Interview by Rory Stott
MVRDV founding partner Jacob van Rijs has long been a strong advocate for reuse in architecture. He believes that both repurposing existing buildings and designing new buildings so that they can be reused in future are crucial in making the construction industry more sustainable. Jacob and founding partner Nathalie de Vries together led the design team for MVRDV’s first completed transformation project, the Lloyd Hotel; Van Rijs also led the transformation of a modernist industrial building into MVRDV’s Rotterdam headquarters, the MVRDV House, among many other notable projects.
To mark MVRDV’s #Reuse Month in July 2021, Jacob discusses the subject in detail – covering everything from his experiences on these projects, his participation in a group that advocates for designing with future reuse in mind, and his thoughts on how changes to legislation and culture could encourage more of this sustainable practice.
Rory Stott: At MVRDV in July we’re having a campaign to talk more about reuse. Our framework for Reuse Month is to consider the topic along a variety of approaches, including reusing existing structures, reusing materials, and designing for future reuse. Could you talk about these different approaches?
Jacob van Rijs: That’s a nice summary. Of course the most sustainable thing you can do is to not build at all, or build less at least. So if you can reuse a previous building in such a way that it can live on for another generation, that might be the best option, and we should always first think: do I really need to demolish?
If you do, then you can think about reusing building materials. It is becoming more and more sensible to do that – and not only for ideological reasons, it also makes sense from a financial point of view. Here the biggest problem to solve would be concrete reuse. There is an advancement in this recently made by a Dutch engineer, who developed a way to take concrete apart into its original components. That procedure allows you to recycle concrete the same as recycling glass.
I think it would be fantastic if technology like that makes it easier to reuse concrete. Now you see when buildings are demolished, they are broken to pieces and they disappear under roads, they get used as just rubble. That approach is wasting very valuable ingredients which you can use in a much more sensible way.
The third topic of future transformations, that’s basically dealing with Open Building, meaning you allow more freedom in the future by making different elements of the building independent from other elements that have a different lifespan. If you think about the design that way from the start, you can easily change parts of the building, like air conditioning or electricity, without messing the whole building up.
Some older buildings had those same qualities without really knowing it. Old factory buildings, for example, were almost like Open Buildings before the concept was developed. If you think about which buildings are actually successful survivors from the past, one thing that they often have in common is that they have more air, they are not just using absolute minimum heights and spaces as tight as possible. Another thing is that they have a certain flexibility in the structure. From this realisation, you can start to imagine certain guidelines that would make future buildings act in a similar way.
Speaking of Open Buildings, you are now part of the Open Building group with other architects and construction professionals in the Netherlands. Could you tell us about that?
The Open Building concept is not so new: it started in the 1960s with N. John Habraken, who approached this from a very technical, but also an ideological point of view. Participation was part of his vision, so that users can add their own layer in the building, personalising the building. So it began as one step away from collaborative design, even before the whole participation movement. I think it is interesting to see what kind of links you can draw from Habraken to various different strategies in architecture today. It has social components, technical components, and it also has an ideological component.
Now we have this initiative by Marc Koehler, an architect from Amsterdam. His background is that he developed this great project, the Superlofts – it’s a system where you have a box 6 metres high, and that shell is optimized with all the main technology, electricity, and water, so that residents can develop their own house. That height gives freedom within the box to include in-between floors, high spaces – it’s very flexible.
So Marc was working with the ideas of Habraken, and he looked at some architects and other people in construction who were kind of aligned. He suggested to make a group to revitalise this idea of Open Building again, so we can develop these ideas more clearly together – in terms of regulations, technologies, contractors, city planning. We are approaching it not only on the detail level and building level, but also on the neighbourhood level, so you can create open cities. Right now unfortunately it is mostly an app group – we don’t come together so often due to the Covid situation. But there is a website and a manifesto, and it is nice to have a network and have these discussions on the topic. This was a very nice initiative from Marc.
One unusual thing about MVRDV’s reuse projects is we typically don’t refer to “renovation” or “restoration”, but instead use the word “transformation”. How do you think MVRDV approaches these transformation projects that might be a little bit different to the rest of the profession?
I think we have the same open-mindedness or slightly radical approach. Architecture is always a bit of a game, mixing interesting ideas and balancing them with the budget. In new projects, sometimes more radical approaches aren’t possible because the budgeting structure does not allow for extra space. But in an existing structure you sometimes have more freedom, because you get that extra space for free. That means different solutions come into the picture that are normally not so common.
When you are dealing with a listed monument or a beautiful old building then it becomes more like restoration or renovation, which is not such a common thing for us to do – even though we did the Lloyd Hotel as one of our first reuse projects. But even there we did something more significant, mostly on the inside, while the outside was treated as a monument. We try to find the freedom and space we can take and turn all our projects into something exciting.
One of the early ones we did, where we realized reuse could be interesting for us, was the Teletech project, which was originally a mustard factory in Dijon. Normally you might think about factory transformations with beautiful structures, big windows, great details. But this factory was only 10 years old and started out as this really ugly building, but it turned out to be a fun thing to do. It was a modest project, so we added stickers on the façade, because that was the only thing we could afford with the money we had left.
After that was the Chungha Building in Korea. That was almost like making a new jacket for a building – the structure and the body of the project is the same, and it is dressed up in a different way. Then there are more substantial transformations that we did, for instance with the Roskilde Festival Højskole in Denmark where we kept the shell, and in an old factory box created this new school.
That is the most sensible thing to do when you want to make sustainable architecture. Because we have built so much in the last 20 years in terms of volume – if we look at the total building volume we more or less built the same amount in the last 20 years as we did in centuries before. Now we have to deal with that stuff, this enormous amount of built mass. Its lifespan has to be extended. There will be a lot of this coming soon.
You mentioned right from the start that the most sustainable approach is not to build at all, or build as little as possible. I wonder if you have an opinion on how people often talk about sustainability? Because often the attention goes to flashy things like solar panels, and there isn’t so much attention for reuse.
In general, I think you should look at the complete life cycle of the project. If you make a new building on a plot where there was another building, you should consider the impact of reusing that building.
We once tried this in a competition for a commercial office for a bank, where we were the only team to keep some of the existing building. Everyone was giving these stories about how green and sustainable they wanted to be, and we said “look, this is how much concrete we avoid demolishing, which equals x amount of CO2, which is the same as the running cost of the office for 40 years”. Ultimately, they didn’t want to do it because… they just didn’t want to do it! They didn’t want to listen, because it is something they didn’t want to hear.
It is also interesting to think of this for a new building. If the core of the structure is good and the structure of the building lives two or three times longer, you can spend more money because it has a longer life span. That’s going to mean less CO2. But this is also a story that many clients don’t want to hear because they are looking only at the first use – because they just want to sell the project or they have an investor, something like that. They are not interested in the second life of the project, because it is not in their benefit. You have to think ahead for 50 years.
Do you think something could be done in terms of legislation? How would you expect it to be done?
The energy regulations would need to be expanded in a way that considers the life span of the building after the first generation. I think right now you have a system like this, more or less, if you buy a fridge. You already have to pay for the waste – taking it apart, recycling it – it’s included in the price. For a building, it is different, but you can imagine that if you build in a way that means you will have to demolish it, it will cost more. On the other hand, if you invest in the future life of the project you might be able to get a discount or something. That would mean for a project’s sustainability package you can look at a much broader picture, and say “I am investing in solar panels” or “I am investing in an Open Building approach”. This could result in more investment into these approaches.
What is your favourite MVRDV project that deals with reuse?
In terms of reuse, I like Seoullo, the Korean highway. On a smaller scale, I also like Roskilde, a concrete factory where the concrete shell was kept – so that’s kind of interesting in itself, that these concrete beams were actually made on the same site. It has a very exciting interior space.
Both of these are examples of very heavy structures: a huge amount of stuff that could have been wasted, which now has a new purpose that was never intended by the people who originally designed it. The total switch of what can be done with something is quite exciting. Transformations are fantastic. It’s like those makeover shows on TV – the before-and-after is always fun to see.