The house that junk built

Could the answer to the housing crisis lie in a load of old rubbish?

The phrase waste not want not has taken on a whole new meaning at the University of Brighton which has unveiled Britain’s first A* energy-efficient rated house made almost entirely of rubbish.

Around 19,800 old toothbrushes, two tonnes of denim jeans, 4,000 video cassettes, and 2,000 used carpet tiles were used to build the Brighton Waste House alongside pieces of polystyrene, bicycle inner tubes and old coffee cup grinds which were turned into a kitchen worktop. Discarded construction materials were also used including thrown-away concrete blocks, timber, ply and vinyl banners.

The house in the university grounds is the brainchild of lecturer Duncan Baker-Brown, who worked alongside TV designer and presenter Kevin McCloud on a similar build in London for a TV programme in 2008.

The scheme involves Brighton and Hove City Council, The Mears Group, City College Brighton and Hove, South Downs Solar, which is providing solar panels, Westgate Joinery (triple-glazed windows and doors), Work This Way, a charity and social enterprise company which provides training and employment opportunities for prison inmates, internet-based reuse organisation FREEGLE UK and a host of private companies.

The construction industry discards 20 per cent of everything it uses – the equivalent of scrapping one in five houses built – and the aim of the project is to show how low-carbon homes can be built cheaply and quickly using waste including surplus material from building sites.

“The building is literally locking in waste rather than having it burnt, buried into landfill sites or dumped in the ocean,” explains Baker-Brown. Students, apprentices, local builders and school children took part in the construction.

Several departments from City College Brighton and Hove’s Building Trades area have been involved in the project, covering skills such as bricklaying, carpentry, electrical, plumbing and painting and decorating and the university’s Faculty of Art’s architecture students have been involved in the construction process while interior architecture students have advised on internal design.

“This is a ‘live’ research project and permanent new design workshop focused on sustainable development designed with the help of undergraduate students,” says Baker-Brown. “It was built by apprentices from The Mears Group, students from City College Brighton & Hove and the university’s Faculty of Arts as well as volunteers.

“The house is the first permanent building in the UK to be constructed from waste, surplus material and discarded plastic gathered from the construction industry, other industries and our homes. The idea, developed with FREEGLE UK, is to test the performance of these undervalued resources over the next few years; the university’s Faculty of Science & Engineering has put sensors in the external walls to monitor their performance.”

The house will be used as an exhibition and workshop space by local community groups and as the university’s headquarters for sustainable design. It will showcase new technologies and will continue to be retrofitted, allowing designers and students to test their windows, solar panels, insulation and construction materials.

David Pendegrass, project manager with Mears, said: “We are testing the toothbrushes and other thrown away items for their insulation qualities. We’re also testing chalk – a lorry-load was heading for a landfill site but we diverted it here, mixed it with water, compacted it and, so far, it has proved a great insulating material.

“The Waste House is a unique project which provides a once-in-a-life-time opportunity for our apprentices to be at the forefront of sustainable development and will create a legacy for future generations.”

New energy-saving devices and construction methods will be added to it as new breakthroughs are discovered. The effectiveness of solar panels and thermal insulation will be monitored by university students from the School of Environment and Technology.

Digital media will be used as part of the learning process. A dedicated Faculty of Arts website is preserving all aspects of the project while apps and QR (Quick Response) codes will be developed to inform people about how each area of the house was constructed.

“This research will inform developments in the construction industry and in the design of houses of the future, and the building will have its own street entrance – putting the house at the heart of the community,” said Baker-Brown.

“Reusing waste saves money for big businesses as well as small, and it relieves pressure on our planet. There really is no such thing as waste or surplus material and reusing it saves the environment by reducing the need to mine so much raw material in the first place.

“This is good news for all industries that make things because the cost of raw material and the price of throwing things away is skyrocketing. Businesses can’t afford to keep throwing stuff away and those who start reusing waste will be more likely to survive in the ever-tougher commercial marketplace.”

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Lessons to be learned

Britain’s housing industry should learn from the waste house said Brighton’s Green MP Caroline Lucas during a visit to the University of Brighton’s Grand Parade campus.

She was shown around the award-winning house by its architect, university lecturer Duncan Baker-Brown.

“The housing industry is decades behind where best practice is and I think the real challenge of this waste house is for it not to be seen as a one off example but actually to be paving the way in what has to be mainstream. This is the way we are going to have to build in the future if we are serious about living within the resources of one planet earth,” said Lucas.

“The housing industry has a huge amount to catch up on. For every five houses currently being built enough waste is created to build one extra house – most people understand that this makes absolutely no sense at all. The housing industry has got to get its act together.

“The university’s research associated with this waste house is incredibly important because it demonstrates empirically how waste can be reused and recycled. It demonstrates that there is no such thing as rubbish, just things in the wrong place.

“It demonstrates that one can build in an economic way that is absolutely in tune with the environment. Anyone who thinks there is some kind of contradiction between putting the environment first or putting the economy first is mistaken.

“This house demonstrates, by its very existence and the way it was put together, that the environmental case is the same as the economic case. Both can be met at the same time.”