To understand what true circular architecture might be like, you have to come here, into a nature reserve at Driebergen-Rijsenburg, Netherlands, where a vision of ethical and sustainable growth has merged building and design, comfort and finance into a single project. It is the new headquarters in wood and glass of the Dutch ethical bank Triodos. A work of architecture assembled as a combination of materials for dismantling and reconfiguration, whose form suggests the flight paths of bats, erasing indoor-outdoor separation thanks to landscape rooms designed in the greenery. The project is by Rau Architects. And it could not be otherwise, given the fact that the head of the studio, Thomas Rau, is also the co-creator of the Turntoo system (from the name of the consulting firm founded with his wife, Sabine Oberhuber), and in 2017 of Madaster, the pairing that could change the course of construction, making it fully ecological in an approach that sets out to remedy the environmental disasters of obsolescence of any type of artifact, from houses to smartphones.
The central feature of the Turntoo method is a passport that bears indications of every single material utilized to assemble the ‘circular cathedral’ of Driebergen-Rijsenburg (and many other projects around the world): a serial document to catalogue the materials used, so that in the future not even the smallest scrap will become refuse, but will instead be ready for reuse. In the vision of Rau and Oberhuber, “waste is made up of materials with no identity.” To give them one means assignment of legal (and economic) recognition that can transform them into resources. This is why the couple has created Madaster, the cadaster of materials, as they call their invention. Many companies around the world have already decided to wager on it. “Hundreds of clients,” they say, “have registered a total of over 2000 buildings for 7.5 million square meters of construction. With the Madaster database, constructions have been catalogued in the Netherlands, Switzerland, Germany, Norway, the United Kingdom, Finland, Spain, Belgium and Taiwan.” At the moment there are no projects under way in Italy, where no one has stepped forward to date to formulate what Rau, Oberhuber and the director of Madaster, Pablo van den Bosch, call a ‘coalition of the willing,’ an alliance of local players supported by the Dutch team, who believe in the idea and set out to fully develop it with the required perseverance.
Madaster is an online platform that automatically generates the materials passport. “The intuition came when we were thinking of an enormous library of materials. To work with this method in building means being able to inventory materials in advance, making it possible for designers and builders to adapt their techniques in such a way as to construct an entirely demountable building. This prevents waste and constructions can be recouped and reinserted in a new production process, without losing their value. If I have a definite project and I insert it in the database, the software encodes it and indicates the list of necessary materials.” For this, the Triodos Bank is a demountable and re-mountable building for which we know the exact number of bolts – 165,312 – which are all ready to be removed and reutilized for years in other projects.
The first building made with a catalogue of its materials via passport, in 2011, was a small town hall in the Netherlands. At the time, the database was merely an Excel file, far from the sophistication and levels of complexity achieved later by Madaster. Yet that sketchy intuition was sufficient to attract, among other things, the attention of Google. The Mountain View giant wanted to find out more about Dutch know-how in this area. Since then Madaster has become the official tool of the Building Passport report organized by the Global Alliance for Building and Construction, coordinated by the United Nations Environment Programme. Rau and Oberhuber have narrated their philosophy and know-how in a book, Material Matters (published in Italy by Edizioni Ambiente), which is now spreading the word.
And in Italy? In the wait for the above-mentioned ‘coalition’ to appear, Nicola Semeraro takes stock of the situation, as president of the Rilegno consortium, at the head of a virtuous initiative that systematizes almost 2 million tons of wood for reuse each year, with a percentage of recycling of packing that reaches 63%, one of the highest figures in Europe and well beyond the target set by the EU (30%) for 2030. A reality, in short, that is getting close to full circularity: “Though without replicating the philosophy of Madaster, which is certainly admirable but would require an enormous system effort and the capacity of the public sector to develop this type of approach, with Rilegno we have taken a path for some time that leads us to real progress: our companies are among the world’s best at cleaning scrap wood, transforming it into almost virgin material for architecture and design. This can happen because we also have worked for years on prevention. Circularity does not only mean knowing how to reutilize waste. It also means producing in such a way that the materials will be ready for reuse, with minimum impact. This is why our annual report always starts with prevention: there can be no circularity without the care that goes into designing today in a way that will facilitate reuse tomorrow. A method that permits orange crates to become premium kitchen cabinet doors, and which according to research conducted by the Milan Polytechnic generates an economic impact of about 1.4 billion euros (rising to about 2 billion if besides recovery and recycling, we also include reuse), 6000 jobs and above all savings in CO2 equal to about one million tons.”