Architectural Reclamation: Creating a More Sustainable Built Environment

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Today’s complex environmental problems require innovative solutions from all parties involved. National governments continue to negotiate the establishment of global regulations for acceptable emission levels, firms are increasingly implored to be mindful of the planet by reducing waste, and individuals are encouraged to make small-scale efforts by recycling and reusing materials in order to diminish their own footprint.

An increasingly popular strategy is to recycle and reuse materials in architectural practice. A variety of materials receive the reuse treatment: shipping containers are all the rage in both residential and commercial architecture, while reclaimed timber has seen increasing popularity in architecture as well as interior design. When architects utilise material reclamation in their buildings, it is a sign that there is an awareness that the built environment must respond adequately to the challenges of environmental degradation.

An effective example of shipping container re-use is occurring in northern Amsterdam; home to the NDSM-werf (pictured above) and a once-prominent area for the Dutch shipbuilding industry. As Amsterdam’s place in the global economy has been undergoing a shift from international logistics to creative forms of output, so too has NDSM-werf begun to reflect the city’s new position. This summer’s Over het IJ festival featured an innovative temporary structure visible from one of Amsterdam’s free public ferries that connect the southern heart of the city with the increasingly attractive northern neighbourhoods. Other well-known uses of reclaimed materials in the NDSM area are the colourful student housing blocks made out of discontinued shipping containers, as well as the conversion of a hanger-like structure into a cozy little cafe.

Other reclamation trends have included timber, a relevant issue for any architect operating in a region with threatened forests that once provided the primary materials for construction. The 2010 Olympic Winter Games were a fitting showcase of the trend. Vancouver is located in the timber-rich province of British Columbia, but recent years have seen the logging industry come under stress due to a variety of factors: pine beetle infestations (PDF), significant losses of harvestable trees due to forest fires, as well as gradual shifts in consumer demand towards more sustainable building materials. Two projects in particular garnered international attention in 2010 for their use of reclaimed timber. The broadcasting studio for NBC was built using reclaimed timber from Californian wine tanks and industrial lumber sitting unused in a Vancouver warehouse. As far as more permanent structures go, the Olympic Oval in Richmond (pictured above), just south of Vancouver, is an impressive demonstration of reuse of materials thought to have lost their utility and aesthetic quality. The roof incorporates plywood made from Douglas fir trees, the tree most devastated by recent beetle infestations, and does so in a way that isn’t simply reusing supposedly damaged goods: the Oval is the Vancouver area’s most stunning piece of sports-related architecture.

Speaking of ceilings, a recent trend has been to incorporate reclaimed materials into the rooftops of buildings. Considering the outward visibility of the top of a structure, it seems as though there would be few more appropriate ways to publicly and boldly emblazon the sustainable practices of the architects and the building owners. One recent project in particular accomplishes this with remarkable style and ease. Award-winning architect Wang Shu utilised the tiles of demolished houses from across China’s Zhejiang province for the Xiangshan School at the China Academy of Art. The result: a rooftop that visually recalls the traditional vernacular and ceremonial architecture from the region, while incorporating it into a stylish and contemporary structure.

Material reuse clearly is not just a simple task of force-fitting a material into a building for the sake of reuse: it is a viable, sustainable alternative to incorporating newly created materials, and can be done so in ways that are attractive and appealing to passersby. Indeed, associations advocating the reclamation of various materials for architecture are springing up in the United States, while researchers are also advocating for material reuse at the end of a building’s life, in part to preserve legacies alongside the promotion of sustainable construction practices. The seeds have been sown: the future of sustainable architectural design lies in reusing what we’ve seemingly lost interest in.

Adam Nowek is a photographer and MSc candidate in Urban Studies at Universiteit van Amsterdam.

Images via mikecogh, comicbase, Stephen Rees and odb.

  • Chelsea Richards

    Recycle is not only reduces unused materials or waste products it also profitable in the way plastic materials and scrap metals sold to factories that uses waste materials for their products.
    LeLouvre-Antiques.com