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Architectural Association - what can salvage mean to architecture

Posted on | By Thornton Kay
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London West, UK - Opalis is a non-conventional reclaimed building materials information service and marketplace started by Rotor asbl-vzw, a few dozen-strong Brussels design collective housed in a vacant chocolate factory, who were asked by the Architectural Association school to interest a group of 13 students, Diploma 18, in a one-year project in salvage and reuse. In December a progress presentation was given before a small jury which included Adam Hills, Maria Speake and the author, to provide hopefully helpful hints from our collective years of experience.

Among the businesses visited and mentioned in the presentations (and in three large format accompanying books with very cool pics of which I was lucky enough to be given one) by several students throughout the day were Abacus Stone, Ashwells, Cawarden Brick, Epping Reclaim, Cheshire Demolition & Excavation, Ronsons, Gallops, Martin Edwards, Ren-New, Community RePaint, Brighton Community Wood Recycling, steel farm building brokers Portal Power, Containers Direct, John & James. Around 60 companies were included in the trawl, and several long road trips were made by groups of students visiting reclamation yards and architectural antiques businesses around England and Wales. A reclamation exhibition was created at the AA which formed a backdrop to the presentations.

Points of salvage philosophy arose. What did processing reveal? A salvaged beam from Ashwells shed the weathered skin to reveal the perfect, and valuable, reclaimed greenheart heartwood beam, while London Reclaimed Brick's slip tiles were the valuable skin but the remaining inner heart was worthless. Waste offcuts, said one of the students, Cuicheng Zhang, were doomed to recycling.

A selection of Abacus Stone's old reclaimed, new chopped face, tumbled and new distressed face stones were discussed by Ananya Nevatia. The jury was out - the architects preferred new undistressed or unfaked reclaimed irrespective of their clients possible preferences for the old look, while Ananya quite liked the new distressed painted and pecked with the advantage of continuity of supply. Is it appropriate to use these new materials, she asked, or do they just contribute to pastiche?

Samuel Little presented a model of a recent steel framed portal farmer's building. He showed us a full size section of a piece of dismantled steel stanchion bolted at the flanges where the demo contractor had gas-torch cut very neatly above and below the joint rather than removing the bolts. Steel accounts for 7% of global emissions, he said, but its reuse in the UK is increasingly marginal, dropping from 11% to 6% recovery between 2000 and 2014. However, agricultural steel frames are still dismantled, relocated and used. 'Building Regulations, fabrication standards and planning legislation all show considerable leniency towards the industry,' he wrote, 'and widespread confusion exists about the status of material resellers. The reuse of demountable frames in agriculture dates back to the 13th century although modern higher steel prices are not necessarily an incentive to reuse but can rather be to demolish and sell for the higher-priced scrap.

In the first term Diploma 18 unit students documented an inventory of UK practices and stakeholders. In the second term, students will approach the subject from an architectural perspective. Through seminars and documentation of local and international reference projects, research issues that hinder practice-related development will be used to explore the solutions developed. Lastly, on the basis of the research, students will identify a particular case study. This can be a logistical problem faced by an expanding company, a technical challenge posed by a particular material that is currently difficult to market or an attempt to integrate salvaged materials in a typical contemporary construction program. Throughout the programme, ideas will be developed into a mature and peer-reviewed design presented at the final review in a relevant format (mock-up, models, drawings, etc.).

The unit staff includes two of Rotor's founders, Lionel Devlieger and Maarten Gielen, who have taught at TU Delft, Columbia University and curated the 2013 Oslo Architecture Triennale, Behind the Green Door. Maarten gave one of the two keynote speeches at the BMRA's Decon 2016 in Raleigh, USA. Rotor curated OMA/ Progress at the Barbican, London, as well as Usus/Usures, the Belgian pavilion at the 2010 Venice Biennale of Architecture. In 2012, Rotor started Opalis. Aude-Line Duliere, an architect, holds a MArch from the Harvard GSD, has been part of Rotor’s development team and worked at David Chipperfield Architects. She is the recipient of the 2018 Wheelwright Prize with a focus on the potential re-use of material within the film industry.

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FCRBE: Rotor is embarking on a major three year ERDF part-funded European project entitled FCRBE, in which Salvo is a partner, along with technical institutions, trade associations, research centres, architecture schools and public administrations, to double the amount of recirculated building elements available in northern France, Belgium, UK, and southern Netherlands by 2032. The project area contains thousands of reclaiming SMEs facing challenges such as market access and the integration of reuse into contemporary building practices, and aims to divert more material away from waste streams, creating value and jobs. Salvo is involved the whole project and especially in a trade survey, an updated directory, and the establishment of the 'Truly Reclaimed' scheme. Brighton University is the other UK partner, represented by Duncan Baker-Brown, famously of the Brighton Recycled House.

AA: Diploma 18 - Opalis, developing the market for secondhand building components in the UK

Story Type: News