The Afterlives of Buildings

After many years of service, a Dutch laboratory is about to be demolished. Equipment sold, occupants long gone, the wrecking ball is about to arrive. A bit of the resulting rubble will be recycled, but most will be hauled to landfills. Perhaps some of it will wind up in Sweden, where it can be burned for power. Also, the building contains hundreds of giant stainless steel sinks – could you find something to do with those?
Reusing material in a large number of cases is associated with a loss of control. Like the younger sibling receiving outgrown hand-me-downs, one expects the edges to be tattered, the color not so trendy, or the size a little off. The result is a compromise, and it is still difficult to approach a highly demanding, object-obsessed society with compromise. Until we adopt closed loop systems akin to cradle-to-cradle, it is the task of the designer to translate compromise and constraint into desire, and squeeze every last ounce of life from the precious materials we already have. It is a daunting assignment, but new ground is being made. Easier applications simply take time – finding the party motivated enough to bother removing the estimated 6000 board-feet of reusable lumber in the average 2000 square foot home demolition. Even for the most absurd scenarios, however, there is great inspiration to be had.

Recyclops, by 2012 Architecten.

Recyclops, by 2012Architecten.

We rejoin our sink scenario after the intervention of 2012Architecten, a Dutch firm. Now converted into a facade for an outdoor pavilion, the sinks maintain their reusability through a unique mounting structure. Used on horizontal surfaces, they (of course) collect rainwater. Not without rough edges, the effect is still surprising: a pile of discarded material coalescing into something beautiful, imaginative, and functional.

A Washing Machine espresso bar, by 2012Architecten.

A washing machine espresso bar, by 2012Architecten.

"Restructure," a conference room constructed from reused window frames, by 2012Architecten.

“Restructure,” a conference room constructed from reused window frames, by 2012Architecten.

Intending to “facilitate the transition to a sustainable society,” other projects from 2012Architecten showcase a similar model: discarded material, an opportunity, and an afterlife for at least part of an old building.

If scarcity is our future, projects like these may become the new normal. History is rife with examples, from the reuse of stone in ancient Rome to bottle houses of the American southwest built in the absence of trees.

Nevada's oldest bottle house, constructed in 1907.

The oldest surviving bottle house, constructed in Nevada in 1907.

The challenge of the 21st century will be one of reconciliation: Reconciling industry with biology, consumption with restraint, and more with less. Unbeknownst to us, today’s material selection for next year’s construction may see use in many buildings to come.


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