Architects vs. waste

Are recycling and reducing consumption of materials the only possible ways of dealing with the problem of waste? Can architects and designers help to reduce the production of garbage? And maybe do even more? I was looking for answers to these questions – and found them! – at the exhibitions of 15th Architecture Biennale in Venice and XXI Triennale in Milan.

Venice Architecture Biennale 2016, titled “Reporting from the front”, is dominated by socially committed architecture. Alejandro Aravena, director of this year’s edition of the Biennale, motivated architects from all around the world to address problems usually they are not involved in solving: migration, pollution, natural disaster, and the housing shortage, just to name a few.

The issue that appears at Venice exhibition very often, is the global problem of waste. Solutions related to dealing with this problem occurs just after crossing the threshold of the main exhibitions held in the Arsenale (see the main picture) and Giardini gardens.

The introductory rooms of Biennale Architettura 2016 were built with the 100 tons of waste material generated by the dismantling of the previous art Biennale. Alejandro Aravena used 10,000 m2 of plaster board to stack them into walls as well as twisted metal studs to hang them overhead.

There are much more ideas for solving problems – or at least to attempt to solve them – than just a re-use of waste. Here you can find a summary of selected exhibitions I visited at Architecture Biennale in Venice and XXI Triennial in Milan (though, the second event is dedicated to social design in much lesser extent).


I Saving of non-renewable materials

Like the spectacular Gothic vaults, the cut stone The Armadillo Vault standing at the centre of the exhibition “The Beyond Bending” is stable because of its geometry. Its shape comes from the same structural and constructional principles as the stone cathedrals of the past, enhanced and extended by computation and digital fabrication.

Armadillo Vault1 credits TrendNomad

Armadillo Vault is an attempt to save materials, energy, and costs by having structures working only in compression. It demonstrates that with knowledge of how compressive forces affect architectural structures, buildings can be constructed more efficiently using sustainable materials rather than steel.

Armadillo Vault2 credits TrendNomad

Despite the first impression, this piece is not a romantic attempt to revive the Gothic, but rather a direct critique of freeform architecture. That is not a shiny smooth surface that needs a substructure (or, in other words: more materials, transportation, pollution and time) to hold it. This is both the structure and the geometry at the same time.

By better understanding the flow of compressive forces in three dimensions, excess steel can be eliminated, natural resources can be conserved, and humble material like stone can be reimagined for the future.

Standing without steel reinforcement, the expressively flowing surface highlights the misconception that complex geometry need to hand-in-hand with inefficient use of material.

Armadillo Vault4 credits TrendNomad

Comprised of 399 individual cut limestone voussoirs, unreinforced and without mortar, the vault spans 16 m with a minimum thickness of only 5 cm.

Armadillo Vault3 credits TrendNomad

Each piece of limestone was left unfinished on the underside. This created a canopy that looks similar to an armadillo shell on top but has a rough, stripy underside.

Armadillo Vault is the result of a collaboration of ETH Zurich’s Block Research Group with engineering firm Ochsendorf DeJong & Block and masonry specialists from The Escobedo Group. After the Biennale, the structure will be moved to a new location.


II Recycling

– How can architecture stimulate the reduction of the amount of waste? How can architecture participate in the process of recycling? – ask on the introductory movie authors of the exhibition “Let’s Talk About Garbage”, Polish architect Hugon Kowalski and architecture critic and curator Marcin Szczelina.

Lets Talk about Garbage1 credits TrendNomad

The exhibition “Let’s talk about garbage”, which is the development of a final thesis of Hugon Kowalski about recycling “business” by a million inhabitants of Mumbai slum of Dharavi, show in details the life cycles of some discarded items – their collection, sorting, processing, and reuse for building and another purposes.

Such processes as recycling, upcycling (recycling which raises the value of the processed material) or product design in consideration of its future processing point to alternatives to the problem of waste overproduction.

Lets Talk about Garbage2 credits TrendNomad
The map of illegal waste traffic. Today, each piece of locally discarded waste becomes a global problem. The road our garbage travels often leads through various continents. China and India import waste, as recyclable waste or e-waste abundant in precious metals are an opportunity to get rich fast.

– We tend to think of garbage and waste only from the perspective of an evil that should be prevented as much as possible. Reducing consumption, making things last longer, and avoiding unnecessary products are part of such approach – we learn at the exhibition.

Lets Talk about Garbage3 credits TrendNomad

– Garbage should not be considered as waste that has to be disposed of discretely but as an artificial, man-made resource that is intimately related to an industry, and even certain culture.

The main idea of this project was the sentence we heard in India:  – In Europe, you throw everything into the plastic bag and don’t care about it. In India we take this bag, open it and everything in it is our goods – authors add.

Lets Talk about Garbage4 credits TrendNomad

People developed multiple methods of collecting waste and increasingly advanced waste processing technologies. However, in order to make recycling as effective as possible, we need proper waste sorting – both preliminary grouping, performed in households and factories, and the mechanical or control sorting, carried out in processing centres.

As a good example, Kowalski and Szczelina describe Kamikatsu city in Japan, called  a „zero waste” city. All of the garbage from households is divided up into 34 categories and recycled accordingly. There are no garbage compactor trucks in the city, as the residents carry their refuse to the recycling centre themselves.

At this moment, Kamikatsu is processing approx. 80% of its waste, whereas 20% is deposited in landfills. The goal of city authorities is to limit waste production to zero by 2020.

It’s been some time before everyone got used to the new rules, but with time, residents adapted to these drastic change and accepted them as normal.

Lets Talk about Garbage5 credits TrendNomad
– People discard everything to a black bag, pretending it is not their problem anymore – this idea is reflected in the black wall of the “messy” exhibition, which conceals the back, i.e. the further fate of waste.

On the front black wall, the authors of the exhibition present an extensive palette of materials and products, proposing ecological and sustainable solutions for the construction industry, that are available on the market. Some of them were also part of another exhibition, titled “Daring Growth” and held at the Palazzo Mora. Here are the materials that were presented simultaneously in both exhibitions.

StoneCycling credits TrendNomad
WasteBasedBricks by StoneCycling

The Dutch company StoneCycling in a 150-kilometre radius of the factories collects used bricks, tiles, toilets, waste from the insulation industry and even ash from incinerators. The company turns waste into new, technically perfect bricks and tiles.

The process takes place in an almost hundred-year-old stone factory. In order to gain high-quality materials, a special blender was developed, which pulverises glass, concrete, bricks, and even complete ceramic washbasin into powder.

The mix of waste ingredients in products is created in such a way that the firing process during production can be done at a much lower temperature. This reduces the energy input and CO2 output. WasteBasedBricks can be crushed again and reused completely.

Fireclay Tile CTR glass credits TrendNomad
CRT glass tiles by Fireclay Tile. Beyond CTR glass, the Californian company also utilizes waste glass bottles, chamotte, and porcelain, in order to create its products.

With the rapid technological change and declining cost for LCD screens and plasma display, there is no longer a viable use for cathode ray tubes (CTR), which constitute 43% of all e-waste products in the USA. Taking millions of pounds of CRT glass from discarded TV monitors, Paul Burns, Founder and Chief Ceramicist at Fireclay Tile, transforms e-waste into award-winning glass tile that won’t be found anywhere else.

In the production of the glass tiles, the front 2 cm of the screens are crushed to glass particles small enough to melt when exposed to heat. The glass powder with varying amount of white pigment is fed into moulds and baked into a range of shapes and sizes.

An architect can not think only about the construction. We think in the design process how to deconstruct the building and take the materials back to the circular economy, where they can be reused or recycled – Dirk E. Hebel.

The curator of “Daring Growth” exhibition, Dirk E. Hebel from ETH Zurich and Singapore-ETH Center, on the video that was the part of this exhibition, claims that the 21st century needs to spark a radical paradigm shift in how habitats are materialised.

– The material should be something that lasts longer than just a manifestation in one building. Right now our studio is testing the idea of designing for disassembling – Dirk E. Hebel added.


III Renewable materials

In contrast to “Let’s talk about garbage”, the exhibition “Daring Growth” goes beyond projects related to the recycling of materials and focus also on the research of renewable materials.

While the first age of industrialisation resulted in the conversion from regenerative to non-regenerative material sources, our time should reverse this pattern. Materials should not be mined. Materials of the future should be grown or cultivated.

This means a shift from a mining-based mentality towards an ethic of cultivating, breeding, raising, farming, and even growing future building materials. A shift in attitude would allow developing societies to provide themselves with the building materials required for secure and dignified shelter without forcing them into economic dependencies.

– A material should not be bound to a source that is located in one or several spots on the Earth. We are very much interested in materials that you can grow on any spot at any time (…), and make those materials (…) usable and applicable in architectural practice – Dirk E. Hebel added.

Decentralized, local and renewable production strategies and methods that do not deplete the planet’s resources or energy reserves must be given priority. A cutting-edge approach in the building sector might be summarized with a bold statement: “Grow your own house” – we learn at the exhibition. In other words: materials based on mycelia, bacteria, and bamboo should become a new concrete.

Mycelium Bricks1 credits TrendNomad

– Previously misunderstood as hazardous and unwanted materials, a fungus has recently been rediscovered as a rich source with the potential to redefine the categorisation of renewable building materials, the important distinction being their unique self-growing capabilities. Research is underway to develop methods of implementation within the construction sector.

Due to their spongy rhizomatic and fibrous nature, the mycelium produces a material with high-performance structural and insulative qualities, considered very desirable by the building industry.

– Under the right conditions, the mycelium material may be grown locally, reducing both the energy and time required for transportation. Initially, the controlled environment must be dark, moist and provided with the right organic nourishment.

Mycelium Bricks4 credits TrendNomad

Psyllium husk, Nitrogen, and agar are some examples of nutrients which help the mycelium to grow at an accelerated rate. The nutrients act like a steroid to the mushrooms, stimulating their hunger and feeding their growth.

Mycelium Bricks2 credits TrendNomad

A change in environmental condition can deactivate the growth process at any chosen point in time, such as altering the humidity levels or exposing the material to a different light or temperature.

Essential for cultivation is a hygienic environment, to prevent any microbiological contamination of the fungal material. The fungus itself gets denaturized at the end of the growing process by a thermal treatment to prevent any further activities.

Mycelium Bricks3 credits TrendNomad

Physical properties such as surface quality, finish and appearance can be manipulated through the selection of substrate, fungal species, and material density. Adjusting these factors will influence the outcome of the mycelium bricks.

Mycelium Bricks5 credits TrendNomad
The exhibition “Daring Growth” takes the form of a laboratory showcasing research work produced at the ETH Zurich and the Future Cities Laboratory Singapore in collaboration with partners such as MycoWorks Inc. in San Francisco and TU Delft.

The mycelium material can be applied to a variety of functions. Beyond bricks, some examples in the field of building materials are insulation, composite materials, and decorative panels. The material could also be used for production purposes in other fields, such as industrial and furniture design.

The Growing Lab Mycelia by Officina Corpiscoli credits TrendNomad

Vessels shown in the picture were made of mycelia fungus. “The Growing Lab – Mycelia” by Officina Corpuscoli was a part of the exhibition “New Craft”, housed in Fabbrica del Vapore and organised as a part of XXI Triennale di Milano International Exposition in Milan.


IV More than good intentions

When a devastating earthquake hit Turkey in the early ’00s, a chemical engineer by training, Michael Braungart went to a field-trip to take samples of the steel rebars of collapsed buildings.

He discovered that there was too much copper in the steel – above 2%. Copper produces „osteoporosis” in the rebars. This unacceptable metal composition was the consequence of the recycling standards in use in the US.

The difficulty of properly separating the metal components of cars, for example, led to their being sent to Turkey, where they were transformed into defective rebars. An originally well-intentioned law aiming to protect the environment generated a fatal side effect in the building industry elsewhere.

A building like a tree1 credits TrendNomad
The exhibition “Celebrating our human footprint: a building like a tree – a city like a forest” by Michael Braungart at Biennale. The confrontation of two buildings symbolises the frontline between conventional and so-called Cradle to Cradle architecture, which celebrates our beneficial human footprint.

– We tend to think of sustainability as reducing harm to the planet: a smaller carbon footprint, reduced energy consumption, and the generation of less waste. From this point of view, the most sustainable building is the one that doesn’t get build at all – we learn at the exhibition.

Sustainable constructions shouldn’t be those that are less harmful but those that are the most beneficial to the environment.

Michael Braungart at his exhibition at Biennale proposes that sustainability should be redefined as something that produces a benefit to the people and a gain for the planet, replacing a “less is more” with “the more the better” attitude, while adopting the principle that a building may work as a tree: a building may clean water and the air, make oxygen, generate soil and nutrients.

A building like a tree2 credits TrendNomad

Materials lose much of their value after they are used in buildings because there is usually no way to reuse them at the same level of quality. However, materials can be redesigned so buildings are assets instead of liabilities.

Buildings should be like banks but instead of banking money they bank materials.

The Cradle to Cradle (C2C) Design integrates economic, ecological and social benefits in products and buildings. It goes beyond conventional sustainability tools and approaches, which primarily show the negative influence of humans on the environment.

A building like a tree3 credits TrendNomad

– The starting point is that everything is designed to be a nutrient for something else.

The waste materials in an old product become the „food” for a new product. Materials are returned to the biosphere in the form of compost or other nutrients, from which a new materials can be created.

Buildings are able to function as healthy material banks, where materials maintain their status as resources which can be used over and over again.



Recycling and upcycling of everything that can be reused is both a way to survive for millions of people living in developing countries, where they are collecting and processing waste, and a way for making a profitable business for those companies that can convert e.g. electronic and structural waste into sterling goods, that later are sold all over the world (but there is no word from those companies regarding their overseas distribution and how it affect the environment).

Waste process and handled smartly economy of natural resources aren’t the only answers, as people expect in the times of never ending needs and growing population of the planet. Although they are crucial, depending only on them might be not enough, to meet human’s


Apart from implementing effective methods of decreasing greenhouse gas emission, energy consumption and exploitation of depletable resources, we need also renewable goods source, that can be not only reused in different industries like construction or industrial design, but most of all they provide us with fresh air, water, food and energy.

What does it mean for business? For companies, it means the opportunity to present their products as no longer just for sale (and for being discarded by a client after use), but as available for use. After the use of the products, the materials are taken back as a part of a reprocessing system. Companies become material banks, which make them far more stable in a rapidly changing process. The economy of the whole value creation sphere is improved: the value chain is viewed from raw materials to the manufacture of the product.

When the material doesn’t loose it’s value, then it’s as much precious as the goods that made of it, hence no one won’t throw it away.

Venice Architecture Biennale 2016 is open until 27th of November. The main exhibitions organized within XXI Triennale di Milano International Exposition are open until 12th of September.

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