Upcycling construction and architecture:
large-scale waste as a sustainable source
Tom van Soest and Reinder Bakker
Tom van Soest and Reinder Bakker are material designers and entrepreneurs. They process tons of post-consumer and industrial waste to create new, aesthetic building products. In their view, this is urgently needed, because the construction industry is currently dominated by wastage and mutual price agreements, and its entire vertical market needs an overhaul. Experimentation and research from the design field is proving to be invaluable. In the future, it will enable the industry to opt for unconventional solutions to initiate change.
Tom van Soest’s love of waste started when he was a student at the Design Academy Eindhoven. He used a homemade blender to pulverise locally sourced construction and demolition waste into materials with stone-like qualities. In 2013, he started his company StoneCycling, focusing on his first product: WasteBasedBricks, a brick made of local building waste materials in different colours and textures. His bricks are now used all over the world in the facades and interiors of houses, offices, cafes and restaurants, from Starbucks drive-throughs to an apartment complex in Manhattan, and from DOK1620 in Amsterdam (the first circular neighbourhood in the Netherlands) to an Ace & Tate store in Barcelona.
Reinder Bakker is co-founder and director of Overtreders W, a design studio specialising in temporary, no-waste architecture. The company’s circular pavilions and other buildings are constructed using recycled or borrowed material, or with their own demountable construction system. They describe themselves as ‘material choreographers’ who ‘direct’ the materials to create temporary buildings. Their work includes Brasserie 2050, the restaurant of the future at the Lowlands festival, as well as the People’s Pavilion for Dutch Design Week 2018, in partnership with bureau SLA, built entirely from borrowed material and with a facade covered in slates made of waste plastic. This was a key step towards the launch of Pretty Plastic in 2020, a startup within Overtreders W that produces recyclable cladding material and tiles made of plastic waste from the construction industry.
You used to grind and process waste yourself to make products, only to discover that entire industries already exist for these steps in the production process. How do you establish a partnership with these industrial companies?
Reinder Bakker (RB)
We did indeed make our own machines. Very cute pink machines, which could separate, sort by colour, wash and shred. This gives you a nice production line. But we found out that every machine, no matter how small, no matter what function, is represented by an entire industry. It turned out that all the machines already exist!
Tom van Soest (TvS)
Yes, we also went through that process when we first used our own blender. We now only work with existing industries, which we also try to connect to each other. Because that’s the core of the circular economy: waste from one factory feeds another. And the same goes for technologies. I was once looking for ways to cut bricks and I finally came across a bakery manufacturer. It turned out that the sonic device for cutting cakes was also suitable for bricks! We found out that all these old factories contain a lot of bakery stuff. We now mix on a small scale using a large baker’s mixer. It’s also much cheaper than the machines developed by the construction industry.
We have our own machine line at an existing manufacturer, which we developed together. This was tricky, because we make tiles from 100 per cent post-consumer waste and the production leaves no residual waste, which makes a big difference in the process. The waste we use, which has been in buildings for decades, is shredded and washed and goes straight into our machines without any inter-mediate processing. We try to keep the lines short. We don’t work with a manufacturer that uses the waste to make injection moulding granules. We just tip the waste into the machine and a tile comes out at the other end.
Unlike with standardised building products, each brick or tile you make is unique and different in colour. How is the industry responding to that?
We work with large-scale PVC waste that’s so low-grade that up to now it hasn’t been used, and with 100 per cent post-consumer waste. These materials aren’t constant, they always vary in colour and composition. With potential customers or the industry you agree on a range of certain properties, like ‘they can contain this or that’, and the same goes for colour. According to the regulations, each colour has to be certified separately, and that’s a problem because our tiles have several colours. Because of this we’re working on a ‘colour report’, so several colours fall under a single certification. You want a broader recipe, it’s not the same as an industrial product with the same colours on every shelf. And we’re including disclaimers explaining that it’s complicated to turn waste into something that always looks the same. We’ve told the industry that it’s not necessary, each tile is unique, that’s precisely their strong point. Funnily enough, we’re now having the problem the other way around: the machine is so good that the variations in the tiles are getting too small. That’s good for the story, but I actually think it’s a strength that tiles vary a bit.
Funny that you should say this – we’re having exactly the same experience. For years, the industry wanted perfection, with products that were all the same, but that poses a problem because the raw materials are running out. So people will then bring in raw materials from elsewhere, Australia if need be, to obtain the same products. We say waste is wonderful, but it works differently. If we send a sample to an architect, we might not be able to make the same colour in two or three years’ time when the project starts, simply because that specific waste has run out. Now we say we’ll give you an indication of what to expect. When we start, we produce a test batch to give an impression of the appearance. But it still isn’t 100 per cent accurate, because the waste we receive can still vary widely.
How do you generally get the industry to work with you?
By getting them enthusiastic and telling them that this is the future – they simply don’t have a choice. We can also offer them a lot of help. We can secure grants, talk to the government and share ideas on ways we can support the industry in their transition. Companies then gradually become more and more enthusiastic.
You have a lot more choice in terms of waste, Tom – unfortunately the plastic processing industry is more conservative and difficult to work with. The crazy situation has arisen for us is that the virgin material, new material produced from petroleum, is cheaper than our end product. The industry says, we’ve got enough work, and our machines aren’t made for old post-consumer rubbish. ‘Not in my machine,’ they say. What’s it like for you, Tom? Is it the same story with your raw materials?
Yes, at the moment it is. Like oil, clay is really cheap – that’s the problem. We simply don’t get paid for all the kilos that we’re clearing up. If I got one euro a kilogramme, I’d have a nice business model! Still, I think that if the system is reversed and waste becomes more valuable due to scarcity, we’ll have a head start, and we’ll be able to make an impact. Then the industry will have to work with us.
Re-use is relatively more expensive. This is related to regulations and responsibility. One puts the onus on the manufacturers, the other on the dealers, and yet another on the government. As a designer, you’re stuck in the middle. How can you exert an influence?
By constantly pointing out the responsibility and giving examples of how things should be done.
The task of designers is also to make waste attractive – this is what our field is good at.
That’s right, an eye for aesthetics is important, but really you need to control the entire chain. Just look in the Quote 500 [an annual list of the richest 500 people in the Netherlands, ed.], all the waste processors are in it! We’re actually in the wrong part of the chain. If you’re in the first part of the chain of waste processing and sales, there’s a lot of money to be made.
That’s why as designers we try to make irreplaceable products that you can’t get anywhere else. For example, we did a building in New York with 42 different types of bricks in the facade, with different colours and angles. The industry simply can’t imitate that.
What’s more, this isn’t a purely Dutch story, you have to look at it internationally. Once I was at a waste processing company which had a huge mountain of fridges. I asked why they were there, and the answer was, ‘They’ve been there for a while, we’re waiting for the price to rise – we’re pushing it up, and when there’s a shortage on the market, we’ll ship the whole lot to Turkey.’ That’s how that world works. That’s what motivates companies. You can’t blame them, it’s how the system is organised. The waste processing industry is a very tough trade.
The construction sector is currently responsible for more than a third of global CO2 emissions. Whatever product you supply, the industry is pretty much trapped within these systems. Reinder, you’ve been operating for around seven years, and Tom for ten years. Have you seen any changes in thinking about your building products?
You see that in the construction world, for the contractor, at the end of the process, money is what counts. It’s always the same companies that work together and make price agreements. I don’t see any change in this at all – no one wants to change.
I say almost every day that our clients should be rewarded. They’re sticking their necks out and clearing up waste, so they ought to get something in return. That’s why we make a small award after each project, showing how much we’ve upcycled together. A certificate for ourselves.
We’re part of a power game and nobody wants to lose that power. The other thing is that people don’t like what they don’t know. Companies and contractors like to work with materials they’re already familiar with. But once an architect manages to get our product onto the permit and approved by the aesthetics committee, they can’t avoid using it! At the same time, our tiles are so specific, and that works to our advantage – the more non-standard your product is, the harder it is for them to avoid you.
What kinds of skills will we need in the future to accelerate and increase circular development in construction?
What isn’t going to change is that we need designers who can design and architects who can create something good. Everything in between, between the waste processing company and the manufacturer, is a new market for companies and designers. Worldwide, we need more circular designers.
As a designer you sometimes tend to stay on your own island because you want to be unique, but we all have to jump on this island together! To realise a circular economy, we need more people doing stuff with bricks and plastic. The island really needs to get bigger, then it will become more significant. In fact, we need more of everything: more entrepreneurs, more venture capital, more circular designers. The change won’t come from the existing industry; new companies will have to force it.
Imagine if you look into a distant future… at some point you would think all the waste will be cleared up. Then you’re done, your raw material will dry up.
If we manage that, I can die a happy man [laughs]. We’re currently in the transition period from ‘having waste’ to ‘never having waste’, but this will take another 300 years. One day, waste really won’t exist anymore. There are already trucks driving around with this message on the side: ‘There’s no such thing as waste.’ It’s very ambitious to say that now. If it means in the future our company ceases to exist, I’ll be very happy. Then we’ll just be able to get on with designing without worrying about the raw materials.
Yes, that would be nice, but it’s going to take a while. For example, not a single bioplastic PVC pipe has been sold in construction! It also seems that even more plastic window frames are actually being produced. Something else I find difficult: do we want to maintain this situation? This is a thing we’re sometimes accused of: once you start a new industry that cleans up construction waste, you’re actually perpetuating it. That’s true, but at the same time there’s really a lot from the past 80 years that we still have to clean up. It’s so much, you can’t get rid of it that easily.
We’re at a point where together with producers we have to make choices. Do we want to be even more sustainable? It means investing heavily and altering production lines. If we want to use a hydrogen kiln that’s even more sustainable, then this will need producing, and that will cost millions. These are the kinds of decisions that have to be made. And then we say, you’ve got to do this, because it all has to be sorted out in the Netherlands by 2050. Which means you’d better get started now.