Sunday, 20 April 2014

Upcycling? I go gaga but not about the lady.

I have always been interested in what has become known as 'upcycling', but I am not sure quite what started me off on this particular post.  I think it was a particularly provocative image of Lady Gaga on Inhabitat, and the accompanying article about the difficulty of properly defining the concept.

Lady Gaga's indulgent 'look at me' statement of a dress, made of suspiciously white bleached coffee filters, is actually a rather trite example from the fashion world.  But that should not distract from the discussion of very real issues seeking to distinguish the relevant concepts.  In her case, the proper terminology to describe that dress might be 'repurposing', a value neutral term that covers all kinds of uses of ready made products to solve problems for which they may not have been originally intended.  As the Inhabitat article points out, Lady Gaga's dress only really qualifies as 'upcycling'  (raising value, sometimes of waste to craft object) because anything designed by Gareth Pugh and worn by the chanteuse, is automatically of very high value to a very esoteric crowd.

The charm of starting with such an article on the Inhabitat site is that the links spiral out into something truly interesting.  In this case first to another figure from the fashion world  Orsola de Castro, long famous for her beautiful craft garments transforming textile industry waste, giving tips for emerging designers in Hong Kong.  

But I am an architect interested in things architectural.  And it was while I nudged my browsing in that direction, that I rediscovered just exactly how much Inhabitat has concentrated on upcycling, with examples both quirky and wonderful, and so often truly useful.

My favourite find this time around is 6 Amazing Repurposed Swimming Pools to Dip Into This Summer, an article from almost a year ago.

I can't make up my mind whether I am most impressed by Badboot, the world’s largest floating swimming pool built from an old ferry boat and located on the water in Antwerp, or the seemingly endless possibilities of pop-up soakers made from 'dumpsters', those ubiquitous garbage containers with which we are so familiar from American action movies.  I think I have settled on the dumpster as swimming pool.

I own a house with a long thin backyard, for which many years ago I designed an above ground lap pool.  I gave up the idea of actually building it, because of the combination of expense and loss of usable area for my then very young family.  In the years in between we enclosed the backyard with brick fencing and reduced the available area even more, with a fish pond and vegetable gardens.  But ironically, the relevance of the lap pool has re-emerged as I get older, and the kids morph into treenagers no longer interested in tricycles.

Now the issue has become how to build an above ground pool with 1200 mm high walls of almost zero thickness but with the structural strength to resist the water pressure.  And therein lies the attraction of the garbage hopper, with its integrated steel structure and necessarily smooth internal surface, ready to take either a custom-made vinyl liner, or even suitable for tiling.  Of course, like New Orleans-based architect Stefan Beese I am likely to clad mine in upmarket timber boarding, or some alternative cladding that will make it hard to recognise its humble origins.  Now to work out how much somebody will charge me for a mobile crane to drop a six meter steel box into the right place in the garden.

Right now, I am distracted by the excitement that I may get my swimming pool after all. So I have to leave my contribution to the serious discussion of upcycling and repurposing untill another time.

For Lady Gaga go to
For Orsola de Castro's talk to the students, and images of her work, start at
For a smorgasbord of Inhabitat articles on upcycling use the tag
And if you just want to see the pools, go directly to


Yvonne Kha said...

I agree with what you have mentioned about Lady Gaga’s “upcycled” coffee filter dress. I find it quite interesting when compared to fashion designer Orsola de Castro’s take on repurposing textiles, it makes so much more sense. Instead of creating more waste, it’s reducing. By creating high quality products from the offcuts and leftover materials, this concept of upcycling is inspirational and especially how she explained it, “Upcycling is a design solution to an environmental problem”. This idea can be applied to the many fields of design and in architecture too. It’s looking at reducing our carbon footprint. Not sure if the material choice for a backyard pool will make a huge difference but the Upcycle House project is something that really caught my eye. From the structure to the cladding, the house uses shipping containers, recycled aluminum cans, compressed wood ship floors, recycled granulated paper, champagne cork leftovers and recycled glass. Architect, Lendager Arkitekter described, “Upcycle House is an experimental project, aimed at exposing potential carbon-emission reductions through the use of recycled and upcycled building materials. In the case of Upcycle House, the reduction has been 86% compared to a benchmark house.” If the impact on the environment is so great, why isn’t this approach common? Inhabitant’s article on this project also asked questions “Why is it not included in everything we do as architects? Why is it not included in the building code that a certain percentage of building materials have to be recycled?”\

erino said...

It is intriguing that the term ‘upcycling’ is brought up as it is an idea that does not receive as much attention as the highly-recognised practice of recycling. And in turn, may be the reason why Inhabitat’s article on Lady Gaga’s filter dress is the top hit in Google search; as there is not as much coverage on ‘upcycled’ architecture than there is for ‘recycled’ architecture. However, I do not think that it is a display of how much more effective the practice is compared to one another, instead I believe there is so much more potential and long lasting benefits upcycling has than recycling. Recycling is one of the initial steps in achieving a more sustainable solution of waste management, where as upcycling additionally aims to avoid using new materials to be collected as feedstock for new generations of product. And in turn, revolves around the idea of reusing a material where the quality and composition of the material is not tainted for its next use. And being apart of an industry that can cause such a dramatic impact on the environment, it is important to rethink the way we look at the term ‘recycling.’ Where author of ‘Cradle to Cradle’ and ‘The Upcycle,’ William McDonough, puts it so eloquently that “the industry can do better than ‘do no harm,’ it can actively improve everything with which it comes into contact.” And this is what upcycling is about and promotes.

And it is interesting to see your exploration of built projects like the Villa Welpeloo and Yvonne’s Upcycle House. But equally amusing is how upcycling is slowly becoming an active topic within the built environment, illustrated through the growing number of architectural competitions focused on upcycled architecture. One of these include the “Fentress Global Challenge: Upcycled Architecture” where it is focused on redesigning an existing structure for the intent other than those for which it was originally made. Here, they have taken a unique approach to the term ‘upcycled architecture,’ and instead of incorporating upcycled materials to build the project like in Villa Welpeloo and the Upcycle House, it is an imaginative project that inspires participants to look at existing buildings that additionally advances that building’s “sustainable, dynamic and programmatic uses.”

Horrus Chung said...

This is the first time I heard of the term “Upcycling”, and I’m really interested in this way of designing after a bit of research. It is interesting that Upcycle construction is commonly practiced in developing countries. In my hometown Hong Kong, there are many old houses built by shipping containers and steel plates. However, why is that not widely used in buildings after Hong Kong becomes richer? I think this lies in the limitation of wasted materials, old materials do not give enough quality to rich people’s expectations. In order to make this architecture become common and famous among upper class, as those tips mentioned by Orsola in her lecture in Hong Kong, higher finishing quality should be provided in these construction.
Upcycle architectures have two directions. One of them are iconic, more like an artwork, aiming to remind people the importance of environmental issues. The Upcycling Pavilion built by soda crate in Expo CIHAC shows the merit of this type of upcycle building. Although that pavilion does not have practical function, the real function lies in the fact to show people how to use the speciality of a material. And the other, is more practical, simply utilising the structural strength of existing wasted product, aiming in reducing the use of raw materials and hence reduce of the amount of raw material usage. Those old houses in Hong Kong made by shipping containers or the small soakers made from dumpster should be this kind of architecture. Combining these two ideas should give a more comprehensive design approach to Upcycle architecture.
Gregory Kloehn’s trash repurposing house shows the opportunities of combining these two features. Those iconic houses perfectly make use of the size of the residential waste into some mobile houses for homeless. These houses have wheels on their bottom and skylight on top. Household items such as the washing machine door and mailbox are redesigned as windows and vent hole respectively. With the signature small size and sharp colour, these houses are perfect example to combine these two directions mentioned above, it is super significant and use wasted material instead of new one. In order to promote the reduce usage of new material, quality finished design should be introduced.

Hong Kong shipping container house interior outline
Steel plate house in Hong Kong
soda crate pavilion in Expo CHIAC
Orsola lecture in HK
Gregory Kloehn trash repurposing house

Anonymous said...

While the idea of recycling and up-cycling provide potential solutions to a sustainable future, it is perhaps critical to not get carried away by the false promises of recycling. This is not aimed to discourage recycling, but to raise awareness of its purpose and safety rather than believing it merely as a trend.

Googling and researching about recycling, it is disappointing to see the word ‘recycling’ being misused and exploited. It is a term being widely used in object design and fashion design recently. With the fancy websites and ads promoting these items, it is worth questioning whether this is an act of encouraging consumption rather than reducing, which is the main purpose of recycling. The concept of ‘reclaim, repurpose and up-cycle’ has been condensed into the ‘hot trend’ of a particular fashion season. It would be a pleasure to see industry approaching sustainability in a more consistent manner.

The backyard pool in the article reminds me of DIY homes and gardens restorations, which led me to researching recycled materials accessible to general public. The materials online ready for shipping are ambiguous when it comes to meeting safety standards. For instance, wooden pallets common for furniture or flooring DIY could be contaminated while transporting and loading, or from byproducts used to treat the products shipped on. Therefore I question whether the concept of recycling and up-cycling should be looked at in junction with the qualification of sources certified by an organisation, and whether it’s premature to largely promote up-cycling and recycling before the health and safety are well resolved.

Stephanie Griffiths said...

I have always been intrigued by the notion of ‘upcycled’ architecture. Due to the consumer society that we currently live in, where people are constantly compelled to buy new products, humans have created an unprecedented amount of waste. A huge 55% of this waste ends up in landfill, and these landfills are incredibly dangerous to our environments, releasing methane, and greenhouse gases. Even simply transporting all our waste to landfills is extremely harmful. While recycling (which accounts of about 33% of all waste) is a better alternative, it is still not a sufficient answer to the problem of wastage. For example, during the recycling process of plastics many different types of plastics are mixed resulting in a hybrid, and this hybrid does not have the same structural capacity that the original plastic would have had. However, I think that there is a huge potential for the use of ‘upcycling’ within our culture, as it seems entirely fitting that we find a way of giving old products more value, not less.

I think this is particularly true for the field of architecture, and while I am fascinated by the interesting and unique ways that architects and designers have managed to ‘upcycled’ buildings, I am more excited about the social benefits that ‘upcycling’ could provide. I am amazed by this project called ‘Homeless Homes Project’ by Amercian designer Gregory Kloehn. The project is centered on using salvaged trash to make houses for the homeless. Every project is built with materials found on the street, such as pallets, doors, used appliances, etc, which is then turned into walls, roofs, doors and windows, and all homes contain wheels so that they can be moved to accommodate their lifestyles. The best part of the design, in my opinion, is that these houses can be made within 2-3 days. I am really excited about the potential for these ‘upcycled’ houses to make within the social realm of architecture.

Anonymous said...

The emphasis on recycling has become greater over time due to the rise in the waste produced by today’s society. Through the education system and the media recycling has been positioned in the minds of Australians such as myself as the most effective way to deal with waste. However reading this blog has prompted me to engage in further research about the concept of recycling vs. up-cycling.

Collection of materials, sorting, melting of material back to their original state, sending of material to another factory to make a new product are some of the expensive, time and energy consuming steps involved in the process of recycling which arguably only prolongs the inevitable by stretching out our waste stream. Comparatively the concept of up cycling cuts out these stages by promoting the reuse of a material without degrading the quality and composition of the material for its next use.

In relation to architecture the inspiring American based company Upcycle Living has introduced affordable shipping container housing comprised of modern cost effective designs. One such project included a 2 bedroom, 2 ½ bathroom house built out of four 40 foot shipping containers. Up cycle living wanted to promote the concept of up cycling through exposing the homes corrugated exterior to the streetscape thus effectively showing it for what it is. Furthermore Up cycling living plans for future models to be solar paneled and include a shade screen to help the homes remain cool. As an architecture student it is inspiring to see that it is possible to provide people with affordable, quality, low maintenance, green housing options.

Anonymous said...

Upcycling is truly a fascinating topic and its environmental benefits in reducing waste an undeniable fact. Upcyling can become significantly beneficent in developing countries where new materials could be not affordable, especially in the field of architecture and construction. For example in india, a schools table and chairs have been created from what used to be tetra pack containers which are originally made 75% paper and 25% aluminium and plastic.

Apart from its financial and environmental benefits, upcycling raises consciousness about environmental issues to anyone who comes in contact with it. It encourages creativity and innovation. It makes us question our pre-conceived perceptions about how things are made and encourage us to look for new ways. Its use, especially in schools allows a new generation of youth to rethink their ideas about consumerism and waste and take on a new set of values and standards that could, in the future lead to improvements in social and environmental conditions of the world.

Although having up cycling turned into a mass-market craze would be an ideal way of rectifying the 'throw-away' society many business and consumer psychologists have argued that there is little true potential for upcycling in the current market place due to the the current consumer motives and buying behaviours. (Albinsson & Perera, 2012)
The promotion of upcycling in a marketplace so consumed with ‘brand new’, 'designer' and ‘latest trend’ based motives although necessary, is a difficult challenge. I believe the most important task is inspiring children and youth and educating them in schools about the concept of upcycling so that they can become agents of a positive change and develop into a generation who thinks differently about waste and consumerism.

Lloyd said...

Everything from a beach house roof built from Boeing 747 aircraft wing to kitchen sinks as a building facade, up cycling is adding a story to a building before it is even occupied. Repurposing materials or products whose lifespan has expired not only reduces the carbon footprint of production but adds a certain character or charm to what could have been just another white box.
Materials carry with them a patina which tells its history and hints at what it was used for. Upcycling these materials is reinventing them and providing more than just a conversation point around the dinner table but a remarkably unique aesthetic, an opportunity to interact with the building materials.
In my opinion, to make upcycling a feasible option, the materials must meet standards and stand the test of time. It is the careful consideration of the intent of donor material that will have the most efficient outcome, for example, the typical upcycling of a shipping container as a structural element is suitable because within it already exists strength. On the flip side of this argument comes the question of innovation, what if we can manipulate paper for example to be waterproof and function as a roof material or a bathroom floor? The material evolves further when it meets science. This is an exciting concept that is highly in fashion. I believe that it will see a shift in the development of materials and eventually a broader range of unique options available for architects if upcycling is generally adopted by the profession as an answer to the question of sustainability.

"Devised Architecture: Revitalizing the Mundane" 2009. Jason Novisk. The University of South Florida.