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Duncan Baker-Brown: ‘There’s money to be made in reusing existing buildings’

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Ahead of next week’s Futurebuild 2019, Duncan Baker-Brown of BBM Architects talks to the AJ about curating the event’s Waste Zone and how to build with discarded oyster shells and duvets 

What’s happening at the Waste Zone and who’s involved?
This is the third time I have curated it. Last year it was really popular and oversubscribed, so it’s bigger this year.

It is both a symposium and an exhibition. The main theme is about how, for the circular economy to be successful, our cities need to be the main generators.

I’ve been struck by how many organisations in the Netherlands, Germany, Denmark and even the USA are freshly dealing with this. So, I thought with the Waste Zone this year, I can focus on the idea of circular cities and bring people over to talk about it.

I have a large contingent from Amsterdam, such as Petran van Heel from the ABN AMRO Bank who built the Circl Pavilion in Amsterdam’s financial district – a material store for the future,  designed so that it can be unbolted.

We’re hoping to have a display of mycelium – a fungus that can be used for boards or insulation – growing during the event

We also have people from PwC, Zero Waste Scotland, the GLA and the London Waste and Recycling Board (LWARB) who have a major presence at the Waste Zone.

It’s amazing to have Niklas Nolsøe from the Lendager Group in Denmark join us. They did a project called The Resource Rows – a building made up of cut-up panels of brickwork from a redundant 20th-century building where traditionally you cannot reuse the bricks. They’ve literally taken a diamond saw to the brickwork to make 2 x 2m panels and used them to clad a new building.

A lot of people speaking at the Waste Zone are dealing with already processed materials and reusing them. However, we also have people who are working with emerging new materials. Ehab Sayed, founder of BIOMH, who is working with a fungus called mycelium, which can be used as either boards or insulation in the construction industry. We’re hoping to have a display of mycelium growing over the three days of the event. When it grows into the insulation material, the process consumes waste gases.

What is the brief for the 2019 Waste Zone?
Last year the zone was 150m² and this year it’s 1,000m². It’s quite a big thing. I teach at the University of Brighton and last year we used these steel-framed beach huts to display work at the end-of-year show on Hastings Pier. We are reusing these at the zone to display the work from different cities, Amsterdam, Brussels and Copenhagen. It’s my idea which came from writing my book, The Re-use Atlas: A Designer’s Guide Towards a Circular Economy.

We’re going to be asking all sorts of questions like: ‘Why on earth can you have a target such as being zero-carbon by 2050 and only be 10 per cent towards meeting it?’ Copenhagen is going to be zero-carbon by 2025. How? I want to know how Denmark is doing it.

What is your view on concrete and other ‘new’ materials following recent press?
It’s disappointing the amount of concrete used in our construction industry.

The School of Architecture in Brighton sits opposite a couple of large-scale developments and they’re both going up at speed, 12 storeys high and they’re going up as big slabs of concrete. At best [once the buildings have reached the end of their lives], they’re going to be crushed up and become aggregates for new buildings. We need to find alternatives to cement.

I am currently working on an EU-funded research project looking at waste flows and directing them into the construction industry to create products. On the Brighton Waste House, we have just made these beautiful white tiles from oyster shells (see below). They are 90 per cent calcium carbonate – the same as limestone.

We need to find alternatives to cement – we have made beautiful white tiles from oyster shells

We require so much limestone for cement production, and at the same time throwing away 30 million tonnes of mollusc shells in the food industries. That source can make cement at the end of the day. Therefore, the first step for us is to look at alternative design solutions. We can’t eliminate concrete and plastic, we just have to use it in a sensible way.

localworksstudio 3

localworksstudio 3

Source: Local Works Studio

Wall tiles made from discarded oyster shells

You overhauled your Brighton Waste House at the end of last year. How’s that going and what’s next for it?
We’re about to get the results on that pretty soon. We’ve installed old duvets as insulation and tiles made from discarded oyster shells and we’re monitoring their performance. They seem to be doing well. It’s done well for us as it’s added more publicity, from both TV and other media coverage.

We have been monitoring it for the last three months. We wanted to monitor it in the cold so you get these extremes of internal and external temperature, 

The University of Bath is going to install a straw panel in the Waste House next month as well. It’s gone from being a sort of polemic, a ‘did you realise?’, a pedagogic tool, to realising you can collect 25,000 toothbrushes in three days.

Now it’s more of a serious research project in a conventional way. We have our own prototype that we’re monitoring, and we’ll have a straw-bale prototype which we’ll be monitoring as well soon.

From this point of view, it will hopefully continue as long as possible. It is a teaching space for student projects and it’s a vehicle for proper funded research projects as well.

localworksstudio duvets

localworksstudio duvets

Source: Local Works Studio

Old duvets used for insulation

Has there been any thought in taking this further and building them on a larger scale?

The next project I am working on is a deconstruct/reconstruct project inspired by the Waste House. The strapline is ‘no such thing as waste that doesn’t replace’.

This project needs to find a building that needs to be demolished and will let us carefully dismantle it and then find a client that needs a building. The architectural challenge is to see how the building needs to be tweaked to suit the new building and site. I am really interested in making buildings that are site-specific and appropriate, so it fascinates me to see a building that is unwanted.

I am also doing a research project which will enable that a bit. I am working with Rotor Deconstruction in Brussels. They deconstruct some of the nastiest, commercial, unloved buildings in the financial district of the city – redistributing the product. We’re hosting a summer school in Brighton where we’re going to do exactly that in one week. We’re going to find a building that has been stripped out and demolished and then salvage elements of it then reassemble those elements.

In London, buildings are going up and going down all the time – with the City needing to show a fresh face all the time. I’m keen to present to London that this doesn’t need to happen and that we can reconfigure them instead.

Are there any schemes that you see as a good stepping stone towards going super green?

You’ve got to look at Rotor Deconstruction. They’re able to convince people in Belgium to look at taking longer to get rid of a building they don’t like. Instead of demolishing buildings, they’re going in there and deconstructing them which takes longer. At the end of the day, they’re able to get more money out of it because they’ve made a product that they’re selling.

That’s the whole reason that the AMRO bank is interested in buildings as ‘material banks’ because it allows their financial plan to invest in the building, and its lifecycle is extended by five or six times. At the end of the building’s life, it’s being reused. So there’s money to be made in this.

How do you think we can encourage more architects and builders to think more like Rotor Deconstruction?
That’s part of the reason I’m doing Futurebuild. What we’ve done with the Waste Zone is tried to put together people dealing with the legislation of our industry – financial modellers, urban miners, architects and academics – and those on the ground, really having a go. The people actually doing it.

How did the circular economy come across your radar?
I have known about it for a long time because I have been in the world of sustainable design. It has had a bit of traction recently, mainly because it has the word economy in it. We have [German chemist] Dr Michael Braungart as a keynote speaker at the Waste Zone. He wrote Cradle to Cradle in 2002 and I think the book inspired rethinking the ways we make things. A lot of designers have read that book but in this country, we are a bit behind.

How can you persuade clients to incorporate sustainable approaches?
It’s not easy. On one project with my practice, BBM Architects, we tried to specify some sustainable materials across the whole scheme, but now we’ll be using them for internal finishes only.

Under and over-fired bricks can be used to in construction – you just need to be careful about where you use them

One thing that we’ve learned is a technique called harvest mapping – we take a 5-10km radius out from the site to find materials to use. For example, for another project, we were able to use bricks from piles of under and over-fired bricks which would be usually left to fill holes. Those bricks can be used to construct buildings – you just need to be careful about where you can use them.

Futurebuild runs between 5 and 7 March at London’s ExCel

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