While G7 nations argue over how to deal with climate change and plastic pollution in our oceans, municipalities across Canada are balancing the costs and benefits of reusing what we throw into our blue bins.
What if, instead of processing those metals and plastics, we put them to use more directly? What if we used them in groundbreaking house design?
Wakefield builder Bradley Robinson has thought a lot about this, but rather than writing a thesis or presenting at conferences, he has gotten his hands dirty, building houses with the maelstrom of waste that typically gets trucked to recycling facilities. The founder of SHE Build — the acronym stands for sustainable home environment — subscribes to the tenet of architect and design theorist Christopher Alexander, who challenged contemporary practices with the goal of having communities reclaim control over their built environments. Alexander wrote “… when you build a thing, you cannot merely build that thing in isolation but must repair the world around it.”
One of Robinson’s recent projects exemplifies that action. Built on a hill near the village of Wakefield, the home — dubbed Casita — demonstrates how such stuff as discarded car parts and shredded magazines can be repurposed to create great architecture. Owner Viviane Weitzner knew she wanted to work with Robinson after seeing a greenhouse he had built on the site of a local restaurant.
“I was intrigued with Brad’s concepts,” says Weitzner, “especially around sacred geometry and sustainability, and I wanted to work on something that could draw out this vision.” For the uninitiated, the term sacred geometry refers to the notion of a central cross within a circle — in other words, a space defined as “in the round.”
With those two ideas as starting points, Robinson designed a house that could be made from post-consumer waste. The basic structure is steel fabricated from the shredded underframes and bodies of cars, while the building blocks it envelops are compressed waste-plastic materials wrapped in mesh fabric, which is then coated with cement. The result is a house that retains heat in winter and remains cool in summer, and the shape is about as far from a bricks-and-mortar bungalow as you can get.
Weitzner loves the energy of the house. “It feels like it hugs you,” she says. “There’s something grounding and calming about the soft, textured walls and arches and the way the light comes in. It feels spacious even if its footprint is small.”
The building, at 1,350 square feet, was intended to be a work space for Weitzner, a post-doctoral researcher at McGill University’s Centre for Indigenous Conservation and Development Alternatives. It quickly evolved into a full-time residence, and as her kids approached their teens, she realized they would need more privacy than was provided by the curtained alcoves where they slept. Here’s where the sacred geometry concept paid off. Walls were easily added to create three separate bedrooms. Because of the efficiency of the design, the open areas were not sacrificed to make way for the privacy the kids needed.
“I thought I’d have a really hard time putting up walls in the open space,” says Weitzner, “but I love the house even more this way. It still feels the same because the central courtyard remains untouched and the kitchen and dining room are essentially the same. And now I have walls for art.” Adding to the spaciousness is a glass ceiling that soars toward the sky.
The creation process was organic and fluid, says Weitzner. “I didn’t have a preconceived idea of what I wanted. I knew I wanted something small that fit into the landscape and that could evolve creatively through dialogue and after ‘feeling’ the land.” She envisioned a central hearth and an open-concept space.
These ideas, combined with the notion that we can repurpose much of what we throw away, are the seeds of an ongoing construction revolution. “I think sustainable building is the only way to go,” says Weitzner, who was prepared to challenge the thinking behind building codes to create a work of art that would become her home.
“It takes a willingness to take on and push new concepts. And people are tickled when I tell them I live in a round post-consumer recycled-bale house,” says Weitzner. Wakefield is the kind of community that embraces change and, as Weitzner says, her house “embodies the essence of Wakefield, where you can ‘live and let live.’ ”
Our return on investment when it comes to recycling isn’t just about reducing what we send to landfills and seeing a pop bottle made into a T-shirt. Our future depends on our behaviour, and those who are thinking outside the box — whether by building in the round or some other organic shape — are leading the way.