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Recycling – architecture

Architectural strategies for environmental support

Of the numerous semantic declinations of recycling, some being extremely bizarre and inconsistent, there is one that deserves special attention because it is applicable to architecture. I am referring to recycling as an action applied to those buildings with no ‘cultural’ value, where the drop in efficiency in functional (a use that is no longer requested by the market), distributional (lack of surfaces and their exposure), regulatory (fire-prevention requisites) or energetic terms, partly or wholly, is not associated to a loss in economic value. A process that extends the building’s life cycle and satisfies sustainability goals (economic and environmental) by savings in the use of materials and energy.
The prodromes of these strategies date back to ancient history, the Marcello Theatre, and the Renaissance, with the Palladian Basilica.
The Agenda 21 document, which was issued during the Earth Summit in Rio at the beginning of the Nineties, for the first time combined building recovery and sustainable development. Thus a cultural strategy rather than technical, which, on one hands, wants to narrow the building work to converting the construction, avoiding the rapacious “eating up of the land”, and limiting or deleting totally any form of uncontrolled urban expansion, typical of recent decades. On the other hand it wants to develop an idea of urban ecology based on environmental sustainability and energy saving.
This new emergency is translated into prescription and performance guidelines by the environmental sustainability certificates related to the various protocols. These include the ITACA protocol, which is used as a tool for certifying the environmental sustainability level of buildings with different uses, and it was chosen in 2002 as the reference protocol for the Italian regions: a federation of evaluation protocols which have a common method and technical-scientific requirements, that have been conceived to enable declining the specific territorial features of the regions, while maintaining the same structure, with a system of marks and weighing given that Italy contains a number of different climatic profiles and construction methods.
The environmental sustainability protocols allocate high marks if previous buildings are used again and if recyclable or dismountable materials are used: which makes recycling actions an advanced frontier in architectural culture and practice, and therefore steel becomes one of the leading materials being recyclable and dismountable par excellence.
At different levels, recycling involves both historic centres and, to a greater extent, the suburbs. Buildings and areas which were originally for residential, production, crafts, commercial use take on new conversion potential, ready to welcome a new project declination according to specific strategies and actions, which are able to reconvert their functions and improve both the constructions and relics in the town. If this action is carried out in various parts of the town it becomes urban recycling.
In terms of architecture conversion potential, given the requests for economic, environmental and energetic sustainability, becomes the engine for new planning strategies. Additive strategies (negative even), endogenous strategies (converting the interiors), energy strategies (introducing green-building devices) are the main actions that define the architectural approach. The new functional, energy, sustainability needs can take on an outils role according to the construction and plant technology that are requested by the new energy and environment standards, functions that the project transforms into architectural expression.
According to the changed strategy of restoration science, the additional parts and profiles follow the principle of recognisability, acting in “contrast” with respect to the original form. An action addressed to introduce a stratification of work to each single case, where the addition is clearly distinguishable for its form and materials, often playing on the lightness of the additional parts by using steel and glass, according to intentions and stylist features derived directly from the technology of these materials: the joint and node thus become necessary elements in the architectural language .
Vice-versa we also see this strategy of stratification applied endogenously by converting the interiors of the building, introducing elements that are linear or composed according to the “box in a box” logic.
Some of the most significant planning strategies are those using energy control devices as new architectural figures: I am talking about solar and microclimate control devices, able to better exploit the climatic and environmental features of the site and, in particular, the passive energy contributions and the control of air, light and energy exchange flows between the inside and out, to reduce the contribution of plant powered by new renewable energy to a minimum, and create high level interior comfort. Solar greenhouses, thermal fireplaces, etc., all actively contribute to heating the building in the winter and cooling it in the summer. Various phenomena of heat storage/disposal are triggered, with bioclimatic functions that are able to establish unusual organisation of the volumes and space inside the buildings, often underlined by hanging gardens or spaces that run the entire height of the building.
These processes are ordered under the sign of reversibility and special importance is also given to the S/C technology (Structure/Cladding), according to the dry construction methods , where the particular mechanical or gravity fixings between the parts mean they are easy to maintain or replace over the years, and therefore can be completely recovered at the end of the building’s life cycle. Steel is perfect for this construction principle, shown in the assembly of the components, whether they are simple (standard profiles) or complex (panels and closings), as the main aspects of architectural expression.
Calvino wrote : “A certain number of objects move within a certain space, now submerged by a quantity of new objects, now being consumed without exchange; the rule is to mix them each time and try to put them together”.
In our current urban landscape, which is no longer a city but a non-place, sprawl, exurbia, excity, etc., architecture, as the cognitive action of reality: reality of technique in its structural, constructive, plant (energy) dimension, but also regulatory, economic and productive meaning, must be able, by avoiding the fall into the net of global marketing that declasses the form to a simple cosmetic logo-image, to translate the new sustainability and energy saving aspects into technical expression, as the fundamental requests and needs of the project. Reconnecting the buildings to the locations (facts of memory but not always history), reinventing energy consumer buildings into mechanisms for a new urban function. “Form follows energy” (to paraphrase Sullivan).

By Diego De Nardi

Acciaio Arte Architettura 56