Construction is one of the most polluting and energy guzzling sectors, responsible in Italy alone for one third of the CO2 produced (source: Save The Planet). For sustainable growth it is necessary to generate virtuous models in both the production chain and that of disposal of waste. Changing the concept of waste itself. More and more small and medium businesses in Europe are offering materials that are alternatives to the traditional ones used in construction, wagering on the circular economy and short-distance upcycling of post-consumer refuse. Starting with the study of the specific resources of the territory. Production on a local scale, though with exportable models and methods, constitutes not only a rediscovery of building techniques of the past, but also a step ahead in our relationship with the environment.
Atelier Luma, the think tank based in Arles, studies new and sustainable ways of using natural and cultural resources of the bio-region, especially those derived from agricultural waste. The Invasive Species workshop proposes solutions starting from the plants – often exotic – that colonize and damage the original biodiversity of the ecosystems where they settle: 1379 species in France alone. These alien plants are often uprooted, but their insertion in the productive and environmental system can attenuate the negative effects of the current monoculture that weakens ecosystems, fostering mixed, reasoned management of plantations. Fibers, waxes, colorings, resins, fabrics and composite materials are the first applications, for the moment in the sphere of small objects. Nevertheless, since they are light, strong, foldable, thermoformable, recyclable materials, similar to wood, they can also find uses in the construction sector.
Typha (bulrush) is also a plant that grows quickly, flourishing in the wet zones of Frisia in the Netherlands. Dijkstra Draisma and Studio Tjeerd Veenhoven are using it as insulation for interspaces of walls, produced with low CO2 emissions and low energy consumption, while transferring the value chain to a local level. Also in the area of thermo-acoustic insulation, Naturtherm Wo by Manifattura Maiano revives one of the oldest raw materials, also used in primitive constructions: sheep’s wool. Renewable and recyclable, it is elastic and breathable, and represents an excellent climate-control fiber with hygroscopic capacities. The Belgian company Gramitherm offers semi-rigid insulation panels for construction, starting with dried grass supplied by local farmers. Dried grass and flowers, this time of the Alps, are utilized by the Austrian company Organoids to make a series of cladding materials.
If we consider the environmental damages caused by the raising of large livestock, why not try to create new materials starting with manure, using low-energy production methods? This happens in the case of Manureality, a compound similar to cardboard, derived 80% from horse manure, plaster, water and soluble glue, with properties very similar to those of particle board or MDF. It has been developed by Martijn Straatman, also by studying the ancient techniques of construction in Africa, South America and Asia, which make use of manure and fibers. Scalite too is a material composed of 100% fish scales, a recyclable substance found in great abundance. Made by the French firm Scale in rigid sheets, it contains no chemical additives or VOC (volatile organic compounds) and has mechanical properties similar to those of MDF and concrete. No longer just as prototypes, seaweeds meet with definitive application in the tiles by Ecolurian Design Team. There are two versions: Pure, without coating, to absorb humidity from indoor spaces; Advanced, treated to stand up to water and humidity.
There are countless other examples. International directories make it easier to get one’s bearings in the myriad of reclaimed materials for architecture. Just to name a few: the platform on innovative materials Material District, specializing above all in Dutch production; Circular Flooring, which brings together European companies with the aim of promoting circular recycling for claddings and floors in post-consumer PVC; and the Italian consulting firm Materially, which helps companies and institutions to develop and spread sustainable innovation starting with materials.
Mogu: radical by nature
From a research startup, Mogu, a European company based in Italy, made its market launch in June 2019. Guided by the principles of the circular economy, it develops sustainable products based on mycelium. Besides the catalogue collections for floors and acoustic panels, the firm has conducted its first contract projects: 600 square meters of flooring and 200 of acoustic panels, designed with Arup, for the reserved area of the Dutch Pavilion at the upcoming Expo in Dubai; 100 square meters of ceiling panels in the workshop area of the Biotopia Museum in Munich. The production process starts with raw waste materials from the yarn industry in the Bergamo area, or hemp scrap from the textile industry – not in Italy, for the moment – on which to activate cultivation of mycelium. The production phases are standardized and timed. The semifinished product is 100% biodegradable and resistant to humidity and swelling. To guarantee durability, it is combined with a polyurethane resin, entirely developed with 60% bio-based substances. The filler materials are also made from waste, like mussel shells, hazelnut shells and coffee grounds, gathered from Italian companies. Soon to make its debut: a new film with the image of stone for continuous flooring. And an ambitious industrial plan for 2021: from 50 to 500 square meters of daily production capacity.
Stonecycling: brick from waste
The Dutch company StoneCycling was founded in 2015, developing a chain of gathering, sorting and processing of refuse from construction from a radius of 100 kilometers. Thanks to partnerships with local companies that work with production scrap, such as materials for insulation, ceramics and glass, StoneCycling gathers waste which is then analyzed and classified to create the composites for its bricks, in custom colors, textures and internal mixtures. In recent years the company has created a number of catalogue collections, characterized precisely by the chain of waste sourcing. One of them is Wasabi, a panel brick with a vitrified surface and a greenish color, created for exposed indoor masonry, using about 22 kilos of refuse per square meter. Another is the 2Good2Waste series, which due to the specific origin of the recycled aggregate - a mixture of ceramic scrap and other irreplicable ingredients - has unique colors that can never be exactly reproduced. The firm’s most important worksite outside the Netherlands is about to reach completion: an apartment complex on 11th Avenue in New York, designed by the firm Concrete. The brick collection that has been selected, Truffle Shine, recycles and transforms a total of 26,000 kilos of waste, becoming a characteristic aesthetic feature of the project, with 42 different forms and methods of bricklaying.