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UMAR: Building in the sense of Cradle to Cradle

24-Apr-2019

Unit UMAR at Empa NEST.

Exterior view of Unit UMAR at Empa NEST. Photo: Zooey Braun

Our resources are becoming increasingly scarce. It is not just about oil and gas, but also about various building materials. In addition, the desire to move away from today's throwaway mentality has led the building sector to give more thought to the multiple use and recyclability of materials. How we could deal with the construction of houses in the future, shows the experimental unit UMAR (Urban Mining & Recycling).

UMAR is embedded in the modular research and innovation building NEST on the campus of the Swiss Federal Laboratories for Materials Science and Technology, Empa in Dübendorf, Switzerland. It is a residential module consisting of three rooms. It should show that it is possible to build resource-saving and at the same time to create an appealing architecture.

The bricks of the turning wall in the back are manufactured from mineral demolition waste. Photo: Zooey Braun

The design was made by Prof. Werner Sobek, head of the Institute for Lightweight Design and Design of the University of Stuttgart, in collaboration with Prof. Dirk Hebel and Felix Heisel of the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology. "The ongoing, sustained growth of the global population as well as dwindling resources urgently require us to do some rethinking in the construction industry", says Werner Sobek. "In future, we must reduce our consumption of construction materials and build for many more people."

UMAR tests building with completely reusable, recyclable or compostable materials and products that can be returned to their respective material cycles with unmistakable purity and residue-free. The concept of cycles must plays a central role on the path to more sustainable construction: "The materials that we utilize will not just be used and then disposed of; instead they will be extracted from their cycle and later returned to it", says Dirk E. Hebel in explaining the concept. Thus, a wide variety of serially processed components are used in the “Urban Mining & Recycling” unit; the various materials can be separated, sorted and, without any residues, returned to their respective material cycles.

The UMAR experimental unit is a real laboratory and consists of three rooms. It is temporarily inhabited by two students. Photo: Zooey Brown

The supporting structure and large parts of the façade consist of untreated wood, a material that can be reused or composted after the building is dismantled. "The innovation here lies in the joinings", explains Felix Heisel from KIT. "All joinings can be easily reversed because, for instance, the materials are not glued together but rather tucked, folded, or screwed." The used wood is also applied in such a way that an otherwise standard chemical coating is not necessary anymore, thus making purely type-sorted recycling or purely biological composting feasible. In addition, the edging of the façade is made of repurposed aluminum and copper. Both types of metal can be melted down and recycled according to type. The interior of the unit contains a diverse range of serially manufactured building products whose various constituent materials also can be separated out and sorted before being introduced back into their respective materials cycles without leaving behind any residue or waste. Among the technologies used here are new insulation boards made from mushroom mycelium,, innovative recycled bricks, repurposed insulation materials, leased floor coverings and a multifunctional solar thermal installation.

Working and sleeping in one room: The battery-powered, wireless Roxxane Leggera CL by Nimbus can be simply taken to the bed when needed. Photo: Zooey Braun

The building, which was created on the basis of a modular construction concept, was fully prefabricated and installed in the research building on the Empa campus in Dübendorf in just one day. Afterwards, two students moved into the three-room apartment, which regularly discuss discuss their everyday experiences with the researchers involved. "By implementing and demonstrating the systematic cycle concept in a real-world building project, we of course hope that we can trigger a change in thinking in the construction world", says Enrico Marchesi, Innovation Manager at NEST. "In future, buildings should not only offer residential and work spaces, but also simultaneously serve as material repositories for the next generation."

Visitors can learn about all of the materials and products used in the project at the entrance to the unit and in the dedicated materials library. UMAR is thus not just a material storage, but also a public repository of information that is intended to serve as a model example and a source of inspiration for other building projects. UMAR wants to make a contribution to the paradigm shift that is required in the construction industry. The module functions both as a laboratory and a test run for sustainable building projects and the processes associated with them. In collaboration with partners from the worlds of planning, administration and production, the unit’s goal is to examine resource consumption and the key issues in the construction industry and use its insights to develop a range of innovative tools and approaches.