The Re-Use Atlas: A designer’s guide to the circular economy
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Entry number 13
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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 2 Reusing Waste
Interview – Jan Jongert of Superuse Studios, Rotterdam
DBB: You founded Superuse in 1997 with Cesare Peeren. I notice that your studio is ‘run by five engineers, all specialists in their own fields: interventions, design, architecture, urbanism and research’. Which one are you?
JJ: I’m an architect by education. In the meantime I have developed into the head of research at Superuse Studios. Now I am mainly involved with internal knowledge management, platform development and material flow analysis for building materials and urban districts.
DBB: I knew Superuse initially because of your Superuse.org website. How did that website resource come about?
JJ: In 2004 we launched our first platform called recyclicity.net, where we pretty much included everything we thought necessary to perform as resource-based architects and share that with our network. Unfortunately the technology was not yet far enough advanced. So we stopped the platform after two years and rebuilt it again in separate pieces. Superuse.org was the first piece, showcasing the creative reuse by our own network and open to everyone else to publish. That was until Pinterest took a big part of our market with reuse pin-boards.
The first version of superuse.org was completely self-funded and ran for several years from 2007 onwards. In 2012 we were granted lottery funding that allowed us to reappropriate superuse.org to new standards (i.e. to make it easier to use and better connected to other web-focussed platforms) and we connected the database with the new Harvest Map platform; later on we teamed up with Upstyle Industries to launch woodguide.org.
DBB: I really like the Upstyle Wood Guide. Are there plans for other such material- focused web platforms?
JJ: The site was connected to a grant for a study into wood processing. It was not our initiative, we were part of a larger team, but we decided to connect to Superuse.org and the Harvest Map platform in order to make it a real ecosystem in terms of knowledge. Of course if we could find research funding for steel, glass and other materials we could create other sustainable material user guides. Hopefully that will happen one day soon as we are discussing the idea with the Design Academy in Eindhoven.
DBB: Superuse Studios is obviously research-led. How is this afforded?
JJ: Most of our research is funded by our design projects and external sources such as the Dutch Creative Industry Fund and the Lottery Fund.
DBB: My book looks at four ‘steps’ towards the circular economy. Many of your projects look like Step 2 projects (reusing waste). Do you have any projects that are genuinely circular?
JJ: Our temporary projects all had different ‘reappearances’ in different cities. However, since our focus is on component and element reuse, we are playing on a little bit of a different field. We do not believe in promising a clean future, but want to do the best with what we have now. Of course we design for disassembly, so that even with low-tech means, adaptations to our projects can be made easily.
DBB: I am drawn to your description of ‘reappearances’ of your buildings. Could you be more specific?
JJ: A number of our projects have reappeared over the years. For example, we had a project made of washing machines that started off as a small unit with frames filled with washing machine fronts. It was modular so we could add a bit more and enlarged it so it could be an office. This mobile office was then moved to a festival and used there. Finally the Faculty of Architecture at TU Delft used it as a special bar. We also have a project reusing kitchen sinks that grew from small units into something quite big in Utrecht, changing shape and also collecting water. It then became a place for arts and now it’s a mobile selling cart for a man growing mushrooms using old coffee granules.
DBB: In the UK we don’t often have a lot of time between a project being demolished and the new building project commencing. How do you create the time to set up a Harvest Map project?
JJ: That’s why circular building is indeed difficult. The potential, on the other hand, is huge. If we build up a good ‘dataset’ of existing building stock we can start finding the demand when the initial ideas for demolishing a build start to emerge.
DBB: Do you have such a ‘dataset’ of vacant buildings or buildings about to be demolished?
JJ: No. Developers will contact us and say that they have a building they want to demolish. They ask if we can quantify and sell materials for reuse. So we collect data from that specific building, but this is of little value once that building has been taken down.
DBB: Do you come across a lot of obstructions from the Dutch version of the Health and Safety Executive when proposing to harvest overlooked material for construction projects?
JJ: As long as we make sound and healthy decisions this is not a problem. We are not engaging in chemically polluted material flows. Additionally, we aim to make minimum alterations to a component when we salvage it, and that includes the minimal chemical alterations. When we have to, we comply with building regulations. We have expanded our activities to the food industry – providing bakers with spent beer grains or mushroom growers with spent coffee – and these issues, of course, are taken care of appropriately.
DBB: Are local building suppliers supportive of Harvest Mapping?
JJ: Building suppliers are not our typical suppliers, but their suppliers increasingly are. We often find our supplies from the car, train and airplane deconstruction industries.
DBB: Cars, trains and airplanes. This is big stuff. You must have a huge warehouse to store it all?
JJ: No, no. That is exactly why we have Harvest Map, to avoid the need for storage. In general, we collect data from the companies that demolish buildings or dismantle airplanes and order exactly the materials we or our customers require. We did try using our own storage facilities a few years ago, but then you become a warehouse manager, which is a different job.
DBB: What was the most surprising material that you were able to salvage for reuse?
JJ: Windmill (turbine) blades were the most successful components we reused. They were used to create children’s play round furniture, climbing frames, even buildings – all depending on the cross-section size of the blade. We also very much like our ‘white goods’ experiments, with washing machines and sinks reused as cladding, and fridges reused as insulation.
DBB: One can imagine not only regional or national resource exchange networks, but worldwide networks using the Harvest Map model. Are you not treading on the toes of the large waste management companies?
JJ: On the contrary; we actually collaborate with Van Gansewinkel, the largest waste collector in the Netherlands, on the Harvest Map platform. It’s like an extra service they provide. They also appreciate that they need to transfer their business model from incineration to procuring material and components for the construction and other industries.
DBB: What is the commercial model, the business plan, that informs the Harvest Map process?
JJ: Since we are a ‘circular’ company, Harvest Map is one of the five interlinked services we offer. Internally, Harvest Map provides us with an overview of available materials for the projects we design. Externally we are trying out several business models. Currently it drives two income flows as our office also trades materials for other companies. The first [income flow] is that Harvest Map serves as an advertisement for the material on sale. The second income flow is supplying dedicated platforms to other organisations and companies. The first licence of Harvest Map technology was sold to a start-up connecting empty buildings to groups of ‘home-seekers’. We are preparing similar strategies with organisations in China, New Zealand, Italy, the US and Austria.
DBB: I know you are in China setting up a Harvest Map network. How do you start up a Harvest Map in an unknown place?
JJ: We work with local entrepreneurs. It is impossible to process all the world’s waste through Superuse Studios in Rotterdam. So we train and launch local scouts that are already starting to make the first successes. In China we connected a large furniture manufacturer to a prototyping company. Our local partner is increasingly involved in new connections.
DBB: I can imagine the Harvest Map model getting very big and being rolled out around the world. Are you not attracting the attention of venture capitalists?
JJ: No, not yet, and maybe that’s good as I’m not sure we are ready for that. The Harvest Map model can be rolled out around the world. However in China they don’t have access to Google, so we have to reformat the platform there. Also this circular approach is not easy to explain in one sentence and it’s also hard to estimate what the profits would be. So maybe it’s not established enough for venture capitalists. However, we have already had a company buy the Harvest Map model in order to set up its own platform, but the business model element of it we are still working on. Perhaps it will develop slowly instead, as it needs lots of different skills and information to work well.
DBB: Many people are concerned with some of the perceived outcomes of a circular economy. For example, if a large lighting supplier leased lux levels (locking clients into 20-year contracts) rather than selling light fittings, then a circular economy could actually result in unfair monopolies as well as corporate resource responsibility. What is your thought on this issue?
JJ: I have similar and more doubts. I think for short, cyclical products, leasing could be the best option. For long-lasting products like buildings, it is very awkward to think one can predict the best treatment and material price in 40 years. So on what value and business model should this circularity model be based? Moreover, by creating closed loops one could potentially prevent innovation by other companies that might have better processing solutions. Thirdly, natural robust systems (which production systems should be) need to be able to adapt to changing circumstances and be connected to more than one chain. I also fear that the user will have no sense of responsibility for the leased product, as the manufacturer will have that responsibility. In the end, sustainable development is something that has to be carried by all of us.
DBB: Prof Dr Michael Braungart often cites reuse, and particularly recycling, as simply ‘slowing down the inevitable route to senseless disposal’. What are your thoughts?
JJ: Well, the material is there. We have to do something with it. For instance, when asked what to do with the current building stock, I do not believe the answer should be to eradicate everything we have and construct a new ideal future. It will probably generate its own errors and flaws. So I believe in building upon what is already there. Of course I applaud all activities to develop new materials according to this Cradle to Cradle philosophy.
DBB: Is Superuse inventing and testing innovative business models?
JJ: Yes that is what is happening. We are also continuing to develop to see where new opportunities are. We are working with many different parts of the chain. [To do well] you need to earn from these different parts. Margins are not very high for the individual parts – for example, it is hard to earn a living from just design. However, in the Netherlands you cannot practise as an architect and earn from the supply of materials on projects you have designed. This is a big problem for a circular designer. As it stands, the law encourages architects to only specify new materials off-site. I hope the law will change one day soon.
DBB: How do you get around this situation now?
JJ: We often oversee design-and-build projects. That makes it easier as we are designers, contractors and suppliers. The other way is when we act as consultants to clients and other architects by supplying reused materials and components.
DBB: How much of your own work could be described as architecture?
JJ: Not so much now, [I’m more involved] in the processes of running the studio. Two of my colleagues are more into the design of the projects.
DBB: Where do you see yourselves in five years’ time?
JJ: At the moment we are like growing cells. The Chinese cell has already resulted in a project: in Beijing we have just opened a reuse market. We are also starting up research in the Shenzhen district. Obviously with the amounts of waste there, the potential for successful circular projects is high. We also have projects in the USA, specifically Detroit, where we have just won a commission to construct a playground. The environment for supplying construction waste is very good within established building material market. We are looking at ways our Harvest Map platform can complement the existing reuse networks.