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The house that trash built

Rummaging with intent through other people's trash isn't just for the tabloids. Builders, architects and furniture designers do it too. 
Container City in London was formed by stacking containers to create stylish studio space at a price artists can afford.
Container City in London was formed by stacking containers to create stylish studio space at a price artists can
/ Source: Financial Times

Rummaging with intent through other people's trash isn't just for the tabloids. Builders, architects and furniture designers do it too. 

One man's rubbish has always been another man's building material and it's amazing how innovative we are when it comes to reclaiming, reusing and reinventing. It's gone way beyond peering into skips or cleaning off a few bricks. 

"I wanted to find the cheapest possible way of building artists' accommodation," says Eric Reynolds, managing director of Urban Space Management, the developers. 

He turned to an unlikely material, redundant shipping containers, and devised and built Container City at London's Trinity Buoy Wharf, stacking the containers to create stylish studio space at a price artists could afford. 

Usually scrapped at the end of their useful ocean-going life, shipping containers can be bought for around £750 each. "They're not worth a lot for scrap," Reynolds admits. "There's a lot of air and not much metal." 

As building material, however, they're easy to work with. Cutting porthole windows into the containers creates light, airy living and working space without dramatically reducing the containers' strength. Balconies are created by fixing the container doors open and securing a platform. "Once you're inside there's absolutely no difference between them and any modern building," says Reynolds. "People will soon be living in them all over the country." 

Reclamation of more traditional building materials experienced a renaissance in the late 20th century that continues to grow in scope and sophistication. But anyone keen to do the right thing in the sensitive Noughties needs to differentiate between recycled and reclaimed. 

"We use 'recycled' to mean a new product remanufactured from the feedstock of construction and demolition. We use 'reclaimed' and 'reused' for saving the materials, broadly speaking, for the purpose for which they were originally intended," says Thornton Kay, administrator of the Salvo Code for dealers who buy and sell reclaimed building materials, architectural antiques and antique garden ornaments. 

"Bricks that have been crushed are 'recycled aggregate' or 'recycled bricks', which is bad as it destroys the object, loses the embodied energy and actually increases global warming as it uses energy to crush them. Bricks that have been cleaned and saved for reuse are 'reclaimed bricks', which is good. And people should use lime mortar so that they will be reclaimable in future. 

"Twelve bricks embody the energy of a gallon of petrol," says Kay. "We manufacture 3.5bn new bricks every year in the UK and trash 2.5bn. Around 1bn are crushed and 150m are saved for reuse." 

Our ancestors saved and reused whenever the opportunity presented itself. When Henry VIII turned the monasteries into so much rubble, the locals - whether they mourned the loss of the old religion or not - took the pragmatic view and made off with the masonry, reusing it to build homes that survive as some of our most picturesque. We're increasingly using reclaimed building material, both for renovation and new-build, but unlike those Tudor opportunists we have to pay for it. 

"We were going to use reclaimed bricks but couldn't find enough," says Keith Allan of his new-build home in Northumberland. "And the price was horrendous." He and his partner Lynne Gray, both journalists and broadcasters, also run Woodside Reclamation, and used mainly reclaimed materials from several periods for their new-build project. They were motivated partly by aesthetics and partly by conscience. "We wanted to prove a point because we have an architectural antiques business," he says. 

While it's recognised that reusing old can be more expensive and sometimes more problematic than using new, the government has stepped into the debate. 

Andrew Cripps of engineering consultancy Buro Happold (working in partnership with Salvo) is designing a home as part of a DTI-funded research project on the reuse of building materials. "We are hoping to show just how much can be salvaged from demolitions and reused in a new house, and to encourage others to try to do at least some of the same things," he says. "Nearly everything can be reused in principle but there are a series of barriers to doing it that need to be overcome, particularly relating to how to get hold of what you need when you need it, and the lack of warranties. These barriers must be tackled if reuse is to become more common." 

Sometimes, though, when it comes to reclamation you jus t can't do the right thing. Commercial sign maker Richard Dolby wanted to erect a reclaimed five-bedroom timber-frame kit house on a brown-field site. Retailing at £25,000 and starring as a demonstration home at Earl's Court in 2001, it was heading for the skip. A colleague of Dolby's, alarmed at the waste, persuaded the owners to take it down carefully and number the pieces, then transported it to Devon. "It would have been my dream come true," says Dolby, "but we had planning problems. 

"We wanted to build in a disused quarry and it would have been the perfect project. We'd have used a lot of reclaimed materials, such as sanitary ware and floorboards, and would have had a completely reclaimed home. It would have been rather satisfying as well as politically correct." 

Refused planning and bitterly disappointed, he is now reluctantly selling his dream, complete with architect's plans and engineer's calculations, for £7,500.