‘THE AESTHETIC OF WASTE’ (AHRC Funded research project: 2008-2011)

A research project that examines mineral waste as a potential alternative to traditional construction materials.
By David Binns & Dr Alasdair Bremner

The relentless demand for new buildings and related architectural materials is placing unsustainable demands on the finiteness of many mineral resources. Simultaneously, higher standards of living are creating ever greater amounts of waste material that more often than not end life as landfill.
Whilst the arguments for embedding sustainability throughout the construction industry are well established and firmly embedded in the consciousness of architects and designers, it often conflicts with their hunger for materials that offer new aesthetic properties. It is therefore becoming increasingly important that alternative products are developed that both offer a new aesthetic and are less reliant on virgin raw materials.
David Binns and Dr Alasdair Bremner, researchers based in the School of Design at the University of Central Lancashire (UCLAN), in Preston, UK, are currently addressing this issue, through a research project funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC). They are developing a new material endowed with a number of properties that suggest it could be a viable sustainable alternative to conventional facing bricks, clay tiles and imported quarried dimension stone, i.e. Granite or Marble. Quarried dimension stone, for a number of reasons unless sourced locally, is often unsustainable. Stone extraction incurs impacts to habitats in and around the quarry site. Vegetation, soil and rock overburden are removed to expose the stone deposits underneath, resulting in often severe damage to ecological habitats in the mine area. Utilizing a variety of mineral waste streams, such as existing quarry and stone finishing waste, together with industrial waste from the ceramic and steel industries, this product would alleviate reliance on high volumes of virgin stone.
The research initially involved introducing small amounts of recyclate into conventional clay forming processes. It gradually became apparent that more and more waste material could be added, to the point whereupon the waste element had become the dominant component, making it possible to produce a material that was made from 100% reconstituted waste. As testing progressed, the researchers found the new material not only had unique aesthetic qualities, but also appeared to be highly durable, with functional properties that suggest application within a variety of architectural contexts, such as cladding sheets, facing bricks, tiling systems and work-surfaces.
The process involves sintering materials such as recycled container glass, waste from the tableware and sanitary-ware industries, steel smelting, coal fired power stations and ash from incinerated domestic waste. Currently within the UK only 33% (Approx 460,000 tonnes) of manufactured glass is recycled, the majority of which manifests as low value products, such as drainage backfill, shot-blasting abrasive or fiber-glass production. The functional and aesthetic properties of the material outlined here provide a potentially ‘high value’ application of waste container glass. Furthermore, the low temperature sintering process avoids any toxic, synthetic polymers, common to many current composite products.

Aesthetics materiality and ‘place’
As well as providing a sustainable alternative to traditional stone cladding, the material offers a number of other unique aesthetic attributes. Materials have philosophically and historically engendered a strong association with ‘place’, the origins and configuration of such materials being increasingly germane to genuine sustainable aspirations. Traditionally, the majority of construction materials were sourced locally to the site of construction; not only meaning minimal energy was required to transport the materials, but use of local materials (stone in particular), imparted a unique aesthetic character to any given location, strengthening the sense or identity of place. Using local materials therefore, clearly plays a crucial role in helping characterize “placeness”, contrasting with repeated use of the same imported stone that offers no localized identity, rather creating a repetitive, bland uniformity across many developments; hopefully avoiding the concerns of the architect Juhani Pallasmaa (2000): “…the tendency of technological culture to standardize environmental conditions and make the environment entirely predictable is causing a serious sensory impoverishment”. Mineral waste sourced on-site or close by, e.g. damaged stone or masonry from demolished buildings, may form up to 50% of the total primary aggregate within the composite. Utilizing local mineral waste promotes a meaningful visual and philosophical connection between materiality and place, enhancing notions of identity and ownership, whilst also avoiding ‘standardization’ and resolving the embodied energy related drawbacks of imported materials.
The aesthetic properties of the material are unique. Colour and texture can be engineered to a clients specific requirements; to either blend or contrast with existing materials, fine or course in texture or embedded with of larger ‘decorative’ fragments of mineral waste. The creative potential of the material for architects and designers is further enhanced, as the material can be made in a variety of bespoke shapes, either during the initial forming process, or through machining, post production.

The researchers have found that any second-quality casts or waste trimmings and sludges from machining may be directly returned into the production process, avoiding any manufacturing waste, thus satisfying the desirable objective of ‘closed-loop’ manufacturing. Through testing, the material has been shown to have a life cycle similar to existing construction materials such as common brick. If however dismantling was necessary, the product may either be re-used or easily recycled. This would entail simply re-introducing it into the original manufacturing cycle as a raw material rather than the more common process of ‘downcycling’ to less valuable products; further enhancing the eco-credentials of the materials.
Whilst the material will inevitably incur energy consumption within production – transportation of waste to point of manufacture, processing and return to site, the embodied energy is predicted to be significantly lower than imported stone, with the advantage of zero production waste.
A recent outcome of the research involved an invitation to participate in two international design exhibitions, curated by the internationally renowned artist/designer Marek Cecula. The exhibitions titled ‘Object Factory’, were hosted by the Gardiner Museum, in Toronto, Canada and the New York Museum of Design (MAD) in 2009. The aim of the exhibitions was to examine the emerging dynamic relationship between craft, design and industry and recent innovations in ceramic materials. In the catalogue accompanying the exhibition Cecula summarized the emerging research of Binns and Bremner: “Art and technology are forming a new layer on the landscape of culture. The fusion of disciplines is melting the ice between traditional divisions and liberating fresh forms. Meaning and image mix and collide in an elixir, brewing a potent concoction of new concepts”.
The researchers developed a range of prototype samples that demonstrate the potential of this new material. These were shown at 100% Design, an international contemporary design exhibition, held at Earls court in London.
It is the researchers hope that this material may offer architects and designers, the opportunity to introduce a durable, versatile material, with considerable eco-credentials, that has unique aesthetic properties and forges a strong link between material and place. With the hope this new material may re-awaken an appreciation of materiality, we return to architect Pallasmaa’s 1999 RIBA Discourse Lecture. He began his lecture stating “Materials and surfaces have a richly complex language of their own that evolves and changes over time” – suggesting the importance of embracing new materials and concluded by stating: ‘The task of responsible architects is to provide resistance to current cultural erosion and to replant buildings and cities in an authentic existential and experiential soil”.

Pallasmaa, Juhani 2000
Hapacity and time: Notes on fragile architecture
Architectural Review 2000
Vol 207 Issue 1239