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Brighton Waste House

At Brighton University, architect and tutor Duncan Baker-Brown has built a house entirely from waste materials. Hattie Hartman reports

Building a ‘house’ entirely from waste sounds an unlikely proposition. But that is exactly what University of Brighton tutor and architect Duncan Baker-Brown has done, along with more than 250 architecture and other local students.

Launched last month after an 11-month build, the Brighton Waste House is located on the University of Brighton campus, where Baker-Brown, co-founder of Lewes-based BBM Sustainable Design, has taught since 1994. Baker-Brown exploited the arduous four-year fundraising process to explore the construction of Waste House with his undergraduate architecture students, setting three design studios on the subject. The construction system that was ultimately chosen - a frame structure with ply cassettes slotted between the structure - is based on a student project. Each cassette, which measures 2,400mm x 1,200mm, has a 400mm cavity for insulation, filled variously with items ranging from surplus insulation on construction sites to toothbrushes, VCR cassettes and rolls of denim. Many items were sourced through online network Freegle, where members exchange unwanted goods.

The project’s provocative tagline - there is no such thing as waste, just stuff in the wrong place - epitomises the mission of Waste House.

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Over 85 per cent of the construction materials at Waste House were sourced from household and construction site waste. This includes bricks, plywood and other timber, as well as more than 600 vinyl banners (the type tied to street lamps to publicise events). The brass eyelets were stripped from the banners which were then stapled to the inside of the house as a vapour control barrier. Students were thus engaged in building physics basics through an understanding of dewpoints and condensation.

Learning through hands-on building is not uncommon on architecture courses. The Architectural Association’s courses at Hooke Park, the Centre for Alternative Technology and the University of Sheffield have consistently championed this approach, frequently resulting in memorable temporary structures, generally made of repetitive timber elements.

Because it is a permanent structure, subject to planning approval and building regulations, the learning outcomes from Waste House are many and were more varied. Architecture students also worked alongside Brighton City College carpenters and electricians, bringing a great diversity of backgrounds and skill sets to the project.

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Baker-Brown is passionate about Waste House as a pedagogical tool. ‘Buildings are no longer monoliths now; everything is in layers,’ he explains. Carpet tiles salvaged from a nearby office building were used as a rainscreen, but Baker-Brown insisted on the purchase of new Tyvek building paper to achieve the required porosity, which couldn’t be guaranteed with a second-hand product. Engineering students have located sensors to measure the temperature and moisture differentials of the different insulation materials so as to test their effectiveness. One of the more tedious jobs was inserting used bicycle inner tubes around the windows to seal them. An air pressure test due to take place in August will reveal how well this works.

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Although Waste House may not appear to be linked directly to the delivery of a mainstream construction project, students deepen their understanding of why certain materials and systems are installed.

‘Students can bring this into their work and have an opinion about it. If you understand something fully, you can unpack it and then maybe subvert it,’ says Baker-Brown.

The ongoing mission of Waste House is also pedagogical. The intention is to curate exhibitions and activities which will draw in the wider community. ‘The carpet tiles look all right at the moment, but I don’t know what they’ll look like in two years’ time. We’ve got challenges ahead to keep the Waste House functioning, and we want these problems to be solved by our students,’ says Baker-Brown.

Project data

Start on site May 2013
Completion April 2014
Gross internal floor area 80m²
Procurement JCT Minor Works
Construction cost £140,000
Construction cost per m² £1,750
Architect BBM Sustainable Design
Client University of Brighton
Structural engineer BBP Consulting Engineers
M&e consultant Robinson Associates Engineers
Other consultants Cat Fletcher of Freegle UK
Main contractor Mears
Annual predicted CO2 emissions 9.89 kg/m²

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