One of the newest buildings on Gouvernestraat, a road in Rotterdam, is actually one of the oldest–but you wouldn’t be able to tell from looking at it. By all accounts, the petite house looks thoroughly modern, thanks to its Spartan facade and lack of architectural flourishes. But it’s actually composed of architectural waste salvaged from demolished structures, 15 tons of it to be exact.
For their own home, the architects Nina Aalbers and Ferry in ‘t Veld of Architectuur Maken wanted to build a structure that would blend in with the neighborhood fabric–so they chose to build with bricks, a material commonly used in Dutch houses. But instead of going ultra-traditional, they opted for an experimental, waste-based brick from the Amsterdam-based startup StoneCycling, a company founded in 2013 by Design Academy Eindhoven alum Tom van Soest and his childhood friend Ward Massa.
At Dutch Design Week, which runs from October 22 to 30, StoneCycling launched a new arm of their business: an interiors segment that offers dining tables, occasional tables, pendant lights, and floor lamps all made from waste-based materials. The line shows how cast-off industrial rubble can be transformed into elegant objects.
With this new, consumer-focused product line and its existing trade-oriented building materials business, Massa and van Soest are aiming to create a competitive market around materials destined for landfill–and incentivizing more sustainable design in the process. Here’s how.
Van Soest graduated from Design Academy Eindhoven at the peak of the economic crisis in Europe. He noticed that a lot of buildings were vacant or under demolition, and found himself wondering what happens to these structures after the wrecking ball hits. Where does all of that rubble go? He started doing more research and found that in the Netherlands, the construction industry generates 65% of the country’s waste–the largest proportion of the entire stream. He began tracking where that waste went, and soon learned that some of it was crushed and turned into material for paving roads or shipped overseas for disposal.
“The alternative [for handling construction waste], compared to our solution, is down cycling,” Massa says. “The value goes down per ton. What we try to do is create products that represent more value than the current combined price of those waste streams.”
Van Soest began to think about how he could apply circular-economy thinking–in which resources are reused as efficiently as possible–to the construction waste problem. Why not turn demolished buildings into new buildings? In a makeshift mad scientist lab, van Soest began testing ways to make a strong and beautiful material from rubble. He fitted an old gas tank with a rotating bender and used it to crush construction waste into an aggregate. After mixing in different waste streams–like ceramics, clay, and glass–and tweaking their proportions, he was able to achieve a stable material with different colors and textures. The differences in the aggregate’s recipe and how the bricks are baked impacts the final hue, which ranges from purple to blue, red, green, black, and yellow. In the end, consumers get a beautiful, unique material that’s gentler on the Earth than conventional bricks.
StoneCycling makes close to 20 different types of bricks today, which range from your everyday solid red variety to custom bricks and more ornamental versions, like terrazzo-esque Nougat that looks like it could have been ripped from a Memphis-era Shiro Kuramata interior. While the material van Soest invented has myriad applications–it could be used as cladding, interior finishes, surfaces, and in products–StoneCycling began with brick to jump-start the company.
“If we’re making a material, we should make a product since that’s easier to sell,” Massa says. The two decided that bricks–the most basic building block–would be the easiest way to infiltrate what Massa calls a conservative industry. “If it’s too futuristic, no one in the building industry will work with it. The building industry doesn’t like risk. Our materials are innovative, but not so alien that people don’t want to work with it.”
Massa and van Soest have been building their business the old-fashioned way through word of mouth, exhibiting at design fairs (like Dutch Design Week), and setting up meetings with architecture firms eager to experiment with new techniques. Then, they incorporate feedback into what type of materials they would like to see in their projects and use that information to guide new formulations.
Arkitecture Maaken’s house is the first completed building to use StoneCyling’s products and is a proof of concept of sorts that shows other potential builders how the material works in the real world. StoneCycling also has a handful of other projects on the boards, like a restaurant in Antwerp that’s scheduled to open in November, an apartment building in Amsterdam, and a couple of projects in London. As much as the company is eager to work on one-off projects, it’s also keen on building at scale and is in conversation with high-end fashion and food brands that have expressed interest in adding StoneCycling to their corporate materials database.
“The advantage of this approach is this idea of building with waste is new,” Massa says. “People are skeptical about this. What we need are architects, clients, and developers that want to make a statement and those who have a budget and high ambition. If we get our products in there, it helps to spread the message and hopefully it will trickle down the pyramid and more people will use it.”
StoneCycling wants to take its material mainstream, but that’s an endeavor that will take time and a shift in thinking. As it stands, the building industry is archaic–and most developers err on the side of caution when it comes to incorporating new techniques and materials, even if they are sound from an engineering perspective and better for the environment.
For example, many structural engineers tout timber as a more sustainable way to construct tall buildings, but the technique hasn’t made it into building codes. That puts the onus on individual architecture firms and contractors to prove that it will meet the same standards as traditional building techniques–a very costly endeavor. Massa sees this as a hurdle for StoneCycling’s growth.
“The current model of responsibilities doesn’t facilitate innovation,” Massa says. “If I develop a building, I pay a building company to build it, and the building company is responsible for its quality. The side effect is that they’re not being pushed to use new materials because new material forms a risk. That’s a difficulty we see when it comes to financial responsibility. If you can build with something that gives you 10 or 20 times more confidence than a new material, you’ll pick the old material.”
Shifting the perception around waste materials is one of the first steps to wider adoption of StoneCycling’s products. So far, the company has caught the eye of a handful of designers, but it’s eager to capture the minds of everyday consumers, too, as is shown in the furnishings collection.
“What we’re aiming with the interior collection is if someone eats dinner at a waste table or turns on a lamp made from waste, the concept of being surrounded by waste becomes cool or acceptable,” Massa says. “If we start seeing waste as valuable, it opens up a range of possibilities.”