A collection of airline trolleys have arrived in the Architecture Foundation’s gallery in London. But something’s not quite right. They are filled not with miniature cans of tonic water and ready-meals, but an intriguing assortment of scraps: metal offcuts from laser-cutting, fragments of timber cable reels, bits of car windscreens – even a mysterious trough of used coffee grounds.
“This is our mobile school,” says Jan Jongert, a Dutch architect whose practice Superuse Studios has been rethinking design for a world of scarce resources over the past 15 years. “It is part materials library, part case-study bank – and it all fits into the back of a van.”
The slender aluminium trolleys – some of 5,000 made redundant by KLM when they recently updated their design – house a wunderkammer of case study projects, drawn from Superuse’s work, as well as projects produced by students at the Royal Academy of Art in The Hague, where the architects also teach. In the words of Jongert, the projects are about “identifying and connecting available flows in the urban ecosystem”. He sees production as an organic cycle of streams, which are too often separated. By bringing together mutual inefficiencies – aligning surplus with demand, waste with need – the work looks to develop a more integrated world of products and services.
One trolley tells the story of GRO Holland, an initiative that recycles coffee grounds as a growth substrate for mushrooms. “98.8 percent of coffee is wasted in the process of making it,” says Jongert, explaining how waste grounds are now collected from a network of cafes, mixed with oyster mushroom spores and packed into perforated plastic bags, then hung in a humid warehouse. The harvested fungi are sold back to the cafes, and the waste substrate passed on to nearby tulip farmers to reuse.
His practice is now working on designs for a new visitor centre for the organisation, which will see mushrooms used as thermal insulation in a cavity wall – while the coffee grounds will be used in rammed-earth walls. In Jongert’s world, nothing goes to waste.
Superuse (formerly known as 2012 Architecten) first tested these ideas with a series of interiors projects, which soon grew in scale. Beginning with a Rotterdam nightclub, which incorporated aeroplane seats and benches made from car tyres, they moved on to build an entire house out of reclaimed materials, with a steel frame made from redundant textiles machinery, clad in timber salvaged from cable reels.
The rotor blades of decommissioned wind turbines are also a recurring feature in their work, forming elaborate maze-like structures of tunnels and towers in children’s playgrounds.
For the past few years, they have collected many such case studies of “upcycling” and repurposing from around the world on the Superuse website, an open source database “where recycling meets design” – from a children’s train made of oil barrels to a mobile container pizzeria.
“But the real issue, as a designer, is knowing where to find these surplus flows,” says Jongert, as he discovered working on a project for a new gateway to the Gibbons Rent garden in Southwark. “We designed an entrance using reclaimed pipework,” he says, “but then realised that you don’t have steel downpipes in the UK.” Luckily a cheap supply of tree protector grills has come to the rescue.
This process of what he calls “material scouting” looks set to get a little easier, with the arrival of the new Harvest Map website, an online platform that links surplus materials with people that need them. Launched in the UK this week, it so far features a haul of Olympic leftovers.
While the Olympic building site actively promoted reuse of its surplus materials, other companies are not always so forthcoming. Working on a project for furniture manufacturer Vitra, Superuse realised that they could make 1km of seating from the factory’s annual waste – a discovery that has since prompted the company to rethink its production methods. “We need to show this,” says Jongert. “It is only through this transparency that things will change.” He is adamant that “superusing” is the only way forward: “The idea of connecting these disparate flows will become a big part of the economy. It will have to happen – we have no other choice.”
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