LAUSANNE - This home hangs between heaven and earth. Its shapes are sometimes rounded, sometimes sharp. The structure stands on the hills overlooking Malibu.
Its majestic roof appears to be gliding over a waterfall of glass suburban houses, perched on a hill. And in fact, this impression is correct – this home has wings. Literally. The sensual shapes of its roof are actually the wings of a decommissioned Boeing 747.
When American architect David Hertz designed his aerial structure, with a floating curved roof on picture windows, he decided that instead of having such a roof built, he would try to see if the wings of a decommissioned jet would fit his vision.
That was actually cheaper than having a roof made to order. Buying a whole 747 turned out to be cheaper than just buying parts of the plane. Every part of the 747, from the stabilizers to the cockpit, was used to make the roof of the main residence and its annexes.
And after the Wing House was finished, to prevent air-controllers from mistaking it for an actual plane wreck, the structure was registered with the Federal Aviation Authority. Completed in 2011, this bold project is also environmentally friendly, which has revived the discussion on the use of recycled materials in architecture.
In his Studio of Environmental Architecture, David Hertz is creating durable constructions – but he is not the only architect doing so, nor is he the first. Around the world, recycling is finding its place in contemporary architecture, and winning over more and more people. Whether it is about being environmentally conscious, wanting to reduce costs or being innovative, it is more of a philosophy than it is a construction technique – and there are many different approaches to incorporating recycling into architecture.
While mankind has always found ways to re-use old material in construction, the architecture of recycling in the modern sense is a recent thing. The phenomenon goes back to the 1970s, in the U.S., in the desert of New Mexico to be precise. A young visionary architect dared for the first time to build a house using nothing else but reclaimed trash: beer cans, car tires, glass bottles. Being the precursor that he was, Michael Reynolds couldn’t possibly have guessed that he was laying the groundwork of a new kind of architecture.
After a few years of building structures using society’s leftovers, Reynolds realized that he had just created one of the first sustainable houses in history. Called Earthship, the house absorbs more trash than it produces, generates green energy and allows its owner to be self-sufficient. The revolutionary project was acclaimed by hippies and non-conformists, who decided to join the architect in Taos to build the houses of the future. A community of “earthships” was born, materializing the idealized human/nature relationship.
“Every material around us exists for a reason”
However, Reynold’s audacity almost cost him his architect’s license. The state of New Mexico accused him of breaking construction laws and started to evict his green commune. Reynolds went to court and eventually won. He is now an international icon in the field of green architecture, in high demand for sustainable urban projects while his earthships sprout all over the world. He refuses to work with real estate developers who want to market his concept on a large scale – he values his freedom more than he values money.
Reynold’s constructions look nothing like piles of trash, instead they evoke enchanted castles with their shimmering colors – not unlike Gaudi’s fantastic creations.
In nature, birds create their nests using branches that have fallen to the ground. Why should humans do anything differently?
“Every material around us exists for a reason, and represent multiple opportunities. The job of the architect is to know how to transform existing objects to give them a second life,” explains Marco Bakker from the Bakker & Blanc (BABL) architectural bureau in Lausanne, Switzerland.
Originally from the Netherlands, Bakker is one of the importers in Switzerland of the “superuse” philosophy, a Dutch movement. Developed at the end of the 1990s in Rotterdam by the architects Cesare Peeren and Jan Jongert, the concept of superuse aims to connect different closed loop ecosystems and applies to building supplies, energy, water, food etc.
Superuse is not just about reusing materials as they are, it also wants to create new original structures from “discarded” objects. They use billboards as floor coverings, wind turbines are turned into playground equipment, and industrial containers become bathrooms. They also reclaim “conventional” objects: furniture, scrap iron, doors, windows, roofing material, etc.
In Lausanne Bakker and his associate Alexandre Blanc share the same poetic vision of creative recycling: “In a way we help objects to reincarnate themselves without losing sight of their previous lives. We are DIY-ers who are fascinated by the story that an object tells -- romantic but professional DIY-ers.”
BABL’s collaborators look for discarded materials as inspiration even before they start or design a new project.
“Perfectly good construction materials being wasted”
“We reinvent things from objects that we have around us, and it is essential in this concept to come to terms with our dependence to objects. Depending on the size or appearance of the used materials, we can change our initial project or rethink its design,” says Bakker.
“But these constraints can also force us to find creative solutions, and the used aspect of materials also give another dimension to objects, a certain vitality, not to mention a decrease in costs,” he says.
Recycling used materials can take a more traditional aspect, for economic reasons for instance. When she returned to Switzerland after working for ten years in Africa, architect Barbara Buser from Basel architectural firm In Situ, rebelled against the huge amounts of perfectly good construction materials that were being wasted.
In 1995, she created the first exchange for recyclable material, which collects reusable materials from construction sites and demolished buildings. The architects from In Situ aim to put construction materials into a wider social and humanitarian context, such as reconstruction projects in disaster-hit areas or poor countries.
“It’s possible to build entire houses using recycled materials, their used aspect even adds charm to the structure,” says Buser. She knows however that in Switzerland this is still a niche market, tied to economic aspects more than innovation.
Only a few architects use this second-hand exchange or use recyclable objects. This is not because of legislation, because the same fire safety and security rules apply to new and used material, explains Thomas Muller from the Swiss Association of Engineers and Architects. On the contrary, recycling is encouraged in Switzerland through specific construction standards.
According to Muller, the reluctance of architects to work with reclaimed objects is the main reason why they are not used more widely. For architects, recycled materials causes artistic limitations, especially in the case of visible elements. And even though clients want to be alternative and innovative, are often hesitant of taking the actual step of building their homes with old materials.