Lease your facade

Schuco E2 Energy Facade (Copyright Schuco)
E2 Energy Facade (Copyright Schüco) (click-2-enlarge) 

“We should see a product as a service”, William McDonough explained at his lecture a week ago in Rotterdam. As owner of a building you shouldn’t buy the glass for your façade; you should lease it. You can already rent your glass from a manufacturer like Schüco. When you no longer need the glass, the manufacturer takes it back to recycle it.

“A building should be taken apart, instead of destroying it”, William McDonough continued. To close the industrial cycle of a material, going from cradle to cradle to cradle, we should aim to return the material to where it came from: the manufacturer. Leasing a product is one option. A  ‘collector’s fee’ when the product is returned to the factory is also an option.

William McDonough said he is currently working on closing the industrial cycle of concrete. If there is one building material that has never been properly recycled, it Is concrete. At best old concrete is downcycled in new concrete or grained for roadfoundations.

Because concrete cannot be recycled, in the Netherlands a practice has emerged to re-use old concrete frames. The Kraanspoor building in Amsterdam is one example. The Ministry of Health in The Hague is another one. But there are many more, like the headquarters of the World Wildlife Foundation in Zeist. Even modernist housing slabs are being re-used. And not because it is cheaper, as it isn’t, but because of the environment.

There is another, just as significant, aspect to the re-use of old concrete frames and that is the cultural dimension. By re-appropriating an old frame, you literally build on the past. There is cultural continuity. As we saw for instance at the E2 Design series at PBS, narrated by Brad Pitt, sustainability goes hand in hand with cultural conservatism. I think that is a good thing.

The challenge is “to become native to a place”, William McDonough noted. “Americans were used to move when an area was polluted.” But the world has become too small for that. “We should now design for multiple generations, because: we are not leaving.”

And if you are not designing for a century, you should design for the lifecycle of the product, McDonough said: when a product is meant to last 1 day, don’t design it to last for years. It was funny for McDonough to say this. In architecture, it happens the other way around too. McDonough gave his lecture via a video-link in the early modernist Van Nelle Factory in Rotterdam. The building wasn’t designed to last this long, but has been completely restored for its cultural value.

Since we saw the earth from the moon, we look at it differently. “We control the planet”, William McDonough concluded. That brought him to the main question he asked the audience: “What is our intention as species?”

He answered the question himself: “We should love all the children of all species in all times.” It sounds like a United Nations resolution. The point is to set positive goals for the future, McDonough stressed. We want our future to be healthy, ecological, and everything. The future is bright!

A comfortable and ecological life is possible when we close the industrial cycles. An interesting example in this is the Celle chair by manufacturer Herman Miller that can be taken apart in less than 5 minutes. All materials can easily be separated to be individually recycled. The design had another advantage: it is easier to assemble too.

At the end of the an architect from the audience said that he is currently working on social housing in the city of Delft in which energy saving installations, warmth pumps in this case, were only feasible because they could lease them from the manufacturer.

One of the fastest growing personal computer companies in the Netherlands is a company that recycles old computers. After reassembling the working parts, they ship the second hand computers to Eastern Europe. To be able to better control the quality of the computers they recycle, the company recently expanded their business to the start of the lifecycle: the acquiring of the computers. Major government agencies and multinationals now lease their computers from this company.

My question: why don’t multinationals like Apple or Dell recycle the computers themselves? How long does it take for them to wake up and smell the business? Because if there is one thing that is becoming clear, it the fact that cradle to cradle is good for business. “The Green Economy means jobs”, in the words of William McDonough.

Will it in the future be possible to lease most of the things you now need to own? It is already possible to lease your printer, to lease your air-conditioning, to lease your furniture, to lease you carpet and to lease your art on the walls. It is also already possible to lease the site of your building, to lease the PV-cells on your roof and to rent your glass. Will it in the future be possible to lease the concrete framing of your building and to lease the façade?


Van Nelle Factory (Photographer: Pieter Musterd / Flickr)
Van Nelle Factory (Photographer: Pieter Musterd/Flickr) (click-2-enlarge)


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