A circular economy doesn’t require an obsession with eco-construction, it just needs low carbon and waste avoidance to be an integral part of your design thinking
Having considered recycling and re-use as steps towards closed loop ‘circular’ systems in my previous articles, it is time to look at projects that demonstrate an ability to reduce the amount of material used during their whole life cycle. Such projects will probably use materials that are not ‘circular’ and in effect merely stall the inevitable problem of how to dispose of synthetic and toxic material. They require strategic thinkers from the outset of the design process, people who have a deep understanding of existing design and manufacture processes and, crucially, material flows. Once existing systems are understood, these innovators unpack them and look at ingenious ways of providing the same ‘stuff’ but in a less resource-hungry way.
For over 25 years Anne Lacaton and Jean Philippe Vassal have been practising together from their studio in Paris. They have a very clear position about the potential of design to help benefit the day-to-day lives of individuals and communities. Their practice is characterised by a desire to work with the existing qualities of a site, seeing these as an opportunity and strength. They have a pragmatic approach towards issues of climate change and sustainability as a whole: never relying on expensive technological solutions, rather considering challenges in a genuinely holistic manner. Famously, when the partnership won a commission to overhaul and master plan a town square in France, after exhaustive research, it went back to its clients and confirmed that the current square was working perfectly fine except for a couple of park benches that were valued by the community and needed repairing. In effect this lost it a large commission, although it gained the practice huge credibility among its peers, and as a direct result saved a huge amount of material resources as the client accepted its proposal.
Lacaton & Vassal is, however, perhaps best known for having an acute awareness of how to make generous, beautiful spaces affordable: it makes clients’ money go further than most. One of its first projects that demonstrated this ability was the commission to retrofit the Palais de Tokyo in Paris. Originally opened in 1937, it had suffered from many decades of neglect, especially after the appearance of the Pompidou Centre in the late 1970s. In the late 1990s Lacaton & Vassal received a rather unusual enquiry from the Palais de Tokyo team. Since the mid 1990s there had been plans to update the extensive neo-classical buildings which were in a poor state of repair and not suitable for curating late 20th century contemporary art. However, by the time Lacaton & Vassal was contacted the Palais de Tokyo had just stopped renovation works on site: the construction and design team had spent three quarters of the construction budget on one quarter of the works. Lacaton & Vassal’s challenge was to complete three quarters of the works with one quarter of the original budget. This it famously did.
Lacaton & Vassal’s approach to this project was simple. The pair looked at the fabric of the building, which comprised an in situ concrete frame that the previous design team were spending substantial sums of money covering over, and pretty much left the interior spaces in a state of partial refurbishment. They spent money in an informed, frugal way (where occupants touched/ brushed against it), and delivered this successful project at build rates that were one third of those originally anticipated.
This approach is not really frugal at all. Lacaton and Vassal have an extensive knowledge of construction materials and systems new and old, and understand where to apply additional fabric and when to leave it alone. Their point of view is that by keeping everything ‘raw’ there is an honesty of materiality. As noted when the practice commissioned in 2010 to expand the facilities into under-used areas, ‘they have distanced themselves from the idea of seeking a form of aesthetic perfection and spectacular architecture’… they ‘reactivated’ the original qualities of a building which had been unloved for a long time.
Another Lacaton & Vassal project is in many ways even more successful at demonstrating an informed, extremely cost-effective, resource-saving alternative solution to the norm. Lacaton & Vassal was asked to create a new 16-storey high-rise tower to replace the aging 1960s Tour Bois-le-Prêtre. Its approach to the commission saved a whole lot of materials from going to landfill, reduced the energy consumption on site by over 50%, and most importantly to the architect, provided hugely improved apartments for the tenants. The first smart move was not to demolish the building, but to partner with the original architect Raymond Lopez who obviously had an intimate knowledge of it. The team then proposed a radical solution to the idea of renovation. They decided to keep the interiors of the existing 96 ‘sheltered’ apartments untouched but remove the ugly pre-cast concrete cladding system that had been applied in the 1970s and replace it with fully glazed ‘winter gardens’ that rather amazingly extended all the apartments by about 2m. The concrete panels were removed and each winter garden was applied while the tenants still occupied the apartments.
The new layer wraps the old building and in doing so provides greatly increased levels of natural light, increased natural ventilation, better quality of air, a reduced likelihood of overheating which is a big problem with south-facing tower blocks, and as a consequence these unheated ‘environmental buffer zones’ keep the original apartments cooler in the summer and warmer in the winter. Crucially, all these ‘passive’ low-tech ‘devices’ are controlled by the tenants occupying the apartments: different tenants can have different setups.
Since the completion of La Tour Bois-le-Prêtre, Lacaton & Vassal has applied the exact same strategies to a larger project known as Grand Parc in Bordeaux. Again, this is a collaboration with the original architect of the three large residential blocks, and again the tenants will not have to leave while this radical transformation of their homes takes place.
When I spoke to Anne Lacaton she was keen to stress that she and Vassal are not ‘green’ or ‘eco’ architects. Their primary ambition ‘is always to create amazing environments for all people. Intelligent design should always address all environments.’
These two projects are both inspiring, thought-provoking and, as with almost all good design, a simple straightforward solution to a problem. Just think of how much waste material would have been created if the Tour Bois-le-Prêtre tower had been demolished and then simply replaced with another tower of a similar size constructed in nearly identical materials. It is really only the facades and services of contemporary high-rise buildings that are radically different to those built from the middle of the 20th century.
Both projects identify the true value and potential of existing buildings, materials, systems and communities. By undertaking research at an almost forensic level, Lacaton & Vassal unearth unrealised potentials such as working with the original architect on the Tour Bois-le-Prêtre tower. Both projects test the potential for our existing buildings to be ‘material stores’ for the future – even the so-called difficult ones made of monolithic ‘plastic’ materials such as concrete and cement.
As it stated in its 2013 publication ‘Druot, Lacaton & Vassal, Tour Bois-le-Prêtre’ for Ruby Press ‘Somebody who demolishes a building just to re-erect it on the same site but in a ‘contemporary look’ has, in principle, gained absolutely nothing.’ It also states ‘for the money needed to tear down one apartment and to build a new one, you can renovate and expand three to four existing apartments.
For me, Lacaton and Vassal have been true innovators. They question ‘normal practice’ and use their skills as designers to create inspirational places for everybody, that as a matter of course happen to be authentic low-carbon solutions to everyday problems, such as ‘how do we make cost-effective homes for people who are not rich?’ – and they do this with the minimum of fuss.
Duncan Baker-Brown is an architect and author of The Re-Use Atlas: The Designer’s Guide Towards a Circular Economy