Mark: "Second-Hand Story" (2013)
2012 Architects built a house out of 60 per cent recycled materials. (2012 Architects)


A house made of waste material. A nice idea for a tourist attraction in a sparsely-populated corner of the globe, built by some starry-eyed idealist. A bitter reality in the slums of poor African countries. But hardly what you want in a new residential neighbourhood in a densely populated developed country.

At least, that was the opinion of urban designer Pi de Bruijn, responsible for the reconstruction of the working-class neighbourhood Roombeek in the Dutch provincial city of Enschede. Roombeek was devastated in 2000 by a firework disaster that wiped the entire neighbourhood off the map in a single stroke. And it was certainly not what he wanted in the Museumlaan, an important street that connects the TwentseWelle cultural museum, designed by Search (see Mark #15) to the city centre. This street was reserved for houses designed by architects of high standing. 2012 architects, a Rotterdam-based firm that specializes in building with recycled materials for environmental reasons, was not on the list of privileged firms.

That was a big disappointment for Ingrid Blans, who is now living in a magnificent house built on a plot just behind the Museumlaan, six years after the request was turned down. Constructed from waste materials, designed by 2012. ‘At first, we were offered the choice of the adjacent plot,’ says Blans. ‘De Bruijn had a list containing the names of around 20 well-known architects we could choose from, but we were already in contact with 2012 and we didn’t want to drop them. So, ultimately we had to renounce our plot and move a little further away. In the meantime, the price for a plot had risen significantly, so that was a bitter pill for us to swallow. The neighbours tell us that De Bruijn now says he is sorry he turned us down.’

2012 was not exactly an established firm back in 2004. At the time, Jeroen Bergsma, Jan Jongert and Césare Peeren were making a name for themselves with a number of small projects. Anyone visiting the Duchi shoe shop in Scheveningen, for example, realized in 2004, feels a vague sense of recognition when looking at the shelves on which the shoes are displayed, but it is only after further inspection that the penny drops: the lightly curved glass shelves were once car windscreens. The Miele Space Station (MRS), dating from 2003, did service for a long time as an espresso bar in the hall of the now burned-down faculty of architecture in Delft. From a distance, the small round windows gave the impression of a high-tech installation, but up close, they turned out to be the round glass doors of discarded washing machines.

These projects, designed to illustrate that highly interesting visual imagery can be achieved with waste material, could be dismissed as just a fun gimmick, up until now. It is easy to make a temporary object or a shop interior from waste material, but a whole building is a different kettle of fish. So De Bruin’s doubts were understandable, to some extent. But with the delivery of the house in Enschede, 2012 has demonstrated that recycling does not need to be limited to fiddling about in the wings.

‘In terms of volume, around 60 per cent of all the materials in this house have been recycled,’ says Jongert. ‘We haven’t calculated the percentage in terms of weight yet.’ Why are all the building materials not recycled? ‘100 per cent reuse in a building is very difficult to achieve. In some cases, reuse is impossible or senseless. All the screws, for instance, come straight from the factory. The technical installations, the plasterboards used to finish all the interior spaces and, of course, the stucco work applied on top: all new.’ The foundations and the floor on the ground level are understandably made of new concrete; they were not included in the energy calculations. But the rest is almost completely derived from waste.

By now, 2012 has developed a standard procedure to source waste material for all their projects. If at all possible, they prefer to find the materials on industrial estates in the vicinity of the building location, to keep CO2 emissions during transport to a minimum. Local supply is the key. ‘We just see what sort of industrial companies are located near a building location and we drive round to ask if they produce scrap,’ says Jongert. ‘To begin with, we really did visit all the companies, but these days we have enough experience to use a list from the Chamber of Commerce to make a assessment of the sort of industrial waste we can expect to find in a particular area.’ Drawing up an inventory results in what Jongert calls a ‘harvest map’: an overview of the area with all the waste products that can be collected nearby.

Subsequently, the architects determine the ‘superuse relevancy factor’. Jongert: ‘We use this to describe the relationship between the amount of energy that has to be added to reuse a waste product, including a preservation process and transport from the harvest location to the building location, and the original amount of energy associated with its production. Steel, for instance, has a high superuse relevancy factor, depending on the distance between harvest and building locations. Aluminium has an even higher factor; wood much lower.’

This method of working means that the architects sometimes have to accept limitations imposed on their design. One of the spaces in the villa in Enschede had to be made a metre shorter than they actually wanted, because the steel profiles, that came from an old textile machine, were not long enough (see the box ‘Steel for a Steal’). As much as 90 per cent of the steel construction in the house comes from this machine.

All the other bulk materials are also recycled. What about the wood for the joists? ‘Most of it comes from Komu, a company in Vlaardingen that supplies second-hand building products.’ That brings an extra benefit, according to Jongert: ‘Second-hand wood often comes from better quality trees, because in the past it was allowed to grow longer than now. Besides, the wood does not warp anymore.’

What about the glass? ‘Leftovers from the cutting process in the glass factory.’ Here, too, the availability partly determined the design. Jongert: ‘The factory had cut all the pieces of glass to the same width. They thought they were doing us a favour, but it has meant that the façade is a little more boring than we originally intended. Of course, discarding the glass was not an option.’

The insulation material? ‘It came from a demolished commercial building nearby. First a layer of EPS followed by three layers of glass wool with reflective foil. It provides a higher level of insulation than the official standard.’ The kitchen? ‘Built from old site boards.’ The wall and floor finish in the bathrooms? ‘From the British company Smile Plastics; they melt down recycled plastic coffee cups in an old steel factory to produce water-resistant interior panels.’ Even the curtains are recycled: they are made out of former greenhouse foil: it is an excellent heat reflector.

Not everything went smoothly. However well the architects thought everything through, the unmanageable building practice sometimes intervened and meant that their good intentions were difficult to realize. All the window frames, for example, are from Janisol and were newly fabricated specially for this house. After all, window frames are difficult to recycle, if you also have to meet all the insulation requirements. ‘But the builder made a mistake and arrived with the wrong sizes of window frames,’ says Jongert. ‘So they all landed on the rubbish pile. Which means that we have also produced unnecessary waste. Not very environmentally friendly.’

But according to the architects themselves, they did manage to reach their energy objectives. Jongert: The façade of this house emits roughly half the amount of CO2 that a similar façade made from new materials would produce. That is including the production and preservation processes and transport.’

Is a house made out of recycled materials like this one actually cheaper than the same house made from new materials? ‘The construction costs of a similar new house would probably amount to around € 900,000,’ says Jongert. ‘This house cost approximately € 800,000.’ In absolute numbers, that is a big difference, but in percentage terms it is not really huge. But that is not what it is all about, of course: ‘Saving money was of secondary importance; the objective was to save energy.’

It is difficult to check if all the numbers and percentages mentioned by the architects are exact. But even if the house only achieves half the energy objectives, the result still appeals to the imagination. With this house, 2012 has proved that building with waste does not need to remain the domain of DIY fringe figures; they have made a serious alternative to conventional construction methods.

What about the Museumlaan, what is the result there? Detached houses have been built there, designed by firms including Bolles + Wilson, EEA, Benthem Crouwel and Cino Zucchi. But none of the buildings is recognizable as the masterpiece of a great architect. The villa designed by 2012 is without a doubt the most impressive house in the neighbourhood. The best possible way of being proven right.