The Upcycle House Goes Beyond Recycling

©. Lendager Architects

One of the most misused words in the language is recycling. Reiner Pilz described what was really going on in 1994: "I call it downcycling. They smash bricks, they smash everything. What we need is upcycling- where old products are given more value, not less." Bill McDonough picked up the term and has even just written a new book, the Upcycle.

In Nyborg, Denmark, Lendager Architects has built what they call the Upcycle House, "with the ambitious goal of being the first house build only from upcycled and environmentally sustainable materials." I don't think it is the first, and I don't think they actually do it, but it gets awfully close.

Lendager defines upcycling:

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

© Lendager Architects

The architects write:

Lendager Architects sees upcycling as the natural next step after the growing focus on the energy consumption of buildings in the operation phase. Attention is beginning to be directed towards energy and resource use in all stages of the building process: The production and transportation of materials, the building and construction phase, and when the building or parts of it have served their time. Upcycling can be the answer to how it is done, in Upcycle House we have already seen an amazing 75% decrease in CO2 consumption in the production phase compared to traditional building.

© Lendager Architects

There are a lot of interesting ideas going on here. Shipping containers are used for the basic structural cores, enclosing small spaces like secondary bedrooms and bathrooms, so there is no need to take out huge sections of wall.

The building sits on what are perhaps the greenest foundations, helical piles that require no excavation to install and can be screwed out of the ground if the house is removed.

Instead of plastic foams, they use Technopor, a rigid insulation made from recycled glass bottles.

Windows, bricks, battens and lath are all reused and the roof is made from flattened aluminum cans.

under construction

© Lendager Architects

But is it the first, and is it all upcycled?

There are lots of houses that have been built from old windows, tires, shipping containers and recycled lumber. TreeHugger has shown houses built a century ago from beer cans and bottles that weren't even smashed and downcycled but actually repurposed. I think it is a real stretch to call this the first upcycled house.

I also wonder about are the use of UPM Profi as flooring; this is a European version of plastic lumber, made from polypropylene waste and wood fibre. I question whether it actually is, as the architects claim, "representing a higher value than even before the waste became waste." Plastic lumber is almost the definition of downcycling.

They also use Richlite as an exterior cladding. Richlite is now made with recycled paper, but it is essentially a sheet of phenolic resin made with formaldehyde, phenol and methanol. I don't think anyone defines that as environmentally sustainable and it certainly isn't upcycling; by far the biggest component of the stuff is new and fossil fuel based.

UPDATE: The distributor or Richlite disagrees. See information below.

But the architects also write:

The goal for Upcycle House is to demonstrate that it is possible with limited funds to build a strong CO2 reducing and publicly appealing one family house that is not meant to be a unique specimen but an alternative to regular prefab houses.

They have certainly accomplished that, and that is more than enough for anyone to be proud of.

Re Richlite: Scott Campbell of the distributor for Richlite in Europe, CF Anderson, explains in greater detail how Richlite is made:

The composition of Richlite is predominantly paper by weight and is manufactured using WE technology (Waste-to-Energy). The resin is specifically designed so that the waste gasses (which is why it is Methanol based instead of water based) can be utilised as a fuel source for the production process instead of using natural gas. Our Co2 emissions would be over 5 times more if we were to use a water based resin instead. We are proud of the fact that we use sustainable manufacturing techniques and we are not just ‘green’ at first glance. (See Richlite and Sustainability on their website)
Due to the fact our resin does not have a lot of ingredients we only need a very small amount of binder which is phenol formaldehyde not Urea Formaldehyde. Most of this is incinerated during the saturating process and the little that does remain is inert once pressed. This has enabled us to continually produce sheets that conforms to the highest possible Green Guard rating of Gold (formerly Children & Schools) and is tested for more than 360 different VOC’s.