How to Design Using Repurposed Materials


When thinking about designing an environmentally friendly building, "sustainability" is top of mind, however, some confuse the terms "sustainable" and "energy efficient", using them interchangeably. The two terms actually refer to unique elements that, when combined, can be used to create a wholly environmentally friendly design.

While "energy efficient" designs focus on the amount of energy a building spends during construction and after its competition, "sustainable" designs take a more holistic approach.

A sustainable design focuses on the environmental impact a building has on its surroundings. One of the most influential aspects of a design's footprint on the planet corresponds to its materials and the energy and waste they leave in their wake as they're built or demolished. By recycling those materials after the building's lifespan comes to an end, you won't only be reducing the impact the waste has on its environment - you'll be contributing to a decline in the exploitation of natural resources for new materials, as well as saving yourself budget money, as recycled materials care often cheaper than new. Local sourcing, another aspect of sustainable design, reduces a building's carbon print as it requires fewer fossil fuels used in the material's transportation, thus using recycled materials from nearby demolition sites or landfills gives your design extra green points.

The possibilities for recycling construction materials are as boundless as the designer's imagination; old doors can be repurposed as dry walls, wooden floors can be turned into cladding, and so on. There are even more sophisticated ways to recycle materials by turning them into something completely new and unexpected.

If you're thinking about giving repurposed materials a try, here are some things you should consider:


How to Design Using Repurposed Materials

Bima Microlibrary, designed by SHAU Bandung

Plastic is one of the most versatile materials on the market. Its repurposed applications vary from the direct use of discarded plastic objects, such as using bottles and plastic crates for structures and facades, to the creation of objects such as "plastic wooden planks", which are processed to resemble the look and feel of natural wood with the added bonus of a low upkeep. Plastic can also be repurposed as an insulation material, a feat achieved by processing plastic bottles (90% of the new material) and turning them into polyester quilt sheets. Plastic can also be turned into bricks, which can be assembled as easily as lego bricks.

See projects using plastic.


How to Design Using Repurposed Materials

Sebastopol Barn, designed by Anderson Anderson Arch

Wood can be repurposed or "reclaimed" in many ways to be made part of a new structure. Wooden train rails, planks, floors or beams can be fit for repurposing and their use depends on the quality and dimensions of the wood. Former structural wooden planks can be used as such again, and if in good condition, weathered wood can give a new building unique character. Old wooden floors can be repurposed as cladding; old beams and doors could be repurposed as staircase elements; and so on. If the wood doesn't meet the dimensions, it can be mixed with other bits and pieces of wood to create compound structural or cladding materials, which in turn will contribute to the design's aesthetical richness. Wood recycling doesn't apply to built objects alone, as dead trees found on site can be repurposed and incorporated into the project as well.

See projects using wood.


How to Design Using Repurposed Materials

31 Shipping Container Home, designed by Ziegler Build

One of the most popular metal repurposing uses in architecture is the recycling of containers to build new structures, but it's not the only way metal can be repurposed.  Aluminum - one of the most popular metals used to create structures - can be molten and shaped infinitely, which makes it a valuable material product. Metal objects can also be used in their original shape - such as rusty metal facades - which provide a unique texture that is otherwise hard to achieve. 

See projects using metal.


How to Design Using Repurposed Materials

Solid Concrete Studio + Gallery, designed by ASWA

Concrete is often overlooked as a reusable material as it can't be reconstructed once broken, but that doesn't mean it can't be a part of something else. Broken pieces of concrete can be turned into small pebbles, which can then be mixed into a batch of concrete as an aggregate, or used as gravel for foundations.

See projects using concrete.


How to Design Using Repurposed Materials

Glass Office, designed by AIM Architecture

Many glass objects can be repurposed as constructive materials in either their original shape or as a new element. Glass bottles can be used to clad facades, or fashioned into rustic-looking windows, giving facades a stimulating eclectic look. If the bottles are colored, the designer can play with the colors to create interesting patterns.

See projects using glass.

Soil Based Materials

How to Design Using Repurposed Materials

Tuscon Mountain Retreat, designed by DUST

Bricks, terracotta, and kindred materials can be easily reused either in their original form or mixed into something else. Old bricks can be used to form new structures, even if the material has experienced damage. Roof tiles can be given new life as facade claddings. If crushed finely, bricks can be turned into aggregate for concrete and created into new bricks again.

See projects using soil based materials.


If you're feeling adventurous, there are some unusual materials that can be repurposed into constructive elements; such as the cardboard that was used to create Shigeru Ban's Cardboard Cathedral.

Recycled materials shouldn't be overlooked as an environmentally and budget friendly option that can give designs a unique character unlike new materials.

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