In this fourth issue of open_resource magazine dedicated to the circular economy, SUEZ wanted to give the floor to an architecture office that has been rethinking design over the past 20 years to adapt to a world of scarce resources. Superuse Studios was founded in 1997 in Rotterdam by Césare Peeren and Jan Jongert. It has become a pioneer in the field of sustainable design: a design not considered as the beginning of a linear process, but as a phase in a continuous cycle of creation and recreation, use and reuse.
The circular economy
Circular economy has started to become a commonplace. Yet it remains challenging to imagine what it will imply for our daily experience. Logically, if the circular economy is changing the way we do business and we manage business relations, everyone will be affected. But it is not necessarily obvious to all of us, and fundamental choices still have to be made. Choices which will lead to different processes and even maybe to another circular economy, not the one we have in mind today.
Waste as a source of inspiration
At Superuse Studios, we have radically reversed design practice since the creation of the company, in 1997. We do not only design a spatial form and find afterwards the most appropriate materials. We also study the project and its environment to find available resources nearby that we use as building materials. Then, we propose to transport the minimum amount of them and to give them a new function. It is pretty much the same when you cook. You can either come up with a recipe and then buy all the ingredients needed or either be inspired in the kitchen by the leftovers from previous purchases to create a meal from these ones.
By working backwards, we force ourselves to look at the entire construction chain from a different angle. This new perspective gives traditional suppliers a different role in the process. As we like to tell ourselves, we no longer do business with the sales department of a company, we do business with the production department and the waste processor.
For example, in Eindhoven, one of the waste streams of a Dutch truck factory consists of steel plates with uniform holes, resulting from the production of parts for new trucks. Our partner, Van Gansewinkel, a leading waste-to-product business, gets the steel from the processing industry at a cheap price. It also takes care of the logistics between the contractor—the company selling waste materials—and the building site. In this chain, the truck manufacturing company sells its by-products and Superuse gets a fee for mediation and design services. In the end, the product is unique and is 20 to 30 percent cheaper than if it would have been a brand new one.
Team Superuse Studios © Superuse Studios
From products to system
Why transitioning to circular economy is still such a challenge? This is partly due to how we see things and understand our environment. We have learned to look at our surroundings as a collection of objects, of products.
For a long time, our way of doing business did not go beyond the product itself. Customers were simply looking to buy the best quality and the largest volume at the lowest price.
With the circular economy, we enter in a world of flows. These flows go through a circuit and work to connect value chains with each other. For both producers and consumers, increasing awareness has a strong influence on their purchases or sales, which flows back through to the entire ecosystem. Thus, each payment for a purchased product is an investment in a process that adds more or less value in the chain.
In the recent years, two trends have emerged from companies embracing the circular approach: closed loops and open networks.
Closed loops and open networks
The world of closed circuits—which includes large and established companies— is growing. The objective is to combine sustainability ambitions with production safety, resources optimisation and controlled use of raw materials. When it comes to established companies, circular economy is often developed for a new product or service, around which the chain is literally closed. Raw materials are recovered from the products taken back.
In the other end, some circular and uninhibited businesses happen to conquer a niche. They are not afraid to meet demand with originally, little capacity to address multiple services and products simultaneously. Open source sharing is common among them. Clients or customers are often personally involved in the development of new products, but also tend to be suppliers. Many techniques are also miniaturised these days which allows for production no longer to be a huge investment. Moreover, crowdfunding enables neighbours, friends and individuals to be involved in the business-ecosystem. In the past century, the tendency has been to reduce complexity and separate activities. But, like in nature, resilience and biodiversity can only thrive if many mutually beneficial relationships are built and maintained.
Bluecity, Rotterdam © Superuse Studios
The architect in an ecosystem
When we set up our agency 19 years ago, we intended to create an architecture that would integrate all streams (water, energy, users and materials) since the beginning of a project. We considered each design task as a system, whose flows were first analysed. Each stream itself would be in a cyclical relationship with its own environment and with the other streams.
During that time, the design of sustainable energy and water systems in the sustainable architecture field was well- developed. But there was little attention for materials. When we realised that, we developed a specific method and the necessary tools. We called it: Superuse, the development of waste materials into building materials, using as little energy for transportation and processing.
An important aspect of (re)using waste is that we pay more attention to the material. Existing materials have very specific technical and aesthetic properties and it is not always easy to get them. As a result, the design of an object or a building is strongly subject to these characteristics. As for us, we look at design and construction process in a dynamic way, resulting from a combination of involved partners, the environment, available material and the program.
Villa Welpeloo, Enschede, 2009 © Allard Van Der Hoek
Our pioneering approach required us to start our practice with smaller and temporary projects to test the ideas we had in mind and win clients with this approach. After several interiors, Villa Welpeloo was the first full scale building that we could realise according to the Superuse method. We transformed waste flows from local industry and construction sites into a luxurious house with 60% reclaimed content. At the same time, we developed a method to use the growing amount of redundant wind turbine-blades.
The Blade-made Series turns these gigantic units into exciting and functional public furniture already implanted on four different sites in The Netherlands. To increase our positive impact, Superuse Studios opened a subsidiary in China to upcycle the vast and polluting flows of waste in this country, where we get most of our products.
This year Superuse Studios headquarter moved to BlueCity in Rotterdam, a 12,000 m2 refurbished swimming pool hosting a dozen similar companies. There, we exchange resources and waste flows. The project is currently the most complete construction project ever led by Superuse Studios. Because not only is the waste material upgraded to building components, but also the flows around the building. And the knowledge gained over the project is actively shared. Superuse Studios is the architect of the transformation of these flows: we managed to cut down CO2 emissions by 70% for the first completed 1,200 m2 of office floor.
Harvest map, a marketplace to exchange materials
As a consequence of our open source approach, we developed tools and methods that are available to other entrepreneurs who want to create value waste streams. In 2012 Superuse Studios built an online platform Harvestmap.org, which presents more than 250 common material flows. We created this platform for the need of our activities in identifying waste flows, but also to help other designers to find materials. Its goal is also to support new circular entrepreneurs to start their own mediation company. Harvestmap.org has now active communities in Detroit, Vienna and China.
The website can link the largest corporations to the smallest businesses as in an open network, however it doesn’t compromise the closed circuits. But for us, a broad cultural shift will only happen if big companies connect with many more different. This way, they would connect back to local stakeholders and be able to adapt flexibly to changing circumstances.
Harvestmap.org © Superuse Studios
This article was published in the fourth issue of open_resource magazine: “The circular economy era”