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Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Recycled Architecture

Yes, this is recycled architecture, heavy on ingenuity and good taste,
fabricated mostly of salvage aircraft parts.
Americans are often accused of living in a throw-away society. That includes everything from toothpicks to mobile homes. You may not noticed abandoned toothpicks very often but in some parts of the country, the abandoned hulks of mobile homes dot the landscape like so many rusty tin cans. Moreover, the ramshackle, cobbled-together metal "house trailers" from decades past, which are still being lived in, are almost as bad. One would think that if we can recycle steel shipping containers into economical, sometimes quite attractive housing, we could do the same with "containers" which were, in fact, intended for human habitation in the first place. We don't do so because recycled architecture depends on three vital elements--the materials themselves, of course, but far more important is ingenuity and good taste. Before acquiring the materials one has to know precisely how they are to be used--very careful, thoughtful planning. With that must come a willingness to adapt and adopt, both in terms of the materials and the particular lifestyle they often demand. And finally, there must be a knack for turning ugly refuse into an attractive living environment--good taste.

Comfortable, exciting, attractive, economical, recycled architecture.
Combine a trained architect and an aeronautical engineer and the result (top) is a high-tech, minimal masterpiece of astounding beauty. As many as one-thousand commercial aircraft are retired each year. Most end up "mothballed" in a giant desert graveyard-parking lot waiting to be scrapped, or in some cases, refurbished as needed. They represent a giant opportunity for recycling into various forms of human abode. How would you like to spend a night in a Boeing 747 bed and breakfast (above)? Or, if you're a do-it-yourselfer, something like the cantilevered Boeing 727 (below) might be more to your taste.

Okay, it's not exactly pretty, but it does look like fun.
As noble as recycling may be in general, or architecturally, it's basically a curiosity. Very often a home made from plastic bottles, glass and concrete, wooden pallets, steel shipping containers, or even worn-out aircraft are not very attractive. Most are fairly homely (no pun intended) and an all-too-many are what can only be called downright ugly. That was the case with many of the earliest examples dating well back into the previous century (below). Making dissimilar "trash" hold together to form some type of reasonable shelter almost always begets design chaos. Making a house structurally sound, weatherproof, comfortable, and economical both in terms of construction and maintenance is a very tall order. Compromises among these various factors often leaves aesthetics along the wayside.

The words, funny-looking, weird, silly, crazy, tasteless, stupid,
and dumb also come to mind.
Even today's trendy attempts to convert unused steel shipping containers usually retain a utilitarian quality more akin to the dockyard than attractive domestic architecture. At their ingenious best, as seen in those converted by Port-A-Bach (below) they still look like precisely what they are, $2,000 refugees from the waterfront. Ingenuity alone, even that of a professional designer, does not necessarily beget an attractive living environment.

Functional, yes. Beautiful, no.
Yet, it can be done. Either singly or in multiples, shipping containers can be the basis for an attractive home environment if, the designer is willing to think in terms of the big steel box as merely a structural unit to be refined, decorated, augmented, concealed, and otherwise modified to make a Postmodern statement as to domestic habitation. Call them "disguised" if you like, but the two homes below, both clad in traditional wood siding, may appear somewhat modular, but they don't look containerized.

Shipping container? What shipping container?
The same mindset applies in using other recycled materials as with shipping containers. That is, recycling has its own rewards in terms of economy, environmental factors, and practical matters. It need not be flaunted in a misguided search for whatever innate beauty it may or may not possess. The Prince Edward Island bottle house (below) is a curiosity, recyclables shoehorned into a traditional architectural style. Below that, the equally environmentally friendly Earthship subterranean home does not even make a passing attempt at imitating outdated architectural norms, but carves out for itself a natural affinity with nature, making it both inviting and attractive without sacrificing any of the inherent benefits of its totally concealed recycled bottles, cans, and tires.

Earthships are ultra-sustainable homes built from items such as bottles, tires, aluminum cans, and other litter. The cans and bottles are filled with soil, plastered over with natural mud, then painted.
Because Earthships are banked into the earth with a southern exposure for maximum sunlight, they’re extremely energy efficient, cool in summer and warm in winter. They are designed with all the rooms opening along a corridor with a huge bank of windows. Thus natural daylight eliminates the need for electrical long as the sun shines. The northern New Mexico landscape is dotted with more than fifty such homes with the Sangre de Cristo mountains forming a dramatic backdrop.

When the building modules are smaller, as with wooden pallets, they're easier to handle and allow
a greater degree of flexibility in their use than do jet airliners and steel shipping containers.
In a more northern environment many amateur builders have gravitated to an excess of recycled hardwood pallets as an easily usable type of building material, much more in keeping with traditional building design and construction methods. Sometimes the pallets are ripped apart, sometimes used intact. Besides being easier to buy and use, wooden pallets are also relatively attractive. The house above was built for approximately $500. It even comes with printed instructions.

Gregory Kloehn's dumpster homes form mini shelters for the homeless.
Architect Gregory Kloehn has adapted the shipping container mindset to a series of whimsical dumpster homes upcycled to form mini shelters for the homeless (above). Sometimes recycling involves not building something new, but simply adapting old structures to new uses, such as British furniture designer Tom Dixon's Water Tower House (below) in West London. The sixty-foot water tower is outfitted to meet strict eco-friendly standards and offers amazing views of the city. It's also available for rent.

The Water Tower House, West London

Recycled architecture is going to the dogs.


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