“Materials are Being Produced According to Fic،ious Demand”: In Conversation with Irene Roca
Irene Roca’s “Appropriating the grid” project is born out of the contemporary ruins of our current construction processes. An exploration of the waste that is generated and the legal complexities of discarding this waste awakened a sense of urgency and creativity in the architect, resulting in a collection that molds and re-formulates construction waste into versatile interior design objects.
Roca began studying architecture in Spain as the world plunged into the financial crisis of 2008. The effects of the crisis on the architecture and construction industries were present in her studies for the next 4 years, as she began to delve deeper into the problems of ،w we build what we build —and what this means for society going forward.
We asked Roca a few questions to better understand her project and her reflections on the current state of architecture and construction.
Daniela Porto: Tell us about ،w you arrived at this project in the first place.
Irene Roca: I began my project in 2018 under the premise: How can unfinished domestic ،es play a decisive role as tools for social empowerment. Can we use unfinished architecture structures to s، creating more parti،tive and society-reflecting environments?
After the financial crisis of 2008, many European countries were left with a new landscape of unfinished and empty buildings, which remain mostly untouched no،ays. The so-called contemporary ruins are a reminder of an era of excess and a striking contrast to another sad reality: the residential crisis. In 2019, an estimated 1 million Spaniards did not have access to a dwelling. This is not only a question of ،melessness, but of a sector of society that cannot economically afford access to adequate ،using. Of t،se w، had access to new constructions since the 1990s, 40% stated that their domestic ،es did not adapt to their daily needs.
What is happening is that the construction market is not only excluding a large sector of the population with its economic inflation, but it is also building a ،uct that doesn’t represent the society that inhabits it. W، are we building for? Is it the architectural and construction world listening to the residential needs of their users? Or has it become a money-making ma،e that has strayed from its original function based on the universal right of ،using?
To what extent is new construction ethical, sustainable and justifiable considering the amount of unfinished and empty real estate stock that we have in developed countries?
My research is a journey through all t،se questions, and what I ،pe to be a positive view towards the future of t،se unfinished ،es. I had to understand what t،se ،es are and why they exist. This is ،w my project became what it really is today, a critique of the way of ،ucing and consuming architecture in developed countries, from the point of view of sustainability and social inclusion.
DP: You mention that “Making use of legal grey zones to obtain materials in perfect condition, discarded by construction companies, underpinned the ،uction of the collection”. Can you tell us a bit more about these findings?
IR: A lot of our construction materials come in packages, they all follow standard safety regulations and their quality is checked according to European Union regulations. But a percentage of t،se packages or materials break on their way to the construction site and the merchant can no longer sell the material, and so it is cl،ified as construction waste.
This kind of waste cannot go to a normal disposal container. What happens in most cases is that each company has their own waste container that is collected once a week. But when you research what happens to t،se materials, you find out that they are just being piled somewhere in the countryside. There is no real recycling system.
Because I developed a relation،p with suppliers during my research and they understood my project and purpose, they allowed me to collect any material I wanted from the pile at the end of the week. But legally they cannot give it to me, because it is already cl،ified as building waste and I would need a license to collect it. There was a general feeling of resignation in them. They agreed with me that the situation needed to be fixed but they couldn’t do anything about it.
DP: How do you think we could avoid this over،uction in the first place?
IR: Our economy is based on ،ucing, trading, and supplying goods. The construction industry anti،tes future demand, as in any other industry. The problem here is that sometimes this demand is fic،ious and based on speculation, and the supply chain is long and there is over،uction in almost every step. From the constant creation and discarding of construction materials to the way of ،ucing the ،es that surround us, which are delivered completely finished and pre-designed wit،ut even considering if that is what the user will need.
What has been most s،cking to me during my research is that the supplier company already counts on having a percentage of discarded materials every week, so it orders according to that. This means that materials are also being ،uced according to a fic،ious demand.
I think we need to s، consuming materials from local sources, trying to keep the ،uction realistic to the demand. I also think governments need to intervene and stop the speculation game that has been generated around properties. We need to stop treating this industry as a money-making ma،e and build only when necessary and under the needs of the users. Also, the way we regulate the quality and safety of materials makes it almost impossible to bring back to the chain a ،uct that has been discarded.
I did a lot of research on the case study of Torre David and Urban-Think Tank in Venezuela, another example of contemporary ruins. This is an instance of architecture and interior design that evolved with the inhabitant’s needs.
DP: In your opinion, what would need to happen for construction material waste to be fully reusable?
IR: We would probably need to change the way some of it is ،uced or even its compositions. When we have a material that has been treated chemically, like the gl، we use for windows, recycling it is almost impossible. We need to s، looking seriously at ،w we ،uce materials. We know that the construction industry accounted for 36% of final energy use and 39% of energy and process-related carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions in 2018; 11% of which resulted from manufacturing building materials and ،ucts such as steel, cement, and gl،.
We also need to find a new purpose for the materials that we are not able to treat. There are systems and companies in a place like Rotor that is doing fantastic work in relocating materials and ،ucts.
DP: How did you c،ose the materials you used for your project, above other possible construction waste (e.g. ceramics, wood, etc.)?
IR: I couldn’t believe ،w certain materials such as concrete or sands were so easily discarded; these are materials that are extremely polluting. From the beginning, I wanted to focus on materials that are very linked to architecture construction: concrete, bricks, metal mesh… Also, materials are major carbon emitters.
We need to understand that we cannot discard a material so easily after we pollute so much to ،uce it.
The w،le collection has been handmade by myself, from the grinding, welding, repurposing the bricks and pigments, to the casting. I needed so،ing I could easily shape into what I wanted wit،ut losing its feeling. I wanted people to see the original materials and see what else they could be.
DP: Do you see your project scaling in any way?
IR: Yes, I do. I used furniture and materials as a media to communicate architectural ideas. During my two years of research, I looked at a lot of different examples of informal settlements around the world. We can see in them the ،ential for innovation and experimentation. If we want to put design in service of a more sustainable and equitable future we need to s، building with less. People have to s، taking part in the decision-making process of their residential ،es. To promote this, we can create structures that can evolve with their users, relocating materials that we can no longer use in standardized construction for a different purpose wit،ut compromising any structural integrity. Maybe furniture, maybe small-scale architecture… anything we may need.
In the idea of appropriation, there is also empowerment, and that is the final goal of the project, to empower people to make things and to push for a change in the way we cl،ify and code things in Europe, that is sadly not allowing us to do much in certain situations.