The Brighton Waste House – ‘living laboratory’ for ecological architectural design @ The Wasted City Book

“There is no such thing as waste, there is just stuff in the wrong place.” Duncan Baker-Brown

There is no ‘one-size’ solution to make a city circular. That said, The Wasted City book demonstrates the heterogeneity of approaches, all of which are critical to further the development of circular cities. Let us now introduce you already the third interview – the Brighton Waste House. Our independent researcher Alex Thibadoux went to talk with Duncan Baker-Brown to get to know more about the “house made out of materials that other people have thrown away, [which] is also an investigation into the circular economy in waste and construction.” Take a look!

TitleBWH

Duncan, Could you tell us what you do and what is the Waste House?

I’m an architect and the founder of a practice called BBM Sustainable Design. We formed in 1993, and since 1994 we (I say we because its me and my partner) teach as well as research around the work of sustainable design. Since 1994 I have taught as well. We set up a research department at the University of Brighton in the School of Architecture called RED, which is Research into the Environment and Design. Since 2004, we have done a series of house projects that have tested the different ideas around sustainable design. Actually the first one that we did formed the practice in 1994. We won a RIBA competition to design a house of the future. So we built that in 1994, a sort of off-grid house plus work place. Because of that we got a lot of attention, so we got asked to teach and do research, etc. Even though we weren’t qualified as architects then, we were still just considered students. But in 2008 I got asked to do something called The House That Kevin Built. In England we have a program called Grand Design, do you know it?

No.

Well, it is a very popular program on Channel 4, and every week it follows a construction project and the presenter is well known. This project is rolled out around the world now, the TV program is, but the presenter is called Kevin. We did a live version of the program. We built a house in 6 days and it was called The House That Kevin Built. That house was prefabricated, assembled in 6 days, and made almost entirely of compostable, organic materials. So, we were proving that, in the world of prefabrication where mainly it is plastics of various kind plus a bit of galvanized steel. To keep it light-weight, for insulation you could use things like straw or hemp or willow or all different sorts of materials that lock carbon. So that was good, as well as it being the first kind of low energy house assembled like that, it was also the first A+ house rated in terms of energy consumption in the UK. It was only up for two days. It had 5 million viewers a night watching it. Amazing! And I spent the next couple of years trying to get it rebuilt down at the University of Brighton, where I teach. That didn’t happen, and the house ended up begin redistributed, well the bottom of it ended up at the University of Bath, where it is being analyzed, and the rest of it went back to the suppliers. Interestingly enough, we got the idea of a live construction project in the University of Brighton. People then said, “well we can do The House That Kevin Built now, because we have some land for you on campus.” But I said, “well I don’t have the house anymore”. So that gave me the opportunity to- I didn’t really want to do exactly the same project again- but I did want to do an effort to build and involve students in the design and construction process. So I used it as a live learning tool. In 2012 I met someone from an organization called Remade South East, and this was a government funded organization that was getting large corporations and companies to reduce the amount of waste they create, in whatever their process was, and this woman said to me, “what you need to be looking at is the issue of resource security.” So, The House That Kevin Built is all about using locally sourced organic materials, materials grown from the landscape that lock carbon, and one reason that is interesting is because the UK government was encouraging people to burn timber. If you put a wood burning stove in your house, it actually gave you a tick, a green tick, which it is not of course. So that first project was about grouping the worth of some low grade organic material, but then what we wanted to do was do a project that included young people in the design and construction but had a different issue, and that was this idea of resource security. I found this quote on Treehugger website, and it said “There is no such thing as waste, there is just stuff in the wrong place.” So we started with the idea that the construction industry in the UK is quite wasteful. It used to be even more wasteful, but now when we build 5 houses, we throw away 1 house worth of stuff- it goes to the landfill or incineration. We are 20% inefficient. So the original idea was to design a building that was made only out of that 20% of construction waste that went to the landfill. What we ended up doing, was starting with that, but this was a team collaboration, and what we did was- one of the team members was someone called Cat Fletcher from an organization called Freegle. And that is an online network in the UK, sort of a social media website with over 2 million subscribers where people swap stuff. So it’s a bit like Freecycle. So anyway, Cat Fletcher from Freegle said, “why don’t we start using other material?” The sort of material that people in their everyday lives throw away. And so the project went from “this is how you build from construction waste material” to more of a polemic. So for example, while we were on site, someone approached us and said “we can get you toothbrushes.” They we able to collect 25,000 toothbrushes, plastic toothbrushes in four days. The way they were able to do that is because Gatwick airport, one of London’s airports, this company was a company that cleaned out airliners when they landed at the airport. And so if you fly for more than two hours, you are given a free toothbrush, so they were able, in only four days, to collect 25,000 toothbrushes, all off of airplanes.

@Brighton Waste House

@Brighton Waste House

Wow.

So, that is what the Waste House became more. It was constructed so that it was waste timber, waste timber ply columns and beams, and then between the columns you have got these voids, which were 400mm deep and 2 meters wide, and they form these ply boxes, floor to ceiling ply boxes, and we filled those ply boxes with this other material that we gathered. So, it is like 250 different stories, different material stories. And these boxes have little windows in them so you can see them from the inside; you can see the two tons of denim that we collected, which literally were the legs of denim jeans, because we found a company in the UK that approached us and said, “Look we bought jeans from China ready-made, and we cut the legs off and sell them as shorts. . . so we got two tons of legs.” We also got 4,000 DVDs, 4,000 floppy disks. Floppy disks from the 1980’s. We got 4,000 VHS videos. These are things that people have long forgotten that are still out there. You know? The environment hasn’t forgotten, they are still floating around in the oceans or clogging up the waste streams somewhere.VHS videos and things like that, which you forget about, people have them in their lofts and still have them knocking around. And for whatever reason, a couple of years ago, and they still are, people are clearing out their lofts and suddenly there are millions, if not billions, of these things. So, you assemble this thing. What was also interesting was the way we built it. We had a large national contractor supply us with a site agent that had 30 years site experience at building sites. And then because they were a large contractor, they were obliged to have apprentices, young people learning the trades. So they came to us and said, “We can give you the site agent, apprentices, and we want to help you with the build. And they did. And so these apprentices, there would be 2-3 of them at a time, would be on site with one site agent. But the what was amazing was that we partnered with a college across the road from the University of Brighton called Brighter City College. That is a college that trains people with skills in the construction industry. And so, we had our construction team, this company called Mears, to make the site safe, to make it a proper construction site. Then we get the carpenters with their carpentry tutor, would come, electricians then with their electricians tutor, all the trades. But they were very young, some as young as 15. So the house was built by students learning how to be constructors, and our design students as well, architects and interior architects, as well as volunteers. And we had over 360 students enrolled in the build. So on one level, the most amazing thing is that it was built by kids. And there are some carpenters out there, two years later, they are just graduating carpentry now and the only live project that they have worked on is The Waste House. So they really understand issues surrounding material flows, resources, and how to really build things out of waste. And the other thing about The Waste House is that it wasn’t a temporary shed made out of waste, this is a building for the University of Brighton. It is also a building that the University uses 2 or 3 times a week. The other days, it is used by local schools and community groups, the people that got it built in the first place. It is also an ongoing research project. We are monitoring the performance of the two tons of denim or the DVDs or whatever- all those materials are used as low grade insulation. The other point is that it is got permanent planning and building regulations approvals. So it is a serious build, a proper build. Even without the waste, in a normal proper build using kids that would have been amazing enough, but actually it is all of the other things as well. It is a project that is a lot of different things, but it is not saying this is how to build, it is actually a project that is asking loads of questions and the polemics and the awareness it raises. We teach there now. We use the shop upstairs, it is an open plan workshop. We use that to teach Humane and Sustainable Design. So kids that have been there are in a building that is all about the problem. Humane and Sustainable Design is more like a product design course. They are doing material experiments, etc. So it is a lot of work on show as well. Student work and projects that have become real projects, real things, real products out there. There is a lot of learning for all of us, all of the time with it.

©Brighton Waste House

©Brighton Waste House

 Was it funded by the University, to begin with?

Good question. The University gifted us the land. That was I think in about 2010, they came back to me and said, “You’ve got the land,” but I don’t have the House that Kevin Built anymore, that is gone. So we got the land. They gave us about 100,000 pounds, and that was from their Estate’s department. Because they were getting a bit of estate’s accommodation at the end of the day. In a way that was a cost-effective way of getting a building constructed. So it was a lot cheaper, 100,000 pounds is about- including the taxes- about a third of the cost of the building. So what then happened is City College, their labor was given to us in kind. And then, we spent some money on the materials or getting the materials. When you build something out of waste it is time consuming in terms of labor, so we were paying some people to help us on that. I think that we ended up spending about 125,000 pounds, but it is a 250,000 + VAT sort of project. What I always conclude is that using wasted material didn’t save us money, it saved us resources. And it doesn’t save you money, it tends to be, you know we don’t have the networks yet that support us, so you end up spending more money running after stuff. I think soon, we are going to have the sort of networks for materials, you know the construction industry will have a material exchange online and it will be easier to source these things. That is one thing that we had to do, where the Brighton city council helped; they gave us a building nearby that we used as a store. So, if the woman from Freegle said, “I’ve got two tons of denim” and I think “I don’t know what to do with that”, we could put it in a store till we came up with an idea. And it was a lot of that, you really sort of question the role of the designer. Me, someone with 25 years experience in the construction industry plus the site agent, we were able to think “Alright, there is a pile of vinyl banners, a thousand of them, what should we do with that? Oh, maybe we can use them as a vapor control barrier,” which is something that you have to have in timber framed construction. So it required quite a bit of knowledge in the construction industry. You know, that was the joy of it. But also, the other thing, as the project evolved on site, we didn’t know what it was going to be looking like. We didn’t know what it was going to be finished in, and it was only two months before it finished that we decided to put carpet tiles on the outside of the house. So we got those tested. We got a blow-torcher to do a fire test on them, and that was witnessed by the local building control who approved it, and it got a good fire rating. But then, the way they were detailed on the walls, the way they turned the corner, the external corner of the house, that was an invention by a fifteen year old carpentry student. Yeah, it was really nice the way that people, everyone got quite enthused by the project, everyone was a designer at the end of the day.

@Brighton Waste House

@Brighton Waste House

Great. Does the University pretty much run the building and the programs now?

Yeah, as I said, for two or three days a week, it is a University building, and then we let anyone. . . you know if you were in Brighton and you wanted to do some meetings, a lot of like-minded people use the building. So we have all sorts of people to visit it. Lots of delegations from all over the world come and have a look, and other people use it.

What is your reporting mechanism on the building? How do you make assessments about the building or the program and decide to change anything?

We put in about 25 different digital monitors, so we are actually measuring the performance of the building. We are going to have results very soon. Because I have been writing the book and things, I haven’t been able to deal with that. It is sort of on the back burner, but we will have some information on that, on how these various materials perform. The book I have written includes a chapter on the Waste House, so that is in that book, but I have also had 2 or 3 peer reviewed academic papers on the Waste House published, so it is out there. And like I said, at the moment it is maintained, run like a straight forward university accommodation. What we are going to start to do, the idea is that it is an ongoing project, so we just reached a second round Interreg bid, do you know Interreg?

 No.

It is cross border research, so this one is France and UK. So, it is a joint bid with other EU countries, and ultimately we are going to be sourcing organic waste material that we can turn into construction insulation. And then we are going to be testing it. So we will remove a panel from the waste house and replace it with this experimental insulation, and test the way that insulation performs. So that is kind of an ongoing thing. Also, from the point of view of the interior architecture, I think that is going to get a look at this year. That would be a student project. So it is still pretty live. It is designed so that it can be pulled apart again. For example if the VHS video cassettes start to fail and off-gas, they will be pulled out for something else.

Do you know how many people generally go through the house per year?

Don’t know. I don’t, but it is fully booked. It can be booked by one person or 25 people, so it is pretty busy. We use it 2 or 3 days a week for the MA course, but I don’t teach on that, I just contribute. It’s got 20-30 people in it 2 or 3 days a week anyway, then it is. . . I could perhaps find out if you wanted to. It is pretty busy. It is only 85 square meters; it is not very big.

Beyond construction and design, are there any other sectors of the economy that you see the Waste House touching on?

I think it has had a social impact as well. Certainly working with City College Brighton & Hove, they don’t want to be learning carpentry; they have been excluded from school. They come from difficult social backgrounds. What was really nice, a lot of these kids that were at first quite reluctant to work on site- they ended up doing 2 or 3 days a week on site- and like I said, one guy, on his first or second day, they actually damaged the house on purpose with a hammer, but within a few weeks he was the guy that invented the corner detail for the hanging tiles. We had about six students from City College that also became apprentices for Mears, the contractors, because of the work they did on the Waste House, they became apprentices. And in the summer of 2013, when City College and the University were both closed for summer recess, we had a summer camp. We had 50 students for 6 or 7 weeks on site, and they did the most difficult part, they constructed the roof trusses. What was amazing. There was the sort of knowledge transfer: kids that come from a construction background and kids that come from a design background. One time four weeks into the summer school, what was really nice, an architect and an interior architect were both running teams of carpenters. They were running the teams because they had more expertise and knowledge on the site. My guys that normally just work on computers and sketches and make models are actually leading carpenters on a live building site. There was plenty of the opposite. It is pretty amazing seeing a 16 year old carpenter student running a team of 21 year old architects. That was for me, really important. Since then, we haven’t got another live project on site yet, even though it was over two years ago it finished, but we have had a lot of other collaborative projects that spun out because of it. For instance the research projects I just mentioned, and we have got others in the pipeline. In effect the original team, the builders, the technical college and university are looking at other projects to do.

 Do you think the outreach or influence of the Waste House is continuing to grow? Are you trying to make it bigger?

Well yeah, in the first 18 months it was open, up until recently, it had over 400 articles written about it, and that includes TV around the world, radio, and loads of online coverage. Now academic papers as well and the book. For me, it has had a lot of impact and a lot of people know about it. And it has given me the opportunity to write around the subject and also to create networks and talk to people like yourself. For me the Waste House asks lots of questions. It provides more answers around pedagogic methods I would have said instead of construction. I think it has just raised awareness in how wasteful we are in our everyday life, as well as on construction sites. And that then gets you thinking about different ways of doing things. So in terms of practice, we have always been called BBM sustainable design, so we have those thoughts in mind, but in terms of networks for me, it has been hugely empowering. I am now in the position where I am asked to write books on the subject; the university gave me a sabbatical for five months so that I could do the research required to write the book that I am just finishing. For me it has been quite impactful in many ways. And I always. . . when I studied architecture, I studied in London, I did it part-time. When I was doing my degree, I worked and studied at the same time. Our tutor, it was a one-man architect who had his office within- he had like a live office within- in the university itself. It’s the London Metropolitan University. At that office, in a live academic environment, I always thought it was amazing, so to be able to do that with the Waste House was very exciting for me. I don’t know if I made that clear, while it was a design project, it was a live project as well, we folded in learning modules from school of architecture and interior architecture into the design and construction process of the Waste House. So students were doing their design, and technology, and practices- how to be a professional architect- modules by using the live project that was the Waste House. And of course City College did the same with their students learning how to be carpenters, plumbers, electricians, or whatever. If they spent 3 months on site with the Waste House, they did that instead of being in the classroom or in a workshop. They were on a real, live project. We had a student filmmaker that interviewed about 25 students through the project, getting their opinions about the project, so that is quite a good resource.

Is there anything that could help you become more mainstream with the project?

Well, I think what we are looking at is what the next project will be. We are almost doing a project with Arup and BAM contractors. They are out of Holland, and they are one of the first contractors behind the buildings of Thomas Rau. Well he is the architect for, I think it is, Brummen town hall, and that town hall purports to be one of the first cradle to cradle buildings. I think that about 80% of it. It is only an extension to an existing building, but they say that the columns of that town hall are designed with the next use in mind, not this current use, so it is that sort of thing, and BAM, they were the contractors for that project. They just did a temporary building in London called the Circular Building. They did that with Arup, the engineers not the consultants, and we had an idea, because that building is now being pulled down. The bits and elements of that building have gone back to the supply house to be reused, but we were looking at rebuilding it in Brighton and doing something else with it, but that is not going to happen, so we are looking for the next project. No, we are looking for a project that demonstrates the idea of the circular economy. Because from the point of view of our campus, we have got a building that asks the question, then it would be good to have a building to answer some of those questions raised.

@Brighton Waste House

@Brighton Waste House

 Is that how you imagine the future of the house and the program?

Yeah, I think it will transform and be other things. Meanwhile, the nice thing about it is- it has these other uses- and people still come just to see it. So, it is at that stage as well. I think for me, the book has allowed me to meet other people, amazing people around the world who are doing these different projects with the circular economy in mind.

What do you think was the biggest challenge of the project involving the coordination of people and supplies?

I think the biggest challenge was getting the right team together in the first place; there is a lot of trust involved. It wasn’t a project that one person could do. But I think the biggest challenge was actually reinventing the design process, because you don’t design something in the very beginning and then it happens. You are designing all the way through to the last day. Because you never know what material is going to come online. So, at the moment while there aren’t the right networks out there, you are just trying to think, “well alright, there is a pile of videotapes or toothbrushes or vinyl banners” and you are thinking “what can I do with these instead of sending them to the landfill like normally happens?” I have met other people who are creating products out of waste, and a lot of them see themselves as commodity brokers. They know a source of waste at the moment that is going straight to the landfill, or incinerator, or worse, and they are just thinking, “what could that be used for?” So I think that is a challenge, and my book initially was just going to be a response to Cradle to Cradle, and I heard him speak a number of times, and I have spoken to him at length. On purpose, to get people to pay attention at these lectures, he will tell you that recycling and re-use is just delaying the inevitable and it is useless. But I have deliberately divided the case studies into steps toward the circular economy. So the first step is recycling. So I am sort of valuing recycling, even though it is just a basic thing. But the case studies that I am using are where recycling is helping to clear up coast lines or ocean or fishing or stopping bad practice, something like that. And out of that recycling, you get an added awareness of the problem. So I have got recycling, and then I’ve got projects that re-use material, and then projects that use less material than usual, and then the fourth chapter is all about projects that are trying to be genuine closed loop systems.

 Right now the Waste House is a specialized, niche solution, do you see it becoming more widespread?

Well, like I said, I don’t see it as a solution to a problem, I think it is an awareness raiser. Since it was built, the idea came from 2011, it was finished in 2014, so I think the design industry has moved on a little bit since then. There is a lot of talk, I know in Holland, and to a lesser extent, but it is leading up in the UK, there is a lot of talk about this idea of a circular economy, so I am hoping that the awareness of and what the challenges are for the next few years will go sky high. I know there are large projects in London, to build 25,000 houses for example, where actually the authority behind that scheme have commissioned a study on the potentials of the circular economy for that project. So, it is being taken seriously now. And people can see there are plenty of case studies where people are making more money out of circular systems than linear ones. So, I think it is a different environment from when the Waste House was just asking the question really, and saying “Did you realize?” Because a lot of people still don’t realize, and they think that once something is thrown away, it goes away, but it doesn’t of course. But more like an awareness raiser, and I think now what would be useful is to really test some projects, because at the end of all my research on circular, closed loop systems in the construction industry, they are few and far between. There is a lot of people talking about it now and trying to get their head around it, but there aren’t a lot of examples yet.

 

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Created on 04 July 2017

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