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Jan Lee headshot

3 Architects Who are Converting Your Waste to Buildings

Words by Jan Lee

Tomorrow's cities, some architects say, won't be dependent on the sustainable materials we can create in the future, but upon the waste we've accumulated in the past.

From paper cartons to steel hulls big enough to house several apartment buildings, the waste that we generate each year on the planet is staggering. And while much of that material finds itself into recycling projects or are sold for other purposes, some architectural designers are asking whether we're using the materials -- and the manpower, energy and carbon emissions it takes to break them down to base components -- in the best way possible.

"Endless stocks of material are already in the cities regarded as waste. Making this (re-) source available, the value-chains of construction products and materials have a great potential for increased ecological and economic efficiency," state architects at ETH Zurich University, which has been exploring ways to integrate today's most under-appreciated refuse into tomorrow's most intriguing (and usable) designs. Everything from PET bottles to discarded beverage containers have a place in ETH's palate of sustainable tools.

And they aren't the only innovators to come up with this idea. The concept of "trash techtonics," as one design studio calls it, is gaining ground -- exploring new ways to rethink the concept of sustainable, enduring architecture.

The paper pavilion made from waste

Plasticized beverage containers like milk and orange juice cartons are still a major component of landfill waste in many parts of the U.S. In 2005, an estimated 10 billion plasticized paper containers made it into the dump, largely due to the mixed media that is necessary for this type of packaging.

Fortunately, one manufacturing company has realized this is a boon for the construction business. REWALL has found a way to compress these materials into tiles that can then be used to cover interior walls.

But as is often the case, its discovery also led to another innovation that, in turn, may help transform the way we look at municipal design.

Last month, ETH, headed by Prof. Dirk E. Hebel, featured the ETH Future Garden and Pavilion concept at New York's Ideas City event. "In the future there will be no waste," said Hebel. It's a bold statement, but given how difficult it has been in the past to find ways to repurpose the average orange juice container, he may just have a point.

The floatable city

As the demand for oil drops, says architect Chris Collaris, so will the need for the massive oil tankers that have transported petroleum across the globe for years. An industry of sorts already exists for deconstructing discarded tankers, but the process is expensive, timely, high in carbon emissions and comes with a high mortality rate. On the shorelines of countries like Pakistan and Bangladesh, impoverished workers do the seemingly impossible for about $3 a day, deconstructing some of the world's biggest ships into smaller components that can then be sold off as scrap. Pollution and injury are frequent risks of the trade.

The Dutch architect believes there's a better way to reuse these ships that will both ensure the tankers aren't abandoned at the bottom of the ocean and cut down on housing demand. Collaris is trying to get metropolitan areas along the Arabian Peninsula to think of these tankers as extensions of their cities, where small metro centers can take the place of further new construction. He has developed a series of drawings of different ways that the takers could be used for housing, shops, community events and other purposes. Here in the West, using old ships for restaurants, houses and museums is a common phenomena. It will be interesting to see if Collaris' idea for the mega-vessel catches on.

The technical side of trash

Converting waste to architecture isn't a new idea for the New York/Virginia-based team of McDowellEspinosa. In fact, the two architects have already created a term for it: Trash Techtonics. The concept was the springboard for a studio of the same name. Students explored how waste could be used to create walls and other structures. Empty PET bottles, tightly-rolled newspapers and ancient vinyl records serve as the building blocks to new housing structures.

"What if we eliminate the need for raw material and banish all waste?  What if design was to occur simultaneously with building?" ask McDowell and Espinosa. They are questions that architects across the globe are now asking as they consider ways to convert the world's most impractical discards into building blocks for tomorrow's homes.

Images of the proposed Black Gold floatable city: Courtesy of Chris Collaris, Ruben Esser, Sander Bakker and Patrick van der Gronde.

Images of roofing made from LPs and walls made from condensed newspaper rolls: Courtesy of McDowellEspinosa.

Jan Lee headshotJan Lee

Jan Lee is a former news editor and award-winning editorial writer whose non-fiction and fiction have been published in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, the U.K. and Australia. Her articles and posts can be found on TriplePundit, JustMeans, and her blog, The Multicultural Jew, as well as other publications. She currently splits her residence between the city of Vancouver, British Columbia and the rural farmlands of Idaho.

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