Building and renovation How to make a house with recycling material

Nice and ecological: building new things from old materials.

by Edith Arnold 29 Mar 2016

Ernesto Suter has artistically soldered together rusty iron components – and built the bathtub into an old paved trough. Photos: Nicole Bachmann

The racetrack clinic in Muttenz is now a cool student dormitory – after an unconventional renovation. The budget was small, the aesthetic demands big. That’s why, for instance, they decided to visibly mend the concrete floor, says architect Dominique Salathé of sab architekten. “Traces of time, a patina, make a place come alive. An old piece of furniture is good for a new building.” Salathé is familiar with pure recycled buildings mostly from temporary exhibition architecture. The challenge is to make sure such buildings don’t look cobbled together.

Recycled villa

Ernesto Suter’s house made of waste is known as the “recycled villa.” It’s been functioning at the Rhine Falls in Neuhausen for five years now. Visitors often spend more time here than planned, because Suter brings ecology, Minergie, functionality and aesthetics all under one roof. “It’s a shame when materials are only used once, or thrown away because of a defect,” he says. For some building materials, he only paid for transportation. Nonetheless, processing does have its price: he employed two carpenters and several masons for two years. The experts had to test a few techniques first.
At first Suter was planning a straw house. But then a closed cement factory put 90 pallets of fireclay bricks at his disposal. So the retired foreman and fireplace builder decided to go with brickwork on a classical foundation. Working with recycled materials requires flexibility, after all: Suter managed to fit in some new but wrongly measured concrete steps as part of a staircase. He laid more of them horizontal to the jagged walls next to the entrance. Rusty bannisters rise above them: Suter artistically soldered old iron parts such as stirrups, boat sprockets and vises together. Inside the house there are bannisters made of wooden sticks that the dog brought back from walks in the woods. A gallery forms the very heart of the house. Once you let its flaps down, additional living space is created. In the meantime, Suter has a building full of new ideas. He’s storing oak beams from half-timbered houses. In addition, tons of bark collected from larches, Scots pines and Douglas firs are piling up in the woods. Suter goes into raptures: “Our tree bark has qualities similar to cork.” Originally he wanted to insulate his house with the bark. But then he decided to install mountains of polystyrene in order to prevent it from burning down.

Insulation made of jeans

Felix Heisel researches the qualities of alternative building materials at the ETH Zurich under Dirk E. Hebel, Assistant Professor of Architecture and Construction. He co-authored the book “Building from Waste,” which introduces 60 primary and secondary materials. Heisel gives an example: “Fibers reclaimed from denim fabrics, i.e. jeans, are very practical. As insulation mats they have similar insulating qualities to fiberglass, which is bad for your health.” The “NeptuTherm Balls” made of Neptune grass, which insulate and absorb dampness, are almost too nice to disappear behind walls. Formed by waves into balls, they are washed up onto beaches. Pressed straw with a relief surface is also aesthetic: you can use it on interior walls like plasterboard. This “Zadta Tech” technology allows for the varied processing of natural fibers. “When an architect’s design develops out of the qualities of the material,” Heisel emphasizes, “it opens up totally new dimensions.”

Hints for DIY enthusiasts

Floors. Kitchen builders cut larger elements out of granite worktops. These can serve as floor tiles – with a matt or shiny surface.

Walls. Want to plaster or mend the brickwork? Jute soaked in plaster provides structure and elasticity. Cold concrete walls can be clad with warm clay bricks.

Properties. Condemned buildings, craftsmen’s yards, building material exchanges, etc.: amazing finds can show up very nearby.