Recently, millions of salvaged bricks received a new lease of life at China’s Ningbo Museum. Here, Pritzker-award-winning architect Wang Shu took the local tradition of using reclaimed construction materials to a new level of audacity and mindfulness. As material reuse is not covered by Chinese building regulations, the design team carried out countless of tests to prove that the age-old method would work on the museum’s 24-meter walls. And although the facades were modeled by digital software, the on-site builders had to improvise: Unable to see the whole picture from their human vantage point, they had nevertheless perfectly grasped the design logic and applied it to their own patches. Finally, there was the issue of memory and preservation. With 95 % of local indigenous housing scheduled for demolition, Wang Shu literally translates Ningbo’s past to the walls of its History Museum. His project thus summarizes some of the key questions posed by contemporary architecture and reinvents a practice that is as old as time, smart as nature itself, and in need of a major upgrade.

The Ningbo Museum, China: 40 kinds of salvaged bricks and tiles from the buildings demolished in the area, photo © Eva García Pascual
The Ningbo Museum, China: 40 kinds of salvaged bricks and tiles from the buildings demolished in the area, photo © Eva García Pascual

For Raum , the quest for self-transforming cities or “urban ecosystems” began with a traveling exhibition concept, based on a simple machine that could mold plastic or cardboard waste into blocks used for furniture or partitions. A few years down the line, artist Stefan Shankland invited Raum to join the Trans305 project. His workshop on a large construction site encourages anyone from the local community as well as architects, officials, artists, and urban planners to participate in the city-shaping process. The project’s mobile headquarters feature a façade made from gabions filled with demolition rubble. Raum used this rubble to create a material dubbed “Marble from Here.” To anchor a new building in the community, why not construct it from its local “material heritage”? At the time of writing, Raum is looking into developing suitable production tools and “marble” certification since the material only pays for itself if produced in large quantities. Their vision, however, remains firmly human-scale: Imagine a small town that produces its own unique building material, creating jobs and supplying new construction for 5-10 years to come.

This jump from one-off to city-wide project is one familiar to Rotor, a collective that links architecture and social studies by exploring the flow of materials. Most notably, they have researched what is considered waste – and how this attitude might be changed. With time, this side project has spawned considerable expertise, but the intuitive, fresh methods that work so well on small design projects simply did not quite translate to more “adult” challenges. Rotor’s first public commission turned out to be an eye-opener. “Material reuse is popular on an informal level, but we found that we cannot apply the same strategies on a larger scale,” reveals Rotor co-founder Maarten Gielen. “If I demolish a house, a reseller just comes by and buys all of my roof tiles for 1,000 euros, but what if I have 5,000 sqm of tiles recovered from an old factory?” Along similar lines, an architect who wants to use salvaged materials needs to be sure that they will be delivered at the right time and in the right quantities – not to mention the associated paperwork, which should be just as seamless as using standard new products. And while all of this might sound pretty boring, your smart, environmentally conscious designs just wouldn’t be feasible on any serious scale without resolving these issues.

Rotor’s solution is, “an online inventory of the professional sector in salvaged building materials around Brussels.” Their Dutch neighbors, Superuse Studios , have worked on their own Harvest Map for fifteen years to turn this notion – and the entire idea of shaping architecture by smartly connecting material, energy, and other flows – into a valid alternative to conventional resource exploitation. Césare Peeren, a founding partner at Superuse, believes in appropriate rather than universal solutions, yet suggests that we always check if a product that has already cost a lot of energy and skill can be reused before spending more energy on downcycling it into raw materials.

Peeren has been drawn to this approach ever since he was a kid helping his father to renovate houses. After joining forces with Jan Jongert, the duo set out to develop an architectural language based on sustainability and material reuse expertise. They also detected a need for tools to facilitate waste material construction and a solid base for professional activity in this realm. And although an open-source platform seemed relatively easy to set up, they faced the challenge of building a strong design community that could effect some real change. So, they spent a decade spreading the word, researching the properties of “found” materials, and identifying further potential. In the meantime, society’s overall awareness has evolved and the economic crisis has prompted people to rethink their values. “Now, the time is right – and we are ready, too.”

Text: Anna Yudina
Header image: Demolition rubble used to produce the “Marble from Here”, photo © Atelier Raum