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Trust, collaboration and communication are the key to re-use

As part of celebrations to mark the opening of our new London studio, we gathered a stellar panel of circular economy experts to share their experiences and offer some practical advice on how to reuse buildings.

They included Dr Colin Rose, architect and researcher at ReLondon; artist and recycled sneaker designer Helen Kirkum; Charlie Wedgwood, Head of Carbon at McGee Group and Geraldine Durieux, civil engineer and architect at Rotor Deconstruction in Brussels.

The discussion was chaired by creative director David Bickle who started by asking how we quantify and qualify material to be reused and whose responsibility is it to make sure that it is fit for purpose.

Charlie Wedgwood says it’s about balancing risk: “If you want to try and reuse something from an old asset into a new asset, you’re either relying on someone else to recertify the product or, if it can’t be recertified, you must accept some risk. What you tend to find if there’s a whole chain of suppliers, then there’s lots of chances for it to fall through. One of the biggest things that I’ve learned from trying to define value is to demonstrate how to achieve it, and to make sure that the opportunity won’t be missed.”




Dr Colin Rose: “There’s a really important role between the donor projects and the recipient projects, or third parties that take a particular material waste stream and become the experts in turning that material stream into something that is as easy for specifiers to specify and for people to procure as new materials would be. It’s partly about quality and recertification but it’s also about quantity and having sensible lead times and knowing that you can specify from this source and it’s going to be reliable. We’re starting to see this with businesses making re-use steel into something that is functional. It’s a small but growing market but we need it for every other type of material as well.

“And that’s what we trying to do with timber; taking structural timber that is currently chipped and downcycled into chipboard or just incinerated for energy, and instead trying to make use of its residual structural capacity, maybe aesthetic capacity, by turning it into new CLT and glulam.”

Sneaker designer Helen Kirkum is also re-using materials for the same purpose as originally intended and says it’s here that quality and trust comes in to play: “There are more standards to uphold when creating patchwork leather and then reselling it as leather for shoes, than if we were to use the leather for a different material, a decorative material, homeware or even accessories. With shoes, you do have to make sure that the leather is fit for purpose. But it’s self-governed and a lot of studios creating upcycled garments or accessories are building that level of trust with customers personally.”

We need to turn the system on its head. So the function follows the form and not the form that follows function. This will lead to limiting, and even better eliminating, the production of new material.

Customers also need to understand that upcycled materials are going to look different even if they are fit for purpose says Helen:

“A lot of it is about communication, it’s about storytelling and helping customers to understand that the way the material looks is going to be different. The scuffs and marks are the memories embedded in the material.

“When all this timber and steel and everything else has all this beautiful quality to it, what’s the point of trying to make it look like something that’s not recycled. It’s so much more compelling for it to have that livelihood in it.”

Dr Colin Rose thinks there is a way to go with accepting the recycled aesthetic in the built environment: “We’re planeing timber at the moment; it’s got a bit more character to it because it’s old but you get rid of the weathered surface and people are a bit surprised that it is secondary. With CLT, it’s easy to adopt as it’s just like new. But if you look closely, you can see where the screws and nails have been removed and the little marks of its origin.

“In a future world where we’re using mass produced timber for almost every building, being able to take your source material and use those weathered materials in really interesting ways could be a great way for architects and companies to differentiate themselves.”

Geraldine Durieux believes we need to turn the design process on its head and start with what is already there:

“Function follows form and not form that follows function. This will lead to limiting and even better eliminating the production of new material.”

Dr Colin Rose agreed: “As a designer I really like that process. What can I work with that’s already in the world and that’s means-oriented design instead of goal oriented-design. What I’d like to see is standardized data that’s collected in a city-wide repository. Information about all the materials that are going to be emerging from demolition, deconstruction and strip out in the months and years ahead. So then you would have a really good library of what will be available.

“It ties into what is increasingly being required at planning but we need to put those policies in place so that we generate and distribute that information; make it open so that London’s designers as a whole can respond to all these opportunities and see how the material can be transformed into a new use to meet their clients needs.”

Helen Kirkum: “For this kind of sustainable infrastructure to exist, we have to talk to each other, and we have to collaborate with each other. There are so many islands and pockets of people doing incredible things, and it’s just about being more transparent and open with information, just sharing knowledge and asking questions.”

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