How to recycle a 14-story office tower

When the Dutch National Bank moved into its Amsterdam headquarters in 1968, the new buildings were epic and stylish. A sprawling modernist landmark that took up an entire city block off the banks of the Amstel Canal, it was distinguished by a towering high-rise of polished ocher tile. Surrounding the tower were low-slung offices raised on columns, giving the impression that the whole complex was hovering, monumental and airy, just above the ground. In 1991, when more office space was needed, a second tower was built. This one, cylindrical and swathed in bluish glass, earned the nickname “the cigarette lighter” for the slanted roof that looked as if it could be flicked on.

People either loved or hated working in the cigarette lighter, with its blue-tinted offices, carpeted in gray, that splayed out from a curving central hallway like slices of pie. Eventually, though, opinions didn’t matter. A couple of decades into the new millennium, the entire complex began to show signs of wear. Tiles fell off the facade. Pipes began to leak. And, perhaps most troubling in a country that prizes itself on environmental innovation, its overextended heating systems burned too much fuel. In 2020, an architecture firm completed a design plan that would update the original structures and transform the inner courtyard into a public garden. The plan did not include the cigarette lighter. Twenty years after it had been tacked on, it had exhausted its function. It would have to go.

Typically, the fate of a building that has outlasted its usefulness is demolition, leaving behind a huge pile of waste.

When the cigarette lighter’s time came, a Dutch environmental engineer named Michel Baars thought he could do better. The cigarette lighter, he thought, could live on as itself, rebuilt.

Lean and no-nonsense, Baars belongs to an emerging group of architects, engineers and designers who share a philosophy rooted in a set of ideas sometimes called the circular or regenerative economy, the cradle-to-cradle approach or the donut economy. There are two main tenets to their thinking: First, on a planet with limited resources and a rapidly warming climate, it’s crazy to throw stuff away; second, products should be designed with reuse in mind. The first idea is a recognizable part of our everyday lives: Recycling has retrieved value from household trash for a long time. The second takes more forethought and would require companies to rethink their businesses in the most basic ways. Translating either concept to the infrastructure of human settlements requires considering reuse in much longer time scales.

Edifices are supposed to embody progress. In stone, steel, glass or concrete, each generation makes its mark on the future. And the need for houses and other buildings is obvious as the world’s population grows. For the next four decades, built space on the order of the square footage of another New York City will be added to the planet every month. But buildings use a prodigious amount of raw materials and are responsible for nearly 40% of the world’s climate emissions, half of which is generated by their construction. The production of cement is alone responsible for 8% of global emissions.

Perhaps no country has committed itself as deeply to circular policies as the Netherlands. In 2016, the national government announced that it would have a waste-free economy by 2050. At the same time, the country held the rotating Council of the European Union presidency, and it made circularity one of the main concepts driving the industrial sector across the bloc. Amsterdam’s city government has set its own goals, announcing plans to start building one-fifth of new housing with wood or bio-based material by 2025 and halve the use of raw materials by 2030.

Even in the Netherlands, though, creating a truly circular economy is challenging. Nearly half of all waste in the country comes from construction and demolition, according to national statistics, and a stunning 97% of that waste was classified as “recovered” in 2018. But most of the recovered waste is downcycled — that is, crushed into roads or incinerated to produce energy. A 2020 report by the European Environment Agency pointed out that only 3%-4% of material in new Dutch construction was reused in its original form, which means that trees are still being cut for lumber and limestone still mined for cement.

Baars, who runs a circular demolition company called New Horizon, sent a crew of around 15 people to take down the office partitions. They packed off interior glass and plasterboard to companies that could make use of the materials. Then, starting at the top of the 86,000-square-foot tower, they began removing the glass facade. A crane lifted pieces to a quay, where they were loaded onto barges in the Amstel Canal for the 7-mile trip upriver to Baars’ warehouse. Once the crew hit the building’s concrete-and-steel skeleton, it used high-pressure water and diamond saws to slice through columns, floors and a thick inner pillar that ran through the spine of the building. The pillar gave way like soft cheese.

Circularity emphasizes the composition of things, rather than their use, suggesting that anything made thoughtfully enough can endure infinitely or proffer its molecules for breakdown and reorganization. Waste need not exist, and creating a new kind of material bounty, its proponents suggest, is a matter of design.

Where everything is on loan

The roots of circular economy thinking go back to at least the 1960s, when researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology developed a computer model called World3. The effort was intended to simulate the long-term consequences of things like population growth, industrialization and the use of natural resources. In their 1972 book, “The Limits to Growth,” the researchers warned that unless mankind changed the way it used and consumed material goods on a global scale, civilization would likely collapse before 2070. That, along with the first images of Earth from space and Rachel Carson’s iconic 1962 book, “Silent Spring,” inspired an environmental ethos based on understanding the planet as one big system.

In 2002, William McDonough, an architect, and Michael Braungart, a chemist, published a book called “Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things,” in which they argued that biological materials, which can be composted, should be kept separate from minerals and metals, which can be reused. The book became a touchstone for a certain kind of forward-thinking architect.

In part, they were responding to the increasingly complex nature of materials. In the early 20th century, the oil and gas industry began to use the chemical byproducts of their refining processes to develop things like plastic polymers. Insulation, varnishes, sealants, piping, pigments, fireproofing material — all contain such compounds; nearly 20% of plastic goes to the building industry.

As a result, in many quarters, the emphasis has shifted to designing structures whose components can be disassembled and developing new, bio-based materials that can eventually be composted.

Circularity is not just about materials, its advocates say, but also about how the economy is structured. Kate Raworth, a British economist and Oxford University professor who took aim at traditional economic growth models in her 2017 book, “Doughnut Economics: Seven Ways to Think Like a 21st-Century Economist,” has argued that it is impossible to achieve structural change without also rearranging basic assumptions of how production and consumption are incentivized. She is now working with Amsterdam officials on the city’s circular plan.

And in 2015, Thomas Rau, an architect in Amsterdam, appeared in a Dutch documentary called “The End of Ownership,” arguing that if manufacturers retain ownership of their products, they will want to make products that last longer and need fewer repairs. Just as significant, they will want to design stuff that can be easily taken apart and used again.

One of Rau’s first publicly praised projects was the renovation of a terminal of the Schiphol airport in Amsterdam. He approached Philips, the technology and lighting conglomerate, with an unusual proposal. Rather than supply physical light bulbs, Philips would provide light as a service. Over 15 years, the airport would pay Philips a regular fee for a certain amount of light. Philips would own the equipment, including the light bulbs, and obtain and pay for the electricity. The lighting contract ended up saving 50% in energy consumption, and Philips, which now markets similar service contracts under the name Signify, said its circular bulbs last 75% longer than traditional ones do.

Cigarette lighter’s rebirth

When Baars started his company, in 2015, he wasn’t really sure what he was doing. He started soliciting demolition projects with the guarantee that his work would not cost more than competitors’ and with a vague promise to do something circular with the stuff. Slowly, policies aimed at curbing carbon emissions began to work in his favor.

When regulations drove up the costs for gas-fired brick making, a prominent facade and roofing manufacturer reached out to Baars to obtain ceramics reclaimed from old buildings. When the Dutch government announced that it would phase out coal-fired power plants, Baars realized that gypsum manufacturers, which use the sulfur byproduct of coal production, would run into sourcing problems. Gypsum is found in most plaster, so he started collecting salvaged plaster material from demolition sites. It took three years to get approval from the Dutch government to sell what it considered waste, he said. But now he is selling the gypsum. “I don’t think it’s waste,” he said. “It’s just material.”

Recasting waste as material as a matter of policy, though, is complicated. In February, the city released some data about its circularity plan. The tone was self-critical. The city found it was using more raw materials than had previously been assumed. It also pointed out that the city could be doing a much better job reusing materials from demolition projects in new construction.

In the circular dream, nothing gets lost or discarded, waste gathers in specialized workshops to be remade and designed in the future, building materials fade into the environments they were derived from, and the concept of ownership gives way to best use. The obstacles to that dream — standardized building components made with composite materials, rigid supply chains, laws and contracts — are a long way from vanishing.

Baars led me along the quay off the North Sea Canal as tractors trundled by, walking from the concrete reprocessing factory to an enormous, adjacent warehouse. Inside were the remnants of the cigarette lighter, shorn concrete panels neatly stacked to form aisles. “We’re creating a new building from it,” Baars said. Together with a project development company called REBORN, Baars is providing the material for an elder-care center for a large health care company. This is what Baars sees when he looks out into the city: Within the decaying buildings and aging infrastructure are the raw materials for another life.

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