Let’s play Spot The Difference, urban edition. You’re on West 47th Street in Hell’s Kitchen, a Manhattan neighborhood known for its industrial vibe. Like much of the area, the street is lined with brick buildings; despite some color variations, the facades mostly look the same. There is, however, one striking difference.
A new grey-brick building with a gritty, almost worn-out facade now sits at the corner of 47th Street and Eleventh Avenue. If it weren’t for the top half made of glass, the building would look like it’s been sitting here for decades. That’s because the bricks aren’t new, at least not exactly.
The brick facade of The West, a new condo building with 219 residences, is made up of almost 580,000 pounds of demolition and industrial waste. Created by Dutch company StoneCycling, the recycled bricks contain 60% waste, including ceramic toilet bowls, roof tiles, and steel. Most bricks are made up of two to three waste streams, although the company works with 60 waste streams overall.
The West was designed by Concrete, the Dutch architecture firm behind Citizen M hotels in New York, London, and Amsterdam. This is their first time working with StoneCycling’s “WasteBasedBricks”—and the first time the bricks have been used in the U.S.—but the architects are drawing on a strong legacy of Dutch brick building. “The canal houses in Amsterdam are all built by brick,” says Erikjan Vermeulen, a founding partner at Concrete. “We have a big brick tradition and history.”
The architects used the bricks on the first seven floors of the building’s facade, and inside the lobby, where some bricks protrude just enough from the wall to spell out a poem about Hell’s Kitchen in morse code. From up close, every brick looks different. Some are smooth, others look and feel like sandpaper, others have tiny little craters on their surface, like samples from the moon. Each brick was brushed (by hand) with a thin, slightly reflective coating of glass particles, which gives the surface an ever-so-subtle shine, particularly when the sun hits the facade.
Concrete chose recycled bricks because their imperfect look makes them appear historically accurate, which helps the building blend in with its surroundings. “This area has such a bumpy and rough history,” says Vermeulen. “It’s industrial, so we felt we wanted to create a connection to both a little bit of the past and the future.”
Traditional bricks are made with clay (in Amsterdam, for example, it’s dredged from the city’s canals) and fired in kilns. The process is very energy-intensive and calls for a lot of extracted materials. StoneCycling bricks use less extracted materials, and one of the waste streams also has a lower melting point, so the bricks can be fired at a lower temperature, says Ward Massa, the company’s cofounder. (To lower their carbon footprint, the company is also planning to switch from natural gas to hydro-oxygen to power their kilns.)
The waste streams themselves drive the hues and textures of each collection: tones range from “nougat” to “pistachio” to “salt+pepper.” To create the color of the bricks used in The West, which the company describes as “truffle,” Massa says they had to add a waste stream from the steel industry. “When you work with waste, it’s never one color,” he says. “It’s like a chef in the kitchen.” (Some drive-through Starbucks locations in Europe feature StoneCycling bricks speckled with white; those are made from crushed toilet bowls.)
The West broke ground in 2018. At the time, StoneCycling was producing bricks with 60% waste, but this year, the company is increasing the ratio to 80% waste, with the goal of reaching 100% in the next few years. They plan to open their own factory with special machinery, which will help them get there. For now, Massa says the cost per square foot in The Netherlands averages $14, compared to about $8 for a standard brick, but he expects the price to come down as the cost of recycling materials becomes cheaper than excavating raw materials.
Ultimately, the company’s success depends on a robust recycling infrastructure. In Europe, where the push for sustainable materials is much stronger, this kind of infrastructure is well established. (Waste used in The West’s bricks came from the Netherlands, Germany, and the UK.) This isn’t the case in New York City and other parts of the U.S., where sustainability is mostly defined by more efficient building operations and misleading LEED scores.
The West has provided a proof of concept for these bricks across the Atlantic. But with about 600 million tons a year of construction and demolition waste produced in the U.S., the country is well-positioned to put that waste back into our buildings.