University of Brighton is one of the English partners of the SB&WRC project. Their deep involvement in alternative building technologies has led to impressive experiments and results that continue to inspire researchers and practitioners. Meet architect and academic Duncan Baker-Brown, head of BBM Sustainable Design, Dr. Ryan Woodard, Senior Research Fellow within the School of Environment and Technology, and Ben Bosence, an expert in building conservation.

From left to right: Duncan Baker-Brown, Dr. Ryan Woodard and Ben Bosence

Tell us a bit about your backgrounds. What is University of Brighton’s experience of bio-based and waste materials?

Duncan Baker-Brown: I’ve been interested in sustainable design since 1990 when I started my Masters in Architecture at The University of Brighton after thinking for some time I might change direction and work for Greenpeace instead. In 1994 I designed and built the RIBA’s ‘House of the Future’ with my partner Ian McKay. That experience allowed us to set up our own practice BBM and start teaching and researching at the University of Brighton. Since then we have focussed on projects testing ideas and concepts informing sustainable development; such as large projects as The Greenwich Millennium Village, or more modest in scale such as the UK’s first public building made of straw The Romney Warren Visitor’s Centre. By 2008 BBM felt we had enough projects focussed on utilising locally-grown organic non-toxic material that we had an exhibition at RIBA HQ called ‘Built Ecologies: turning landscape into architecture’. That was also the year we built ‘The House that Kevin Built’ (THTKB) where we were challenged to construct a A+ rated dwelling using as much grown material as possible. We were successful, and the ground floor of ‘THTKB’ now resides down with our Interreg partners at the University of Bath.  So we have lots of experience in building with bio-based materials, and since designing and building the Waste House, lots of experience at building with so-called waste.

Dr. Ryan Woodard: My interest in waste started when growing up in Bedford, just north of London. Back in 1993 I undertook a school project on a local landfill site and what I saw amazed me. For decades clay had been extracted from around the Bedford area to make bricks leaving huge void spaces. At its height around 4 million tonnes of waste was being sent to landfill sites in the area. Only 14% of this waste was generated locally, the rest was being transported in by lorry or train from across south east England. At the time of my visit over 95% of household waste was being sent to landfill as it was a cheap and easy way to get rid of waste. I thought this was a crazy waste of valuable resources and a career in waste management began.

On graduation from my BSc in Geography and Energy Studies from the University of Brighton in 1997, I was asked to stay on to work on research projects looking at landfill sites and commercial waste. Since then I’ve been involved in a diverse range of research, consultancy and education projects – the majority of these are applied: identifying challenges and developing solutions.

Projects have included partnering with local authorities to develop and evaluate recycling schemes, trialling different ways of changing behaviour towards waste, and developing solutions for specific waste streams. I am increasingly involved in work on the Small and Medium Enterprise (SME) waste stream. Despite SMEs generating more waste than households it is a poorly understood and under researched waste stream which is neglected in both national and European policy. Areas of interest include composition of the waste stream, levels of compliance with environmental regulations, and developing smarter systems that maximise resource recovery whilst supporting SMEs.

With 2 billion people not having access to waste collection, and global waste volumes projected to double between 2005 and 2025, and then double again from 2025-2050, my work has an increasingly international focus. I have supervised students or co-authored papers on waste management in Bangladesh, China, Cameroon and Nigeria. Since 2010 I have been working with the Dreamcatcher Foundation South Africa, an NGO, to increase awareness of waste issues in South African communities many of which have poor waste management systems impacting upon public health and the local environment. This is an area I am passionate about. Working in partnership with the NGO and colleagues in Art and Design at the University of Brighton we are developing community based solutions to address some of the challenges faced. This includes developing local composting schemes and setting up a community based workshop using low cost technologies harnessing locally sourced resources and waste as feedstock, facilitating skills development and job creation.

There is so much work to do – as I say to my students the ‘world is your oyster’.

What is University of Brighton’s experience of bio-based and waste materials?

Dr. Ryan Woodard: Since the mid-1990s the University has been involved in a plethora of projects working with waste materials. This has included work on materials as diverse as plastics from old cars (automotive shredder residue), used cooking oil, waste wood and food.

Duncan Baker-Brown: See my notes on THTKB and The Waste House, plus every year University of Brighton students and staff design and construct a pavilion exhibiting the work of our graduating architecture and design students. Themes informing these have including working with waste material from the Waste House and working with locally-source organic material.

The Brighton Waste House investigates strategies for constructing a contemporary, low energy,  permanent building using over 85% ‘waste’ material drawn from household and construction sites.

You are tasked with designing one of the three prototypes. Why do you plan to use waste materials?      

Dr. Ryan Woodard: Globally we have a very inefficient system for managing waste. It is estimated that across the world recycling rates may be as low as 7% for industrial waste and 10% for municipal waste. In the EU27 it is projected that 60% of the waste generated is not being recycled, composted or reused – therefore valuable resources are being wasted.

Through harnessing these materials we can extend their life and maximise their value. Similarly there are cost savings to be made through diverting them from final disposal and their use leads to a reduction in using virgin materials.

Duncan Baker-Brown: We know that the construction industry in the UK wastes approximately 20% of the material delivered to a building site. So for every five houses built, one house worth of material goes to landfill or incineration. So the wasteful use of materials is a big deal in the UK and in the construction industry in particular. Our Waste House proved that it is possible to construct a high performing (Passiv Haus levels of insulation and airtightness) building using these discarded material. Our current SB&WRC research continues this line of enquiry, but in a more focussed and (hopefully) commercially accessible manner. So we are currently looking at the potential for re-using discarded duvets (currently not re-used or even recycled in the UK) as insulation for housing.

Which materials are you proposing to use, and why? And where will they be sourced from?

Ryan: Our aim was to target the textile waste stream. Using our existing knowledge of problem textile waste streams the project team developed a short list of potential materials. This shortlist was presented to industry stakeholders who gave their feedback on each stream, and existing literature was also considered. Following this engagement the project team decided to focus on stuffed bedding products – duvets and pillows. Based on our research local authorities, waste companies and charities won’t accept this material for reuse due to health and safety concerns, and the majority is sent to disposal in landfill or Energy From Waste plants.

Very limited research has been conducted on the levels of used stuffed bedding and potential markets. The main body of work was commissioned by WRAP in 2012/13 and they estimated 61,900 tonnes of duvets and pillows were entering the waste stream each year.  Recent research undertaken at 11 Household Waste Recycling Sites showed that 3.6-10.7% of the residual waste stream was non-clothing textiles which includes stuffed bedding.

A review was conducted to ensure the project did not duplicate existing research or products currently available. This included reviewing insulation products listed in sustainable construction product directories/certification schemes, reviewing academic papers and searching the International Solid Waste Association and Chartered Institute of Wastes Management archives. Whilst the review identified a number of products utilising recycled textiles, none used stuffed bedding products.

In terms of sourcing the material we have already undertaken trials with the kind assistance of Veolia to understand the levels and composition of stuffed bedding products being taken to the local Household Waste Recycling Site. In a week over 3,000 litres of bedding waste generated of which 75% was polyester/25% feathers. What was interesting, based only on visual inspection, was the apparent quality of the products entering the waste stream with over half of the material sampled seemingly in good condition and unsoiled. Duvets and pillows are designed for their thermal properties and therefore a seemingly obvious application would be to integrate them into insulation for buildings!

The intention would be have stuffed bedding collection points at Household Waste Recycling Sites and source materials from waste companies and bedding companies who handled waste bedding products in the commercial waste stream.

You have hired Ben Bosence, a natural materials specialist, to consult on the project.
Ben, what is your background? What experience do you have of developing products from bio-based and waste materials? What will be your role within the project?

Ben Bosence: My background is in building conservation, but with previous training in Sculpture and a Ceramics Masters degree from the Royal College of Art in London. I formed my conservation business 15 years ago as a creative practice offering specialist repair and consultancy on historic buildings, vernacular materials, ruins and architectural features throughout the UK and Europe specialising in mortars, plasters, renders and masonry.

Vernacular buildings were built by craftsmen with a total understanding of their local materials, of which a high proportion was waste from other buildings, processes, farming and the community. Every material in a vernacular building can be re-used as it is or re-formed into new materials. This concept kept a circular system of materials continuously moving between structures. Through repairing these buildings and studying their construction I have learnt how to work in the same circular way. All of the repairs that I design and implement contain re-used materials from demolition of the original structure, or vernacular waste. I have worked with Historic England to document these processes in their latest repair guidelines, and given talks about these processes and how they can be used for new architecture and design.

Recently, I have formed a new company called Local Works Studio, in collaboration with a landscape architect. It is a design and making practice, rethinking local vernacular to create landscapes and buildings from site based resources. My background in repairing vernacular buildings has informed the way we now work with local and waste materials. We use in-depth research and layered mapping to explore the hidden material possibilities of a place.  We take an experimental approach using prototypes and the making process to inform design, aiming to reveal the meaning of materials and to make the stories behind these processes relevant to the experience of everyday life.

My role in this project is to test and prototype the materials selected by the design team at the University of Brighton. I will initially produce 8 mini-prototype insulation and cladding products that will be tested by other partners in the project. The best performing materials will then be developed into 2 large-scale prototypes made in our workshop. One will get installed at the Waste House in the campus of the University of Brighton for testing, and the other will go to the University of Bath for further tests.

How do you plan to test the prototype product?

Duncan Baker-Brown: We are working with ESITC Caen who will initially test our mini-prototypes (there are 8 of them) and then select one for further development. This preferred prototype will then be sent to the university of Bath to tested again for fire and other construction-focussed tests. Following those tests we are expecting to build the final version of our prototype and then install it on one of the external walls of our Waste House where digital monitors will ascertain the material’s ‘U’ value (ability to insulate) and prove (hopefully) that there will not be any problems with condensation.

Do you think the prototype products have a good chance of being adopted by the mainstream market, and why? Are there any significant barriers?

Duncan Baker-Brown:  Duvets and other bedding in the UK are not re-used at all which is a great waste. If we can prove that the material can be made clean and safe I think the bedding material (approx. 25% of it is feathers, and 75% polyester) has a chance of being introduced into the construction industry as a sensible, viable material source. It already has its own insulation rating (tog) and all bedding is fire rated as well. However, post-Grenfell this material will need to pass rigorous fire and other tests.

How do you think the research project will benefit the university? And the wider area?

Dr. Ryan Woodard: The project facilitates the ongoing collaboration between architects, designers, and waste specialists. Excitingly the project presents an opportunity to work with a local company, and other UK and French institutions. This project has already started to spawn some ideas for follow on projects.

In terms of benefits to the wider area we are hoping to be able to harness materials that are currently being wasted and incurring costs for disposal, to produce an alternative insulation product.

Interview by Richard Broad, ASBP

Read more about duck feathers and polyester as insulation material


Last updated on the 08-03-2018 by Sylvain Bosquet