recycles the raw materials that are left behind in demolitions, such as stones, bricks and solar panels. The materials, which would otherwise be landfill, are given a second life by being turned into cladding, or roofing tiles.

Samll tiles of recycled materials
Samples of repurposed materials – image © Stonecycling

In a world where the climate change is a serious concern, upcycling in architecture is a step towards a more sustainable and responsible future.


Reading Recommendations

Shigeru Ban: Paper in Architecture by Riichi Miyake, Ian Luna and Lauren A. Gould

Green Style by booQs

Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things by Michael Braungart


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