The Design Observer Group

Posted 06.02.10

Alejandro Bahamón & Maria Camila Sanjinés

Rematerial: From Waste to Architecture

Observation Post, Pinohuacho, Villarrica, Chile, 2006

Environmentalism has made it to the top of political agendas and become a decisive element in product design, agricultural practices and even, paradoxically, advertising slogans intended to boost consumption — one of the triggers of global warming. With many people jumping on the bandwagon or using the issue to attract attention, it can be difficult to discern which initiatives are motivated by genuine commitment. Rematerial spotlights an emerging movement fundamental to the environmental debate: the reuse of waste for architecture, whether the work of young upstarts in isolated communities or acclaimed figures with international experience.

The intelligent handling of waste is a pressing issue today, but in other ages and civilizations it was an integral part of society. In architecture it was common practice to reuse stones from the monumental constructions of Egypt, Greece and Rome, which had been toppled in earthquakes or wars, or simply abandoned, as this involved less effort than extracting new stone and transporting it from distant quarries. Very little remains of the tons of iron used by the Romans in their buildings, as it was almost entirely reused in both construction and in the manufacture of machines and weapons. Many medieval cathedrals were sited on the foundations of old churches, which also provided stones for the new structures. Up until the 19th century, in fact, it was common practice around the world to recycle elements from old buildings. Today it still happens in developing countries, less as an environmental initiative than as a response to poverty.


In Wasting Away, Kevin Lynch offered a poetic and philosophical view of our relationship with garbage. On the basis of research conducted over more than thirty years, Lynch explored our perceptions of the urban landscape; but while his earlier works were associated with the image of a flourishing consumer society, his final, posthumously published text warned of the need to guarantee our future through changes in our consumption habits and a more enlightened assessment of what we throw away. Wasting Away is not a recycling manual; rather, it is an appeal to remember that waste, as part of a natural process of deterioration, is necessary for life. But the management of garbage should not become a practice that enhances profits or public recognition; it should form part of our everyday life.

Whether or not recycling can provide a solution to environmental problems is a complicated question, open to debate. Although its efficacy depends on the energy consumed in the process, recycling can be one of the most potent strategies for reducing human impact on the environment. The last century was marked not only by huge development but also by huge destruction; modern cities are enmeshed in cycles of creation and consumption. In this new century, we find ourselves obliged to reduce such consumption and to take maximum advantage of everything we have already produced.

Given that construction is one of the most polluting of industries, modern architects have a key role to play. Although a number of architects, designers and artists have been working along these lines for years, we now need a new attitude, new frameworks. The design and construction of a building that incorporates recycled materials and products will differ significantly from the design and construction of a more traditional project. In the conventional approach, the architect develops a design scheme; the building components and materials are then sourced from well-established markets. But in the case of a building created from recycled materials, these markets do not yet exist, and so the process is inverted: the design team must first identify the sources of materials suitable for reuse and then start to design the project. And there are open questions about dismantling techniques and the safety of materials, as well as about developers’ and clients’ reluctance to use second-hand components. Architects are in an excellent position to examine and establish these new dynamics. Waste is the starting point: a designer’s ingenuity has to be focused on knowing how to use it in the most appropriate ways.

Rematerial looks at a new generation of architecture, based on the use of waste as a raw material for construction. Although the projects share this common premise, the results are diverse due to the different settings, the ratios of recycled to new material, and local regulations. Intervention can take various forms: the reuse of an entire building, or many of its parts, on the same spot as a new construction; the recycling of components that have been extracted from another building before being treated and transported to a new site; and projects that use recycled materials. But in every case there is a common denominator: the quest to breathe new life into something that has been discarded.