The Sharjah Architecture Triennial opened on November 11, 2023, with the theme of The Beauty of Impermanence: An Architecture of Adaptability. Curated by Tosin Oshinowo, the program focused heavily on the Global South and alternative models the region can provide in the future. As part of the Triennial, the “3-Minute Corridor” pavilion by WallMakers explores our waste on a global scale, exploring methodologies of material reuse.
Recycling: The Latest Architecture and News
"3-Minute Pavilion" by WallMakers Explores Waste and Material Scarcity at the Sharjah Triennial 2023
In the global context, the first factories emerged in the latter part of the 16th century, primarily housing typographic workshops. Over time, their purposes expanded to include carpentry, tapestry, and porcelain workshops. However, the recognizable form of industrial buildings we see today only took shape in the 18th century, closely tied to the transformations brought about by the Industrial Revolution. The shift from human labor to machinery fundamentally altered the scale of these structures, turning them into expansive warehouses.
A vital aspect of a circular economy lies in shifting our view of waste. Labeling an item "waste" implies voiding its value and ending its useful role in a traditionally linear economy. While the item might be out of sight and out of mind, its life continues in the landfill. This shift in perspective regarding waste means opening our minds to the opportunity that the abundance of junk presents. These designers and architects have managed to not only effectively reclaim discarded objects but also to make them look precious, imbuing them with new meaning and value through their careful curation.
In light of the looming climate crisis and the pursuit of sustainability, the concepts of revival and reuse have emerged as crucial strategies in the quest for decarbonization in the architecture industry. These principles preach that creating new structures may be sustainable but encourage architects to minimize their ecological footprint by reactivating and recycling existing resources. This year specifically, innovative projects in line with these themes were displayed as part of the 18th International Architecture Exhibition – La Biennale di Venezia. This world-renowned event’s core purpose is to serve as a platform for architects, designers, and thinkers to collectively reimagine sustainability, decarbonization, resource conservation, and the industry's future.
The role and relationship of furniture in architecture and space design are of great relevance. Designers such as Eileen Gray, Alvar Aalto, Mies Van der Rohe, and Verner Panton conceived furniture —primarily stools and chairs— that endure over time as powerful and timeless elements, with a determining impact on the interior atmosphere. Thus, the relationship between furniture and space becomes a constant dialogue in which design, aesthetics, and materials contribute their dimension.
Today, furniture should not be limited solely to fulfilling an aesthetic and functional role, but should also have a purpose in the context of contemporary design and sustainable development. It is essential to reflect on and question the processes and choice of materials in the manufacturing of these elements, in addition to the value they bring to interior spaces. In this context, HEWI has taken a step forward by creating the Re-seat family, consisting of stools and chairs made from post-industrial recycled materials (PIR), sourced in part from the processes of the company itself and a regional supplier, both based in Bad Arolsen, Germany. It also features integrated solutions with universal design in mind, making a statement in favor of innovation and eco-design.
Kengo Kuma uses materials to connect with the local context and the users of his projects. The textures and elementary forms of constructive systems, materials, and products, are exhibited and used in favor of the architectural concept, giving value to the functions that will be carried out in each building.
From showcases made with ceramic tiles to the sifted light created by expanded metal panels, passing through an ethereal polyester coating, Kuma understands the material as an essential component that can make a difference in architecture from the design stages. Next, we present 21 projects where Kengo Kuma masterfully uses construction materials.
The circular economy concept became more defined in 1990 when it appeared in the article Economics of Natural Resources and the Environment, by British economists and environmentalists David W. Pearce and R. Kerry Turner. At the time, the main purpose of the research was to demonstrate that the traditional economy did not incorporate recycling. In this way, the environment assumed a secondary role, just like a simple waste reservoir. Therefore, the circular economy would gain strength as an opposition to the linear (or traditional) economy, in which the production chain motto is “extract, produce and discard”. A model deeply rooted in our economy that has become unsustainable for several reasons, like the depletion of natural resources and the contamination of the environment resulting from production and disposal.
Almost two decades ago, in the downtown corridor of Columbus, Ohio, the century-old landmarked Lazarus Building underwent an extensive renovation to save the department store and restore it to its former glory. Sixty million dollars went into its restoration and transformation into a retail and office complex. During the construction, workers recycled nearly 5,000 pounds of steel, 2,000 pounds of concrete, and significant amounts of carpeting, ceiling tiles, and various wood- keeping 22,000 pounds of debris out of Ohio’s landfills. They also saved more than $25 million dollars by implementing this rigorous recycling process.
Environmental issues urgency and increasing temperatures on the planet are nothing new. There are many factors contributing to environmental degradation. However, two can be viewed as representative of critical points in the current world system: plastic and waste disposal, better known as garbage.
The environmental crisis cannot be attributed solely to these two examples. They are used here as examples to mobilize issues involving multiple agents, materials, and diverse methods. These issues lead to devastating consequences, increasingly irreversible.
Subscriptions are quickly becoming an integral part of everyday life. For example, streaming platforms have completely replaced the need to own video cassettes, while ride-sharing services partially cover the need to own a private car. Subscriptions have been largely understood as digital services, but a new trend suggests that the same concept could be transferred to physical objects in the near future. Instead of owning a fridge, a washing machine, or even light bulbs, one could acquire a subscription to ensure the freshness of produce, clean clothes, and a well-lit home.
The concept is known as the “subscription-based economy,” a variant of the “circular economy” notion. It postulates that instead of owning some of the objects used every day, one could subscribe to a service to gain access to the same benefits, but without the need to own, maintain or dispose of the object in question. Consumers no longer buy products; they buy access to services. Sometimes, it would mean simply leasing the object instead of purchasing it, but the model goes one step further. It inscribes a shift of responsibility and mentality. Because consumers no longer own the objects, the responsibility to reuse and recycle falls to the producers, who are now in charge of the entire life cycle of the objects they create.
RAMA Estudio has won a competition organized by the Ecuadorian Ministry of Urban Development and Housing (Miduvi) to transform public buildings into social housing. "Casa Cevallos" seeks to give a new face to the Miduvi Tungurahua building, located in front of the Cevallos Park in Ambato, Ecuador, incorporating 16 apartments for 45 inhabitants through 7 adaptable typologies.
Although the circular economy involves other principles such as the regeneration of natural systems, the reuse or recycling of materials plays an important role in contributing to the reduction of waste generation by giving a second useful life to elements that could be considered waste. Wood, metal sheets, bricks, and stones, among others, can be reused, bringing sustainability and efficiency criteria to the projects, helping to consolidate this concept that still has a long way to go.
Within the Latin American territory, many architecture professionals have proposed to apply in their design and construction processes the implementation of strategies that collaborate with the use of resources, either by reusing, recycling, or restoring different materials and elements in search of satisfying the needs and concerns of those who inhabit the spaces.
Sustainability is much more than simply deciding for or against a specific product. It is a concept that must be integrated into the way we build and design architecture, as well as the intelligent use of existing buildings and their potential renovations. From a sustainability perspective, demolishing an old building is just as unsustainable as building a new one. Both use large amounts of embodied energy that can be avoided when all planning parties consider new ways of working and collaborate more closely.
In this sense, the efficient use of raw materials and the reduction of waste for reuse is essential. Polycarbonate in façades, for example, has a life cycle of at least 20 years on average and can be recycled and reused in many ways, thus doubling its useful life until it can no longer be usefully recycled.
Sustainability needs to go further beyond inspiring speeches and promises, with visible, concrete actions. In order to see this change, it is essential for individuals, companies and governments to take responsibility and act in a sustainable manner in their daily lives and practices. By taking into account the environmental and social impacts of their decisions and seeking more conscious and responsible alternatives, they can take steps to ensure a sustainable future for the next generations. In the construction industry this is even more urgent. Responsible for a large amount of solid waste and greenhouse gas emissions, it is essential for this industry to adopt sustainable practices, such as recycling, to minimize environmental impacts.
However, even though product recycling processes have significantly advanced in recent years, there are still certain challenges associated with the use of recycled materials. This is due to a variety of factors, such as performance and durability, or even due to the difficulty of obtaining suitable raw materials. But there are also successful examples that show the possibilities of recycled materials.
Students at the School of Engineering, RMIT University recently published a study experimenting with a new form of waste management and recycling. As they note in their research, cigarette butts are the most commonly discarded single waste item in the world, with an estimated 5.7 trillion having been consumed around the globe in 2016. However, the materials in cigarette butts—particularly their cellulose acetate filters—can be extremely harmful to the environment due to poor biodegradability. The RMIT study builds on a previous research study by Mohajerani et. al (2016) that experimented with adding discarded cigarette butts to clay bricks for architectural use. In their research, the RMIT students found that such a measure would reduce the energy consumption of the brick production process and lower the thermal conductivity of the bricks, but that other issues including bacterial contamination would have to be addressed prior to successful implementation. Below, we explore this research in more detail, investigating its relevance to the architecture industry and imagining possible futures of application.
According to a survey by the Brazilian Association for Recycling of Construction and Demolition Waste (ABRECON), there has been an increase in the recycling of construction and demolition waste (C&D) in Brazil in recent years. According to the 2015 report, 21% of the total C&D was recycled in the country that year, while in 2013 the rate was 19%.
The outlook is promising but not yet ideal, and the growth of recycled C&D materials is still considered small. In Brazil, construction waste can represent between 50% and 70% of the total municipal solid waste. This means, we still need to advocate for a more common practice of material recycling and reuse in architecture, especially in Brazil.