Does the Upcycle House live up to its advance billing?

upcycle house
© Jesper Ray

Last May we showed the design of the Upcycle House by Lendager Architects, which had " the ambitious goal of being the first house build only from upcycled and environmentally sustainable materials." Now that it is built, the question is, does it live up to its advance billing? Much depends on how you define upcycling. The architects defined it:

Upcycling is a step beyond recycling, the materials are not just reused, but reused in a way where value and quality is added.

Now don't get me wrong, this a great idea and there is a lot going on in this project that I think is terrific. However, they call it "an experimental project, aimed at exposing potential carbon-emission reductions through the use of recycled and upcycled building materials." As an experiment, I think there are a few questions raised.

Are shipping containers "upcycled?"

But lets start with the shipping containers. These boxes are designed to stack sixteen high, they can hold tons. They are designed for international shipping. They are now holding up a light roof. There is no question that these boxes are seriously bashed up and at the ned of their useful life (and from an era when the floors and paint are toxic) but is it upcycling to have so much steel doing so little work?

An empty 40' shipping container weighs 8380 pounds. A galvanized steel stud weighs a pound per linear foot. These two containers, melted down and rolled and formed, could have been upcycled into 2,095 8' long steel studs. Framing the walls instead of using shipping containers would have used about 144 of them. Using shipping containers as structural elements for a one storey building is downcycling and wasting of a resource.

Is aluminum siding and roofing "upcycled?"

siding© Polfoto

The siding and roofing of the house is made from "recycled aluminum soda cans." Here again, I think it is more complicated. the manufacture of aluminum is hugely energy intensive (the stuff has been nicknamed "congealed electricity"), and adds up to as much as 1% of global carbon emissions. Recycled aluminum only has 5% of the carbon footprint of virgin aluminum.

The problem is, there isn't enough of it to go around, there isn't enough recycled aluminum to meet demand. So using aluminum of any kind, recycled or virgin, means that new aluminum has to be made to make up the difference. That's why one should think twice about using it at all. A case can be made that making siding out of it is neither upcycling nor is it environmentally sustainable. As Streamline Resources notes,

Because of its recyclability, aluminum is one of the green movements poster children. But there are serious issues with aluminum. The process of producing the pure metal we all know and love from its most basic natural occurring state (Bauxite) requires an incredible amount of energy. So much energy, in fact, that you would have to recycle the same piece of aluminum 20 times to just break even on the energy used to create it in the first place. And that is just the tip of the iceberg.

But here is much to love in the Upcycle House.

The kitchen floor is clad in tiled champagne cork-leftovers, and the bath tiles are made from recycled glass.

Walls and floors are covered with OSB-panels consisting of wood-chips that are bi-products of various production sites, pressed together without glue. The recycled materials are not very visible and the house does not radiate a recycled look – The house looks and functions like a contemporary house built of conventional materials.

exterior space© Jesper Ray

A special emphasis has been put on the house’s passive properties. Therefore Upcycle House is designed with orientation, temperature zones, daylight optimization, shading and natural ventilation in mind.

I do think this is an intriguing project and have taken a while getting around to writing about it, because I do not want to sound overly critical. However if it is an experiment in upcycling, then like any experiment, there is an opportunity for debate about what they mean and whether or not they succeed. When I wrote my first post, I was informed I had my facts wrong about Richlite cladding. I welcome further discussion here.

See lots more images at Archdaily.

Does the Upcycle House live up to its advance billing?
Unfortunately, any building made from shipping containers cannot be truly called upcyled.

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