Friday, 26 May 2017

Waste not want not

Architect Duncan Baker-Brown’s latest project can largely be described as rubbish. By building a house entirely from waste he’s aiming to change the construction industry for the better. Jess McCabe reports

Duncan Baker-Brown points to a bag of broken up polystyrene. ‘That was packing casing from fridges and things like that,’ the noted environmental architect explains. ‘This is stuff that would have gone to landfill.’ Instead, it is about to be used a second time, as rough-and-ready insulation for a house.

Mr Baker-Brown is showing Sustainable Housing around a building site on a small square of land on the Brighton University campus, where he is in the middle of building his latest project: a house entirely made of waste materials.

With a whorl of red hair, only partly concealed by a yellow hard hat, Mr Baker-Brown looks more like a Viking than an architect. Best known for appearing on the Channel 4 show Grand Designs, he is friendly and tactile in person. In fact, he is so affable that it’s only later, listening back to the interview, that I realise he is given to blunt statements and isn’t afraid to criticise even his own previous projects.

When we arrive onsite, he dons a high-visibility vest to check on the progress of the 16-year-old carpentry students currently strapping on safety harnesses and hammering away on the house. It is only once he has caught up with them that he takes a seat to talk.


Caroline Lucas, Green Party MP for Brighton Pavilion, lays the first concrete blocks

When complete, the house will be two storeys tall, with a vaulted space on the top floor. It won’t be lived in, instead forming an ongoing experiment for students. It will include an exhibition for the public to learn about sustainable construction. This will also be a learning opportunity for social landlords: they might not be able to copy the exact project, but Mr Baker-Brown insists it holds some stark lessons in sustainability that can be applied in building affordable homes.

The budget for the house is £100,000, although Mr Baker-Brown says including services given in kind, the real figure would be more like £200,000. It should be finished by Christmas - subject to the delays that come with working with students (on the day of our visit, the floor was meant to be being laid, but this was postponed because the students are sitting exams).

But that’s about all Mr Baker-Brown can say about the aesthetics of the house. ‘We don’t know what it’s going to look like, because we haven’t found the material we’re going to use for the rain screen cladding outside,’ he explains. ‘And that is one of the realities of building a house out of waste.’

The house, a collaboration involving students, with help from maintenance firm Mears, which built the foundations for free, has been paid for by the university. It may not be destined to house a family but it could be one step towards answering the question of how to house people affordably, without overheating the planet or turning it into a rubbish dump.

Lessons in sustainability

Social landlords, he contends, should be thinking hard about these questions, and not be scared off by the complexity. ‘The joined-up thinking that’s required to deliver truly low-impact, low-ecological footprint, not just the carbon footprint, I think for a lot of people that’s too steep a learning curve,’ he acknowledges. But, he adds, using fewer materials and using surplus materials is cheaper and would allow more homes to be built.

Mr Baker-Brown, it emerges immediately, isn’t one to sugar-coat things. ‘For 20 years, I was building low-impact buildings, from locally sourced materials, and that’s been great. We still do that - and replenishable materials, all that sort of thing. But meanwhile there’s been this huge pile of crap building up behind me, which is plastic and other synthetic materials. When you throw them away, they don’t go away, they’re floating around in the Pacific or wherever they are.’


The waste house project evolved from The House That Kevin Built, a highly energy-efficient building constructed in just six days using unusual techniques and materials

The issue is becoming higher profile in the UK in general: in Scotland, a competition has recently closed to design a zero waste house, which sends no rubbish to landfill. And construction firms are becoming so conscious of the issue that some are not keen to donate materials to Mr Baker-Brown’s project, for fear of sounding, ahem, wasteful.

Mr Baker-Brown has been hammering away at the forefront of sustainable building for years. Sustainable Housing first met the 48-year-old at the industry’s annual jamboree, Ecobuild, where he held court in the eerie depths of east London’s Excel exhibition centre. During his talk, a bigger and bigger crowd gathered to watch and listen as he energetically flicked through his presentation. Photos of the waste clogging the oceans and stark statistics about the garbage produced even by the ‘greenest’ construction projects struck a chord.

Lifelong passion

Brought up in the Essex countryside, Mr Baker-Brown was a young conservationist. ‘I watched the M11 and then the M25 cut through the countryside I was very familiar with,’ he recalls. When he was eight years old, his mother told him she believed one day the only wild places left would be in national parks. ‘To say it to an eight-year-old is a bit terrifying,’ he adds, but her words helped shape his world view and future career.

‘From an early age, I wanted to be either an architect or work for Greenpeace - or be a gamekeeper. And I chose architecture.’

Studying for his architecture degree part time at the North London Polytechnic, Mr Baker-Brown spent most of the week working for his uncle - also an architect.

At first, those early Greenpeace leanings didn’t manifest themselves in his work, but then one job came along that forced a rethink. ‘In 1988, we did a kitchen for John Ritblat, then the chief executive of FTSE 100 property company British Land,’

Mr Baker-Brown recalls. ‘It was £100,000 in 1987/88, and it wasn’t that big a kitchen. And I just thought, what am I doing?’

Turning his back on luxury kitchens, Mr Baker-Brown decided to return to his architecture studies, this time at Brighton University. It was then that he met Ian Mackay, who was also interested in sustainable design, with whom he would later launch a practice, BBM Architects. He is dismissive about the progress of the house building industry since then. ‘Nothing’s happened,’ the architect says. ‘Building regulations have got slowly closer to what we, and some other people, talked about 20 or 40 years ago.’

The House That Kevin Built - waste house project

For a couple of years, Mr Baker-Brown worked for Rick Mather Architects. ‘Rick was working on the largest low-energy scheme in Europe at the time, which was student accommodation at the University of East Anglia,’ he recalls. ‘The great thing about Rick… he wasn’t known for being a green architect, and yet his buildings were [green].’ It was, he adds, ‘activism by stealth’.

In 1994, Mr Baker-Brown and Mr Mackay set up shop and put their green building ideas into practice. BBM now employs six people, and has been involved in a swathe of projects over the last two decades, from small-scale eco-houses, to big projects like the original master plans for the Greenwich Millennium Village which included some social housing.

His work has earned scores of plaudits. In a scrolling list of testimonials about him online, Aaron Curtis, owner of consultancy QED, makes a typical comment: ‘Duncan is one of the most passionate, gifted and creative architects I have ever worked with.’

The firm’s highest profile enterprise was designing The House That Kevin Built, an experimental eco-house built outside the Excel centre in the Docklands over a period of just six days. TV viewers were kept up-to-date on the progress of the build with nightly instalments of Grand Designs.

Kevin McCloud, with whom Mr Baker-Brown worked on The House That Kevin Built, is still associated with the waste house project. The Grand Designs presenter has said: ‘It’s exciting to think that the campus could have its own practical demonstration building.’

The waste house is, in fact, an evolution of The House That Kevin Built. The original concept, Mr Baker-Brown explains, was to simply re-erect that house on the Brighton campus; it had been dismantled and put in storage in Wapping after the TV show.

On the agenda

That idea didn’t prove practical, partly because of the cost of shipping, but the land was still available. The dean of the architecture faculty at Brighton University, where Mr Baker-Brown has taught since 1994, gave him three months to plan what to do with the site. ‘They were excited about it from the very beginning,’ Mr Baker-Brown explains, not least because the Grand Designs episodes got 5 million viewers a night. ‘They understood about the construction, and how it could be a great learning tool for the faculty.’

With the issue of waste high on the agenda - Mr Baker-Brown quotes a statistic from recycling advocate Wrap that for every five houses the construction industry builds, it sends the equivalent of one house to landfill - the new, waste house project was born.

The House That Kevin Built - waste house project

A meeting with Remade South East - a not-for-profit company that helps divert waste from landfill - confirmed the time was right. ‘They just said, there’s a lot of large companies now hanging onto the waste they produce, because the cost of raw materials is going up and the cost of throwing things away is going up… So people who don’t give a toss about the environment are thinking about it [for financial reasons],’ says Mr Baker-Brown.
The Waste House’s location on the Brighton University campus sends out the right sort of message to aspiring architects.

Even though it’s causing delays, the involvement of the students and apprentices is, Mr Baker-Brown explains, crucial for the future. One of the 16-year-old students onsite, Ben Muskett, mentions that he has come to the site from the group’s last project, renovating a void social home. ‘It’s a different challenge every day,’ he says, explaining he is hoping to get an apprenticeship.

Many problems have cropped up, but not perhaps the most obvious. Planning permission proved no obstacle. And building regulations were surprisingly easy to meet, even though the house will be built partly from household waste.

‘A lot of the materials we use in everyday construction are toxic anyway,’ Mr Baker-Brown notes. ‘What’s a lot of material we’re using here? It’s plastic at the end of the day. And what’s a lot of insulation? Plastic.’

The house will put to use waste that otherwise could have ended up in a landfill or ‘at best they get burned and give off nasty toxins’. ‘Normally they end up being disposed of in Africa or China,’ he adds.

A big load of ply has been donated from local sites, while insulation company Kingspan has donated some waste insulation material (usually it would have been melted down to be remade into recycled insulation, but using it without reprocessing cuts down on energy and pollution).

Household waste, Mr Baker-Brown concedes, is being used in the house more to raise the issue of waste than for practical reasons. Big ‘cassettes’ of insulation using these materials, like toothbrushes and old video tape, will be put into the walls, while sensors track how effective they are. If a cassette is inefficient, future students will remove it from the wall and replace it with a different test insulation.

Supply chain

Although this is a demonstration project, the architect is clear the lessons can and should be used more widely by the construction industry, including by social landlords looking to build homes.

One thing standing in the way is the difficulty of sourcing waste or surplus materials. Mr Baker-Brown says the answer is to build ‘RE-I-Y’ centres, next to the local DIY store perhaps, where anyone could come to drop off or buy surplus building materials. This, he contends, is the missing piece of the puzzle before waste houses could go mainstream.

‘The raw materials are getting more and more expensive, and throwing away’s getting more and more expensive, so the people who are involved in the middle are the ones who will be making money,’ he adds - suggesting it is a commercial opportunity, not just an altruistic attempt to tackle the waste mountain.

As might be expected, Mr Baker-Brown doesn’t have much patience for the current government’s efforts to ensure new homes are built sustainably. It is, he states plainly, ‘hopeless’.

He is blunt in his opinion of the code for sustainable homes - the current benchmark for the green credentials of social and affordable homes, rumoured to be on the government’s chopping block.

‘The codes are good for people who don’t know what they’re doing,’ he says. Instead he advocates that house builders should design a building that suits the particular site. ‘There is no one-size-fits-all,’ he adds.

Returning to the lessons for social landlords, currently in the middle of the government’s affordable homes programme, Mr Baker-Brown has little time for the idea that building green is more expensive. He paraphrases US green expert Ian Chambers: if your design team say green design costs more, ask them to work harder. If they can’t, find another team.

He concludes: ‘If there’s less material arriving onsite, that should be costing you less to build. If you’re strapping some green bling onto your 1972 design… of course it will cost you more. But if you unpack the process right from the beginning and start from first principles, it’s going to cost you less.’

Wasted opportunity

106 million tonnes
amount of waste produced by the construction and demolition sector in the UK

22.9 million tonnes
amount of household waste generated in England in 2011/12, equating to 431kg per person

43 per cent
amount of household waste in England that was recycled in 2011/12

1.57 million tonnes
total waste generated in Wales in 2011/12, of which 46 per cent was sent to landfill

4.56 million tonnes
amount of waste that was sent to landfill in Scotland in 2010

50 per cent
European target for household recyling rates by 2020

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