Sunday, 20 April 2014

It's rubbish?

My last post, headlined by Lady Gaga, was about upcycling.  It got the biggest readership in the first hour that I have ever had, most of it from France.  I fear that it was popular because Gaga ranks high in the search engines.

So I thought it only fair to try an upcycling post about architecture, in which I mention no celebrities at all.  As usual, my approach is direct:  I googled 'upcycling in architecture'.  And the first hit was wonderful.  Junk House Employs Google Earth in Upcycling Local Scrap  trumpets dornob, a site I have not visited before.

The Villa Welpeloo turns out to be anything but a junk house. The residence for a couple who are not only rich enough to aspire to a villa in a land of apartments and small attached houses, but who can do so to store and show a collection of artworks.  2012Architecten (now known as Superuse Studios) obviously have a history of serious commitment to recycling and repurposing what others would consider junk, but also the research skills to find exceptional sources, and to let those resources guide their design process.

In this house, a single surplus machine from a defunct textile factory provided all the structural steel, and the inner cores of six hundred damaged cable reels were dismantled for the short lengths of timber boarding that dominate the aesthetic of the external facades. The halogen display lighting is made from broken umbrella ribs, and billboard fragments are inserted into cupboards that otherwise look as if they were probably ready-made office furniture, liberated by commercial churn.  These latter touches appear disproportionately more craft based and peripheral, but that kind of judgement would be superficial.  It takes access to a number of sites to weave together a more coherent story, and surprisingly dwell magazine from the US seems to do the best job of extracting both the human and theoretical side of the total enterprise.  As their article says:
Playful touches like this humanize the house, softening its uncompromising modernist proportions and die-hard environmental credentials. "You do and you don't recognize the reused parts," explains Jongert. "It's simultaneous recognition and estrangement—which is what gives rise to beauty, and humor."
In such complexity would seem to lie the true future of attitudinal change in architecture.  To borrow my former colleague, Peter Graham's key concept from his book Building Ecology, the task is to transform architecture from a linear process – which proceeds from exploitative extraction of raw materials to burying its demolition waste in landfill – into an ecologically sound circular process where waste is just another's input resource.

If only it were quite true.  The illustrations of the Villa Welpeloo concentrate very much on the exteriors.  I think they expect you to see only the quaint variegated timber cladding, while ignoring the acres of very obviously new glass.  These windows and doors are not mentioned by any of the hagiological blurbs, short or long, on any of the dozen or so sites I visited, except for one panel etched with commemorative text.  But the internet is a cruel mixture of self-promotion and accidental candour; the images of construction of the Villa Welpeloo are dominated by the excitement of craning in these truly impressive sized high tech assemblies.  It hits the wrong note in an otherwise inspiring narrative.

See more at:  
Villa Welpeloo is a residence for a couple with the exquisite wish to store and show a collection of paintings and graphical work of young contemporary artists. 2012Architecten aspired to use as much surplus materials as possible. Scouts have (re)searched the possibilities and availability of surplus materials in the vicinity of the site during the design phase. Based on the findings there was a continuous stream of new incentives to develop the design further. The found materials resulted in new shapes and new ways of construction. For the facade the inner parts of a cable reels are used. The load bearing construction is made from steel beams from a paternoster (textile factory machine).
The basics of the interior are shaped by the exhibition space where paintings can be shown.
- See more at:
Villa Welpeloo
and the construction photos at
The dornob article has the most interior images, but at small scale, at
The dwell article, with a small slide show, may be accessed at


HANLIN ZHU said...

I strongly agree with Mr. Graham’s key concept, transforming the architecture from a linear process into an ecologically sound circular process. In my opinion, up-cycling or reusing the discarded material is not only an environmental friendly thinking for construction itself, as what the Villa Welpeloo does, but also it could become a symbol of a culture or time. I will elaborate in these two aspects.

LIU Jiakun is a Chinese architect from my hometown, Sichuan. In 2008, we suffered the Great Sichuan Earthquake, measured at 8.0 Ms on 12 May. The epicenter is a small rural village in the Sichuan province. Reconstruction was a major point after that happened. Instead of removal of demolition waste, and then transporting all new construction material to this village through mountains that increases the embodied energy, Mr. LIU came up with the idea of ‘rebirth brick’. It is made from the aggregated debris from the disaster site, straw fiber and cement, which is easily produced in local factory with low cost and has been used in the reconstruction process. More importantly, in term of structure, the rebirth brick meets the Chinese Standard of concrete hollow brick and can be used as load-bearing material rather than superficially ornamental cladding.

In the developing countries, for example China, the current city is more like a blending of various fragments from turbulent events and times, lacking integrality rather than the elaborate space rationally planned. The cycle of construction and demolition is extremely short. WANG Shu, the Pritzker Prize winner in 2012, collects thousands of tiles from the demolition of the traditional Chinese buildings that should be protected well, then stacks them manually as part of the facade of the Ningbo Historic Museum. As Mr Wang said in a TV interview, the reason why people come here, especially the old, is that there is the trace of their past life. At that moment, the up-cycling is more than what it used to be. It is impressive and touching. Yes, architecture has life as if it could talk to the past and present. In other words, it is the continuation of the past life as what Mr. LIU and Wang do.


Haiyun LAN said...

I agree with what you comment on the Villa Welpeloo- they only want the concentration on the timber cladding facade with recycled material but they do not promote much on the interior and some material like the new windows and doors. Also I figured out that they do not mention the details such as insulation material to keep the interior remain in the comfort zone. What in my mind is if they are just using recycled materials for the exterior and do not care much about the insulation, extra heating/cooling would be needed and that is apparently another environmental issue. Compared to the previous post about lady gaga, upcycling architecture more difficult to achieve than upcycling clothes.
I think there is another upcycling house example is built by Lendager Architects in Denmark. The house is 'fully' made out of upcycled materials and seems to be a better example to describe what is an upcycling house. In this house materials from interior to exterior are all recycled as well as the insulations which are made out of recycled glass bottles and foundations which are made out of helical piles(no need to excavate and can be removed).
However when discussing about the word 'Upcycling', it should be "Upcycling is a step beyond recycling, the materials are not just reused, but reused in a way where value and quality is added." defined by Lendager. Although a house can be fully made out of recycled materials, if no more value is added in it is only downcycling instead of upcycling. It makes more sense for recycling when materials are actually providing a good built environment and sustainable buildings.


Hans Setiadi said...

This article remind me about building ecological principle which is 'cradle to cradle rather than cradle to grave'. The house shows a possibility to reuse building material and end up with a good looking facade. This recycling project in architecture become popular since the number of raw material such as timber and water become rare. An architect should think more about recycling rather than demolishing and built the new one. There are some strategy that could be use to decrease the number of demolishing such as be really careful in choosing a building material so the building could have a long span (the number of years that building could stand) and also the layout of the building. As I learn during my architecture degree, I found that the use of open plan could decrease the possibility of having demolishing since people could simply re-arrange the building in another function. The material choice is also critical since different type of climate would require different type of material.

There is some project which has similar idea, such as The Scrap House in San Francisco. Environmentalist and artist worked together to show that its possible to use used can, plastic bottle and recycle building material to create a good looking building facade.

Another project which build by Dan phillips in Texas. He collect some rubbish around the site and build them into a new house, he argue that he could minimizing the cost to build a house and also it is an environmental way to make. The building is made of license plate, crystal platter and recycle wood.

On the other hand, the project had not show how they treat the building skin and also the interior to response the climate change. Heating and cooling strategy is necessary so the building could be completely environmental friendly.

Link of some other recycle project in architecture work

Jeff.Li said...

The core of architecture had been transformed from the 20th century, the modern architecture that suggests the “material-form aesthetic”, to the 21st century architecture, which has become the “green architecture”. This design approach is more environmental oriented whereas importance of technologies and capacity of unrenewable resources usage (especially for material such as timber) are put in consideration.
By the example of Villa Welpeloo, importance of the idea “recyclicity” can be easily seen from a various factors. Firstly, and the most obvious one, it solves the problem of limited unrenewable resources. Quoting from the blog, “the task is to transform architecture…….where waste is just another’s input resource”, the role of raw material is no longer being the decisive factor for the design, instead lower rate of raw material is consumed which lead to a longer span of the material usage. Secondly it reduces the construction carbon footprint. Materials for construction are directly harvested from the factories, scrapyard and waste from the communities etc., therefore less construction cost and environmental impact as minimal modification for the resource is required (furniture and fa├žade cladding and similar).
Lastly this design approach provides opportunities for people to compromise between the financial cost and the design desired. Related example that can raise is the sandbag shelter prototype by Nader Khalili, though the target and methodology are quite different to Villa Welpeloo, however the core concept are quite similar. The shelter prototype is utilizing sand from the earth as raw material, that can be obtained anywhere around the site. It can be said that restriction of material will become negligible as this “in-situ material” is extremely abundant. Methodology of construction is easy enough for a family to build it on their own without heavy lifting or technical work, thus its similar to the Villa Welpeloo that targeted client might be someone who aspires to have a hosing that comfy yet fulfils human aesthetic.
“A way to reach a very high level of lively aesthetic”. Jan Jongert, architect that participates in Villa Welpeloo, mentioned and aimed to solve the problem of overuse of raw material from unrenewable resources, by committing and developing design with the sources of scraps. Indeed it is a tendency for the future design solution, “In such complexity would seem to lie the true future of attitudinal change in architecture”, however I would hold the opinion of partially agree, in terms of the longer future. Ultimately, in the extreme scenario, as the raw material are exhausted, meanwhile the scraps are as wel exhausted from the over use of this “superuse” approach, hence the idea of “recyclicity” will eventually become lost in effect.
Yet this will only be a problem after generations and possibly next “stage” of design problem, but it is always good to question.

1) Some background information for the shelter prototype

Benjamin Joseph Vella said...

The World Wide Web has always been a great way to hunt and gather, finding all kinds of elements and recombine them into new things. And this blog post, along with is gaga predecessor (and we’re not talking about the lady) describes a process no different. And as a result, The Villa Welpeloo has certainly spread through the blogosphere. But why do we care?

What makes the Villa so viral is the radicalness of its recycling. “Anything but a junk house”, a single surplus machine from a defunct textile factory provided all the structural steel, the inner cores of six hundred damaged cable reels dismantled for the short lengths of timber boarding that dominate the aesthetic of the external facades and lighting made from broken umbrella ribs. Brilliant! It’s a cool design for a house, and the concept of Upcycling and trying to cut down on emissions not only by using waste materials, but by sourcing them as locally as possible is impressive. But is that why we are talking about the house now? Or did Lady Gaga bring us to this point.

The Villa Welpeloo, completed in 2009 in Enschede, the Netherlands, is located on the site of a former fireworks factory explosion in which many of the best Dutch architects can be found strutting their struts, cantilevers and beams. But yet, the house never made it to the front page of any Major Newspapers, nor did it even make it into Australia’s largest Architecture Magazine and Blog ( However the goal it had was remarkable: to make a whole house out of recycled materials.

Some describe the result of the Villa is that, though it is ‘handsome’, does not have the sexiness of other recycled projects such as the Recombinant House in Cicero, USA. In form, it is more compact and simple, and from observation, does not photograph very well. And thus, the Villa Welpeloo sits buried in the Web, its solid achievements lost.

But if I felt for anyone in regards to the Villa Welpeloo, it would be its neighbours. As it truly does look like a kid's playhouse made of leftovers, which wouldn't necessarily increase local adjacent property values. But if its made from a transformation of wasted materials, components and elements into a new purpose (a secondary not pre-purposed life), who cares right?


Anonymous said...

I think that the Junk House raises an interesting point of discussion and I believe that the point that you have made in this article is valid in their somewhat false representation of a “sustainable” building. However on this particular note, I think that the Junk House is a start or aims to raise awareness rather than set itself as an example as there are flaws in the choices of materials. The question is, how sustainable can a house be? I think that the couple has made a conscious choice to use old junkyard materials on parts of the house that they think are not directly related to their every day activity (so cladding, structure). Even the most green or sustainable buildings appear to use glass (which are definitely not recycled) or new materials.

If we refer to Peter Graham’s concept of ecological sustainability through time, then the Junk House seems to sit somewhere within that concept, by introducing recycled materials into the equation. However, this probably is not the main concern - none of the articles seem to mention passive design or energy use of the house or other ways it is “sustainable” apart from recycling a few materials.

As a more “extreme” example of upcycling, the Beer Can House in Texas in the article linked below is praised as much as the Junk House has. However, the appropriateness of the beer cans for a house or an art gallery is quite questionable. In fact, what the beer cans actually serve apart from a cladding decoration leaves more questions than answers. Could the beer cans be better off recycled?

Overall however, I think it’s a good try from both the Junk House, Beer Can house and other houses or buildings in this category, but sustainability is definitely more than just ornament, it is about life cycling materials and good environmental design.

Peter Graham building ecology book

Ziheng Tang said...

To be honest, im not a big fan of the so-called "up-cycling" concept, since i believe that more conflicts, rather than cooperation, would happen if the "new" and "old" mixed together. However, despite my personal preference, I really agree ur idea that the application of “upcycling” in architecture area should more focus on a comprehensive level (construction, structure, material and interior) rather than just focus on the one-sided aspect. So to me, the Villa Welpeloo is not a successful “upcycling” project as well. Additionally, I do reckon that the practicability and function of “uncycling” in real life is much important than its cultural meaning.
I found 2 very good examples about the upcycling culture. The first one is an Art workspace which designed by Container City in 2002. The workspace is mainly consisted by 22 shipping containers and the price of each one is only around 1300$ due to the global economic slowdown. The advantages of this kind of use are a lot including cheap cost, portable and durable material, and could be easily constructed or unconstructed.
Anyway, if u google “architecture upcycling”, most of the projects are labelled by “experimental project”, which means, like I mentioned at the very begging, the concept of “upcycling” is not recognised by most people, and there is a lot need to be thought comprehensively to develop more.


Patrick Lin said...

The complexity that exists in Villa Welpeloo and its underpinning notions of upcycling are exampled as the true future of attitudinal change in architecture. While it is both inspiring and some what motivating to see architecture move forward with an ecologically sound and circular process, it has yet to really make its impact or breakdown materiality stereotype that still exists within the field of architecture. A relevant example would be the construction and emergence of ‘glamour’tecture in Dubai during the past 10 years, which is neither sustainable nor has any regards for recycled materials or the notion of upcycling. Specifically political undertones and demonstration of wealth drive the architecture in Dubai, and while it is not my place to comment on the overlaps of architecture and politics, upcycling has yet to make its mark as the new innovative and flashy architecture that the wealthy would choose in promoting their image. Fundamentally this suggests that there is a certain stigma of using ‘recycled’ or repurposing junk materials which people who are not designers or architects may find distasteful. I am interested in seeing how upcycling will continue to break down this stereotype as shown by the beauty and humor of Villa Welpeloo.