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Building from Waste: Glimpses Into the Future of Our Built Environments

Aluminum Alusion Panel, Building From Waste Exhibit, San Francisco, California

Can waste have a second life as a building material? This is the question brought to surface through ETH Zurich's Building from Waste exhibition. Held at Swissnex San Francisco, the exhibition is based on the book Building from Waste: Recovered Materials in Architecture and Construction from ETH Zurich and Future Cities Laboratories. Appropriately displayed upon wooden pallets, the exhibit invites visitors to handle, touch, and even smell more than twenty-five alternative construction materials derived from waste.

What does the future feel and smell like? Newspapers, ground husks, and earth with a hint of coffee. Yes, you heard correctly caffeine fiends. A tile created by Raul Lauri Design Lab of Alicante, Spain is composed solely from old coffee grounds and binding agents, giving it a deep brown color. This is just a vignette of the materials on display.

Details of aluminum panel, denim insulation, newspaper wood, and mushroom brick, Building from Waste, San Francisco, California

Other materials include:

  • Insulation made from old denim which serves as an effective thermal and soundproofing material.
  • A light roofing material, tuff roof, made from Tetra Pak cartons which is water resistant, fire-retardant, corrosion-free, and has a 25% lower heat gain than conventional roofing materials.
  • Lightweight Alusion Panels composed of liquified aluminum.
  • A structural cube made up of vacuum sealed plastic bottles.
  • A maintenance-free slate molded from discarded milk bottles, plastic bags, and limestone waste.

In the near future, we may not be building homes from traditional brick and mortar, but rather "growing" our walls with Mycoworks' mushroom bricks. Composed of mushroom mycelium and agricultural waste, the fungal brick growing process shares more of a likeness to a prop out of a sci-fi film than a structural element. As a final product, these bricks are extremely lightweight, 100% compostable, and can withstand significant compression. Framing and finishes for housing may eventually be constructed from NewspaperWood. Fabricated from discarded newspapers which have been soaked in glue and wrapped to form a log, the product can be cut, milled, drilled, nailed, and sanded like any other wood. Even its appearance is strikingly similar to wood grain, mimicking tree rings with subtle hints of color.

Bags displaying growing Mycoworks mushroom bricks, Building from Waste Exhibit, San Francisco, California

Marta H. Wisniewska of ETH Zurich and one of the authors of Building from Waste, said that although an entire building has not yet been constructed from these alternative materials, they have constructed a number of temporary installations and pavilions. She strongly believes that alternative construction materials are the future to our built environment. I agree with her that our cities will rise from the landfill. With 1.3 billion tons of waste produced each year by cities worldwide, such materials will need to become the standard. Otherwise, where will our future stand if not knee deep in our own waste?

If you find yourself in New York City, stop by The New Museum's IDEAS CITY Festival where ETH Zurich will build a pavilion constructed from U.S. waste products. The pavilion will serve as a venue for events and exhibition space for their Building from Waste exhibit.

Do you agree that our future built environments will be derived from our own waste? In what other ways can waste be transformed into alternative construction materials? Share your thoughts and stories in the comments area below. 

Credits: Images by Lauren Golightly. Data linked to sources.