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Break the upcycle: waste as a building material

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Recycled rubbish is the material of the aid paradigm, reserved for the poorest in society, as used in community buildings in Gqeberha, South Africa

A ‘culture of aid’ is set on alleviating the multiple challenges faced by underprivileged communities living in precarious environmental and economic conditions around the globe. However, the almost exclusive reliance of this type of initiative on donations is a painful reminder of Dambisa Moyo’s words of caution against the aid paradigm, and how it ‘continues to be an unmitigated political, economic and humanitarian disaster for most parts of the developing world’. If, in the minds of donors, the act of giving appears to be a – temporary – solution to mitigate inequality, within the context of the built environment aid often manifests itself by making ‘waste’ available – material rejects no longer of service for their primary users. 

Reliance on waste as a building material often does not happen by choice, but because it is the only available resource; waste pickers have become an emblem of an ‘informal mechanism of wealth redistribution in an unequal city’, as human geographer Melanie Samson explains. It is not an accident that the beneficiaries of many experiments in transforming discarded material into shelter components are often the most destitute, whether homeless or individuals living in precarious settlements. 

The Lim’uphile Co-op under construction, with the felt files being fixed to the outer wall

The sanitary block of the Lim’uphile Co-op in Walmer, Gqeberha, is clad in recycled carpet tiles

The sanitary block of the Lim’uphile Co-op in Walmer, Gqeberha, is clad in recycled carpet tiles

Credit:Collectif Saga

The French practice Collectif Saga has spent the last six years alternating residence between France and South Africa, experimenting and refining its approach to community-based projects, together with some form of systemic material taxonomy of reused materials. The practice imagines design strategies and a constructive system based on waste upcycling. ‘Fabrication and improvisation’, Collectif Saga’s motto, is easily identifiable in their built work with communities within the two townships of Joe Slovo and Walmer in the metropolitan area of Gqeberha (formerly Port Elizabeth), in the Eastern Cape region. This is barren wasteland, where both the harsh climate and injustice make it complicated to operate. Large tracts of terrain in between houses are littered with rubbish, as some kind of no-man’s-land where collective interest and purpose fail to materialise any idea of care. 

In order to speak of upcycling, a term recently introduced to the lexicon, it is necessary for every reused element to acquire additional performative qualities compared to original elements, in terms of functionality, energy efficiency or aesthetic appearance; these features are further enhanced through their assemblage. When Collectif Saga was invited by Patricia Piyani to be a part of the Silindokuhle Preschool project in 2016, the team moved to Joe Slovo for three months in order to determine the exact needs for the new facility and develop its programmatic layout. The architects started to collect waste materials, establishing contacts with various local companies, who let them collect their scrap. Within a structural grid made of load?bearing blue gum timber poles, the practice’s idea was to use easily available components, such as timber pallets, corrugated sheets, scrap metal and cardboard, to form different vertical layers, in response to programme and orientation. The long south-facing elevation is assembled by layering recycled timber pallets with textile insulation, and finished off with a recycled cardboard-based external plaster, whereas the warmer north-facing facade is composed of a play of donated wooden window frames and reused corrugated polycarbonate sheets. In between the two long walls, a set of internal partitions are crafted from layers of cardboard tubes on a horizontal frame of timber beams
stripped from pallets. 

A preschool made of timber and corrugated plastic

Silindokuhle Preschool by Collectif Saga

Credit:Simon Galland

The use of timber pallets as a loom on to which different cladding can be woven is a technique that is also found in projects located in the Walmer township: the Walmer Crèche and the Lim’uphile Co-op. Designed by Collectif Saga co-founder Simon Galland with LYT Architecture, Poise Consulting Engineers and non-profit-organisation (NPO) Walmer Angel, the crèche is a small rectangular room on stilts, ‘built from rubbish on a pile of rubbish’, as Galland writes. Sixteen vertical I-beams establish the structural rhythm between which timber pallets are stacked and clad with small sections of recycled floorboards above an insulating plastic membrane. 

The use of small strips of material as shingles – whether timber or carpet – is carried through on a much bigger scale at the Lim’uphile Co-op, Collectif Saga’s most recent project to date, completed in 2020. Here, three buildings located in a productive garden use different found objects as a basis for their tectonic assembly. A shipping container found onsite became the basis for the kitchen space connected to the café and shop housed in a reclaimed timber structure and clad with corrugated polycarbonate sheets. The sanitary block is clad in carpet tiles, while the plant nursery and training hall building uses discarded tubular galvanised steel pipes to create a series of arches. These rest on a linear gabion wall foundation of wire-mesh cages filled with rubble. The pipes support external cladding, which alternates timber panels and corrugated polycarbonate sheets.

The practice’s work is underwritten by the belief that, as Galland says, ‘structural elements must be durable but all that is related to cladding can suffer and always be replaced’; these structures are conceived as ‘emergency response and not to last 50 years’. It is an idea that appears reasonable in principle, but has performative limits in a context where both harsh usage and climate rapidly corrode the materials. The buildings are closer to temporary solutions than long-term projects, where the longevity and lifetime of construction has been addressed. 

The main hall of the Lim’uphile Co-op in Walmer, Gqeberha is constructed on top of rubble columns

The main hall of the Lim’uphile Co-op in Walmer, Gqeberha is constructed on top of rubble columns

Credit:Collectif Saga

This is a systemic challenge in the use of waste. While appearing to be easily reusable, physical elements picked from cast-offs must be subjected to adequate verification of effective appropriateness. In order to achieve dignified and durable built results, all involved, in planning and construction phases and beyond, must possess the necessary understanding of the quantity and quality of additional labour, as well as other components, required during the use and maintenance of the facilities. 

The practice maintains that the Gqeberha region, where many industries are active, is a place that facilitates construction with recycled materials. In the immediate future, these are fortuitous circumstances but it ultimately raises concerns about the equity of a process that transforms waste producers into benefactors, while condemning underprivileged communities to rely on junk as the only affordable resource. These are challenges that cannot be met simply with enthusiasm and goodwill: they require research and experiment to facilitate what, in rich countries, is theorised as the beginning of a virtuous cycle of circular economy. 

Ultimately, the reasoning goes, this would offer dignified solutions to the needs of disadvantaged populations, contributing to their removal from a condition of dependency, beyond a set of emergency responses. Collectif Saga worked together with communities and clients, running workshops both before and during the construction, which will have had some positive impact in offering skills training. Xolani Siwa, who runs the Lim’uphile Co-op, speaks about the opportunistic attempt by some donor organisations to take ownership of completed, successful, projects, in contrast to Collectif Saga, who ‘promised and delivered’. However, the financial struggle at the root of these projects objectively challenges processes of innovation. Notions of degrowth developed in the Northern Hemisphere need to be carefully adapted to legitimate aspirations of the Global South. 

‘Such “short-term” projects bring into sharp relief the care needed to ensure the proper functionality and longevity of buildings made of waste’

The reused components form the material basis of many examples that have captured the public eye, including the Follies in the Veld series by young South African firm theMAAK. These are predominantly ephemeral projects, installations more than buildings. The ludic intent behind the Follies allows the architects to not consider long-term duration, and instead focus on spatial invention. Such ‘short-term’ projects bring into sharp relief the care needed to ensure the proper functionality and longevity of buildings made of waste.

This leaves one wondering if the rationale for the use of waste as primary building material risks remaining a trend, a style that architects adopt to exhibit an innovative approach, or if it really can become an instrument of genuine innovation in economic, social and environmental terms, with a particular focus on the relationship between humans and their scrap. We must look beyond the simple materialist lens we have been indoctrinated with for so long as a consumer society, and rather think in terms of a more equitable redistribution of resources which, as Moyo notably posited, ‘has to be another, harder, more demanding, more difficult, road’.

Silindokuhle Preschool by Collectif Saga, 2017

A low building with a wavy corrugated steel roof stands at a distance with a tree and rubber tyres filled with plants in the foreground

Credit: Simon Galland

Children sit around on colourful plastic chairs inside the preschool by Collectif Saga

Credit: Simon Galland

The Joe Slovo township, located 25km outside Gqeberha, is a textbook example of the challenges of the post-apartheid ‘rainbow nation’. The settlement was established in 1995 when, immediately after Nelson Mandela’s election, a group of families decided to occupy the empty site, giving them hope for a better future. Experiencing the landscape today tells the story of only partial success. The endless repetition of the government-provided houses alternates with more recent informal settlements. Schools and healthcare centres are few and very far apart from each other. 

Patricia Piyani lives in Joe Slovo and established the NPO Silindokuhle in 2010, and Collectif Saga were given the opportunity to be a part of the project in 2016. By exploiting the natural slope of the terrain, the three-classroom block hovers above the ground by means of 48 footings that support a floor of recycled timber sections. Emerging from this platform are ranks of eucalyptus poles, cut in a nearby forest, which were then dried, burnt and painted with linseed oil, in order to avoid any chemical treatment. The two separate roof sheet layers, an external curved one that provides rigidity, and an internal flat one acting as weather barrier, are carried by trusses. Around the perimeter of the building, a curtain wall assembly organises different layers of transparency and permeability.

The entrance to the preschool has corrugated cladding, both opaque and transparent, set over a timber frame

Credit: Simon Galland

Plans and section of Silindokuhle Preschool by Collectif Saga

Click to download drawings

Walmer Crèche by Simon Galland with LYT Architecture, 2019

A raised structure is clad with reused, lapped timber tiles, with many painted in different colours

Credit: Joubert Loots

The crèche seen from the inside shows that timber pallets have been used to make the walls, with a corrugated plastic strip below the roof to introduce daylight

Credit: Joubert Loots

A structure on stilts emerges from the landscape of the Walmer township. Little of what is happening inside is revealed when approaching it: the building is raised off the ground, its walls clad in wooden shingles – recycled floorboards – punctuated by sash windows glazed with corrugated polycarbonate sheets. The walls are crowned with a clerestory of the same polycarbonate sheets.

An entrance ramp leads to a terrace located at the back of the building where a large pivoting door opens on to the inside. Here, the hustle and bustle of children and their teachers engaging with early childhood development is a complete surprise. Recycled timber pallets are organised within the structural grid produced by the vertical steel I-beams and provide a rhythm to the interior. The irregularity and slight differences in texture and colouring of the timber creates a soothing backdrop with positive thermal and acoustic properties, while the crown of polycarbonate sheets allows diffuse light to filter under the wooden roof structure and metal roof sheets.  

The physical detachment of the room from the ground speaks to the distance it creates in the experience of children – removing them, at least for a few hours each day, from the precariousness of their surroundings, as they receive nutrition and education as part of a community help programme.

Plan and section of Walmer Crèche Simon Galland with LYT Architecture

Click to download drawings

Walmer Crèche by Simon Galland with LYT Architecture under construction, showing the timber pallets

Credit: Simon Galland

Stacks of shingles made of reused floorboards

Credit: Simon Galland

Lim’uphile Co-op by Collectif Saga, 2020

The training hall of the Lim'uphile Co-op by Collectif Saga is made from recycled tubular steel arches

The training hall of the Lim’uphile Co-op by Collectif Saga is made from recycled tubular steel arches

Credit:Collectif Saga

The training hall of the Lim'uphile Co-op by Collectif Saga is made from recycled tubular steel arches

Credit: Collectif Saga

The plant nursery of the Lim'uphile Co-op by Collectif Saga is a transparent semi-cylindrical structure, similar to a plasticulture tent

The plant nursery of the Lim’uphile Co-op

Credit:Johan Bardenhorst

Borrowing similar motifs is the more recent construction of the Lim’uphile Co-op, in Walmer, a township closer to Gqeberha’s centre, completed in 2020. On the western edge of the township lies the Sakhasonke Village, a settlement of more than 300 units initiated in 2002 by the General Motors South Africa Foundation. Resident Xolani Siwa set up the Lim’uphile Agricultural Organisation and acquired ownership of a 1500m2 former brownfield plot tucked on to the edge of the village. Here, Siwa grows and sells affordable vegetables, promoting better nutrition.

2021Collectif Saga met him in 2018, and partnered with his NPO by assisting in the design and construction of their facilities. Comprising a training hall and plant nursery, shop and kitchen, and a sanitation block, the programme is broken down into distinct buildings that are all different, but born out of a similar logic to Silindokuhle. The result  is a bricolage of sorts, stemming from what was found onsite, namely an old shipping container and some greenhouse tubular elements. The structural framework acts as a loom, interweaving the different recycled materials. Although completed three years later than the preschool, the external envelope here already appears brittle: the corrugated polycarbonate sheeting, the pallet wood shingles and the carpet cladding all show signs of weathering.

Plans and sections of the Lim’uphile Co-op by Collectif Saga

Click to download drawings

The shop and café of the Lim'uphile Co-op are constructed from timber pallets, polycarbonate and carpet tiles

The shop and café of the Lim’uphile Co-op are constructed from timber pallets, polycarbonate
and carpet tiles

Credit:Collectif Saga

Lim’uphile Co-op stands behind rows of planted vegetables and rubber tires

The Lim’uphile Co-op stands as evidence that life can grow among discarded materials; Walmer resident Xolani Siwa sells vegetables grown in a garden created on a previously brownfield plot, between buildings constructed from recycled waste

Credit:Collectif Saga

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