The Re-Use Atlas: A designer’s guide to the circular economy
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Entry number 14
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Since the Waste House was completed in June 2014, Duncan Baker-Brown has been working on a book that considers the challenges and opportunities presenting designers and clients who wish to ‘mine the anthropocene’, i.e.work with existing places, communities and stuff previously mined and processed. Duncan’s recently published book is entitled ‘The Re-Use Atlas: A Designer’s Guide to the Circular Economy’ and this blog provides an opportunity to read parts of the book, enjoy!
Part 2 of the atlas is divided into four chapters, taking the reader on a step-by-step route towards closed loop systems. Each ‘step’ contains a number of case studies that capture some of Duncan’s first-hand research, gleaned from interviewing over fifty people involved in inspiring projects from around the world that tackle recycling, re-use, the reduction of resource use, and finally closed loop systems. These case studies are supplemented with one longer interview with a significant protagonist from each of the aforementioned steps. Therefore unless stated otherwise, any comments quoted from people in the case studies have been taken directly from interviews Duncan had personally with them.
Step 3 Reducing the amount of material used
Lionel Billiet of Rotor
The Rotor case study can be found here
DBB: How did you start working for Rotor? You aren’t a designer or architect, are you?
LB: My first contact with Rotor was in 2007, as a helping hand on the construction of a temporary headquarters made out of reclaimed materials in the centre of Brussels. When I graduated as a biochemist in 2010, Rotor was looking for someone with a scientific profile to work on a research project related to building and demolition waste. I applied for the job and that’s how I joined the team. Within Rotor, I was in the first years mainly involved as researcher and entrepreneur in the launching of Rotor Deconstruction.
DBB: What came first for Rotor: the live projects or the research projects?
LB: From what I know, the two aspects were both present since the beginning.
DBB: I would like to know more about Rotor’s Vade Mecum, or Handbook for Off-site Reuse. How did this project come about?
LB: For a couple of years, there has been a political will to encourage reuse in the Brussels building sector. Public authorities were looking for the best ways to encourage such practices. Instead of trying to create a whole sector from scratch, we suggested it was maybe more relevant to learn [more about] the existing sector for reused materials, and to support its further development. This was the starting point of the Opalis project, a survey where we identified and documented more than 100 reclaimed materials dealers in Belgium and in the neighbouring regions (see www.opalis. be). With the Opalis website, local architects and builders were now able to find easily a supplier of reused materials for their projects. But these suppliers can also turn out to be purchasers when it comes to evacuating reusable components from a soon-to-be- demolished building. Our long-term vision is that before every large demolition or renovation, the option of organising a salvage phase should be at least considered. In the cases where it is feasible and relevant, the reusable components would be offered to a dedicated professional sector and the items that received interest would be extracted. The handbook allows public contracting authorities to be exemplary [in encouraging reuse], and to generate case studies that could support, one day, a change in regulation on that matter.
DBB: Have any local authorities used this handbook?
LB: The handbook was published in September 2015 and there are already two cases where it has been used in Brussels: for the sale of interior fittings and finishes from a 1930s social housing complex constructed by a municipality, and also for the donation of surplus roof tiles by another public contracting authority. Other operators are considering launching similar procedures.
DBB: Do you have an English version of the handbook?
LB: No, not yet. If you think of a funding opportunity for the translation work, you are welcome!
DBB: I’d like to dwell upon Rotor’s ‘Deconstruction’ project now. Could you explain how this initiative was launched?
LB: Our first experimental project started back in 2013 when the sustainability manager of a large real estate company in Brussels contacted us as they were about to renovate a large office building: actually the HQ of Levi’s [Levi Strauss]. The project was to strip out and renovate over 8,000m2 of empty office. All partitions, ceilings, fittings and interior finishes were being removed. They had heard that Rotor was working on ‘reuse’ projects and asked if we could deal with the material being stripped out of the building. Until that point we thought we would work on reuse just as researchers, architects and – let’s say – consultants. Because of this enquiry we made the step to become material salvagers for real. Initially we worked with another building contractor who had the appropriate insurances as we couldn’t get this completed in time for this first project. We still had to invent a process and a way to collaborate with this real estate company and actively look for people who were prepared to pay for these dismantled materials, as this project had to be financially sustainable.
DBB: What motivated the client?
LB: Our clients had done many projects improving energy and water-use efficiency on buildings. So they had made lots of effort in the past, but reached a kind of ‘level’. They now felt that the issue of the huge loss of materials on every renovation needed to be addressed.
DBB: So did they first hear about you because of your research: had this inspired them?
LB: Yes they first heard about us through research projects that we had done.
DBB: How did you find people who wanted the material?
LB: Initially we just used our own direct networks – architects around us – but also because of our previous research we had good contacts with reclaimed material dealers, who were interested.
DBB: You had no storage space, so did you sell materials straight from site?
LB: We offered people the possibility to reserve or take an option on the materials before they were stripped out.
DBB: And was that ultimately successful?
LB: This operation broke even the first time. So we didn’t lose money, but we decided to go further next time. The beginning was slow, but for nearly two years now it has become a regular activity. We now have a department that is focused on doing just these sorts of interventions in buildings, in terms of the reuse of components. We have about one intervention per month. Last year we kept more than 400 tonnes of material ‘in the circuit’.
DBB: So how are you doing that now? Have you got somewhere to store this material or are you doing it like you did the first commission?
LB: So now we are equipped for it. We now have a warehouse of 1,000m2 and another 1,000m2 outside. We have four people who are working for us just on deconstruction projects: people with a technical background who can coordinate such projects. We have someone responsible for the material storage yard. Now the deconstruction projects (and spin-off activities) are taking more than half the working hours of Rotor.
DBB: Do you have people approaching Rotor with deconstruction projects or are you actively looking for buildings?
LB: It’s both. We try to be proactive and identify potential sites. We try to have collaborations with real estate companies who are renovating on a regular basis. We also try to have access to exceptional buildings when they are going to be demolished or renovated. Perhaps what the difference is between what we do and other reclamation companies in Belgium is that we are mostly interested in buildings [such as] offices or schools, larger-scaled buildings, and mostly from the ‘modern movement’ or what followed, including completely contemporary things or buildings from the 1960s or 1970s.
DBB: What has drawn you to that era? Is it perhaps because other architectural salvage companies are less interested in it?
LB: Yes that’s one way to explain it. Maybe three years ago, we realised that there was a market for reused materials, but that this sector was mostly focused on pre-modern materials or a kind of ‘ageless’ material such as cobblestones or bricks or wood. We identified a gap in the market.
DBB: Who is buying these materials?
LB: Sometimes it is the building owner. We have been asked on several occasions to dismantle components within a building and then reassemble them in the same building once renovation was complete. In a lot of situations, building components that are still perfectly functional, attractive or interesting are doomed to being thrown away simply because it is ‘normal’ practice with demolition companies. For example, if an internal floor and wall finish need replacing, often the ceiling will be stripped out as well even if it is perfectly OK. It is seen as impractical to try and protect and preserve it. However, Rotor provides a service whereby we draft a full inventory of the components we have salvaged from a building, together with a handbook describing how to reassemble them. We can store these components until the building is renovated and ready to receive them again; this might be two years later. By providing these services we make some types of reuse that are not normally considered practically or economically viable, possible.
DBB: How have you turned previously unwanted material into a desirable product?
LB: We have to take good photographs of the materials installed on site. We do a historic investigation on the provenance of the materials and the building itself. By documenting a component you can quickly reveal its value. For example, we dismantled a ceramic floor from a modernist university building from the early 1930s. If we had tried to sell these tiles in their various colours (I think there were five) they would not have appeared that special or specific. Although the building was quite geometric and ‘no-nonsense’, the architects had had some fun with the patterns made by the floor tiles. So we photographed these complex patterns. We then encouraged our clients not to buy just the tiles, but to buy a certain area of a certain pattern. A few clients did this. So now, for example, there is a grocery in Ghent where there are different ceramic floor tile patterns in each room, and these patterns come from the old university building from the 1930s.
DBB: In addition to salvaging materials for reuse in the buildings they originated from, how do you find other customers for your projects?
LB: There is a link on our Rotor website (http://rotordb.org) under ‘Deconstruction’ to the Rotor Shop, where you can see everything we have in stock right now. However, a big part of the materials we actually deal with go straight from their deconstruction sites to their new use. Therefore a large number of the components we actually work with never appear on the website as we have a client for them already. The Rotor Shop is mainly used by architects or interior designers and their clients, whereas the people taking material directly from deconstruction sites are normally professional salvage companies or building contractors and developers.
DBB: To create the market for deconstruction in the first place, did it rely on your first project getting a lot of publicity? What creates that market?
LB: This is still an ongoing job. What we tried to do was make use of the existing networks we had and we try to fit things together that are likely to complement each other. So, for example, one of our partners is a company that sells second-hand furniture. They now also sell small construction components that look like furniture. As they already had a wide client base looking for second-hand material, they have been successful at taking these components from us. Some elements, such as second-hand flooring, have established markets that we work with. However, for some types of elements there are no established markets so we have to promote those in our shop.
DBB: How are you ascertaining the value of these second-hand materials?
LB: That is an interesting question. When it comes to contemporary anonymous materials you can still find on the market, most of the time people don’t want to pay more than 50% of the new price. So that is our upper limit. Our lower limit relates to the money we actually invest in finding the material in the first place. We try to set a price between these two limits.
DBB: Is it you, personally, who goes into these buildings to carry out the resource inventory?
LB: I have done this often. For the moment, as we are still a small team, everybody is doing a bit of everything. However, a large part of my work is to work with the building owners to develop the brief, deal with the bureaucracy relating to deconstruction and to make the report of the reclamation operation. On some projects I have also followed the daily aspects of deconstructing a building, but that is something we can delegate to colleagues who are focused on this. Sometimes I work on the scientific aspects of these projects. For example, the first time we tried to reclaim a wooden floor we could see that it was fixed with a kind of black glue like asphalt. At first we were suspicious that this was toxic and would stop us reusing the wood. We came to the conclusion that if a wooden floor is from the 1950s or later then the black glue is asphalt not tar and therefore safe to reuse. If it is earlier, then it will be tar and therefore a dangerous product. We now send samples of suspicious materials to a laboratory for analysis before we decide to reuse.
DBB: You have a scientific background. Did you know a lot about construction before you worked at Rotor?
LB: Not much. I had a bit of experience with DIY. I was trained as a bio-engineer: a biochemist actually. I was interested in issues relating to materials, but without experiencing the building sector.
DBB: I guess the work you are doing informs Rotor’s architecture work as well?
LB: A tiny part of what we dismantle ends up in Rotor projects. It’s very nice to have the opportunity to take the materials directly from source and reuse them in our own design projects.
DBB: How do you see the future for Rotor?
LB: We are at a stage now where we can prove the ‘floatability’ of the business venture. In 2015 we salvaged over 400 tonnes of components from buildings, which when you consider that most of the materials are lightweight (it’s not brick and concrete blocks), you see it is a substantial figure, but still this is just a drop when you compare this figure to other flows of materials. So yes, we want to increase this amount and also to stabilise the way we function. We have a few regular streams: stable flows. We are of course open for new things.
DBB: You must have a lot of people from the construction and waste industries interested in your ideas and business models? You are adding value to stuff they normally burn or send to landfill.
LB: Yes, but for the moment the discussion with people from the waste industry is mainly centred around their curiosity. We often quickly realise that we are dealing with completely different problems. From a financial and logistic point of view, it is completely different to dealing with stuff that can be thrown in a container. For example if you consider wo od waste, you can sell a tonne of wood waste for a few euros. However, if you take wooden flooring made from similar wood the value might be €1,000 to €2,000 per tonne.
DBB: What is your view on the publication by the European Commission of the Circular Economy Package in December 2015?
LB: We have heard a lot about it from local authorities that now feel they need a circular economy strategy or plan, or at least a vision. So it has given us extra arguments to advocate for things we stand for.