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Urban Bricolage. Mining, Designing and Constructing with Reused Building Materials

Applicant Kobi Madlen
Number 201585
Funding scheme PRIMA
Research institution Unité Anthropologie sociale Département des Sciences sociales Université de Fribourg
Institution of higher education University of Fribourg - FR
Main discipline Ethnology
Start/End 01.01.2022 - 31.12.2026
Approved amount 1'149'189.00
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All Disciplines (2)

Other disciplines of Engineering Sciences

Keywords (8)

construction industry; building materials; architecture; human-material relations; circular economy; ethnography; reuse practices; logistics

Lay Summary (German)

Dieses Projekt untersucht die praktischen Herausforderungen und logistischen Schwierigkeiten bei der Umsetzung der Kreislaufwirtschaft in der Architektur in ausgewählten europäischen Ländern (Schweiz, Österreich, Belgien, Holland).
Lay summary

Zwei Drittel aller Abfälle in der Schweiz stammen aus der Bauwirtschaft. Die meisten der Materialien von abgerissenen Gebäuden landen auf der Mülldeponie, obwohl die Neubeschaffung von Ressourcen meist energie- und CO2-intensiver ist als die Wiederverwendung. Die tiefen Kosten für Neumaterialien, die hohen finanziellen Ausgaben beim manuellen Abbau und die logistischen Schwierigkeiten beim Transport von Materialien von der Abbruchstelle zur Baustelle erschweren jedoch die Wiederverwendung. 

Dieses Projekt erweitert den struktur- und konstruktionsorientierten Wissensstand der Architektur zur Kreislaufwirtschaft mit einem sozialanthropologischen Forschungsansatz, welche sich mit dem praktischen Wissen und dem alltäglichen Umgang mit Baumaterialien auf Abbruchstellen, in Architekturbüros, in Firmen und auf der Baustelle beschäftigt. Durch eine Untersuchung der Herausforderungen beim Gebrauch von unterschiedlichen Baumaterialien wie Stahlträger, Glasscheiben, Holz oder Ziegelsteinen und in Zusammenarbeit mit Expert*innen der Wiederverwendung sucht das Projekt nach erfolgreichen Ansätzen, um die Kreislaufwirtschaft voranzutreiben. Der Vergleich der Situation in vier europäischen Ländern mit ähnlichen Bedingungen der Bauwirtschaft ermöglicht einen Austausch zu zukunftsfähigen Lösungen. Das Projekt unterstützt dabei die Bestrebungen des Bundesamts für Umwelt BAFU, welches die Wiederverwendung von Baumaterialien fördert um das Klimaziel 2050 und die Energiestrategie 2050 zu erreichen.

Direct link to Lay Summary Last update: 10.09.2021

Responsible applicant and co-applicants



Urban mining, or the practice of reusing and recycling waste materials within the city, is an important way to diminish the ecological footprint of European cities. Buildings in particular - through storage of CO2 and grey energy - have become the mines of the future. Instead of being thrown on the landfill, wood and steel, bricks, tiles and windows can be deconstructed, transported, and reintegrated into new buildings. To develop a framework for a circular economy in architecture is the objective of many recent design and academic initiatives. However, reusing building materials is still a niche phenomenon in the overall construction industry, mainly because of the high labour costs involved in deconstruction and the relative cheapness of new resources, but also due to the complicated logistics of shifting materials from demolition to construction site. At the intersection of anthropology and architecture, this project investigates the practical challenges of reuse. A new and radical socio-material perspective on reuse is not only key to understanding ecological and economic resistances within the circular building economy but also for finding methods to optimize the reuse process.In an innovative manner, this project combines architectural debates on the ecological requirements, technical possibilities, aesthetic reconfiguration, and material transformability of reused materials with an anthropological approach evolving along three research foci: 1) an actor-centred perspective that will scrutinize the practical and technical challenges that practitioners in the reuse sector face; 2) a theoretical engagement with the human-material relations in reuse architecture that will explore how the materiality of the handled objects - such as size, material qualities, composition, value, or separability - interferes in and complicates the reuse process; and 3) a contextualization of the European-based research findings within a larger historical and cross-cultural context. The objective of this comparison is to highlight the manifold motives and manifestations of existing reuse practices globally as they respond to local socio-political and economic contexts.Methodologically, the project uses ethnography to investigate reuse activities in four key field sites in European cities: at a reuse company, on the demolition site, in the architects’ office, and on the construction site. It analyses how scrap dealers, middlemen, bricklayers, architects, engineers, digital experts, company owners, and carpenters among others handle reused materials in their everyday lives, what resistances they face, and how they situate themselves within the circular economy. Knowledge will mainly be gained through learning on the ground, semi-structured interviews, oral histories, mapping, participation in workshops run by reuse institutions, and through gathering photographs and sound recordings.This project has both an academic and an applied relevance. In the first phase, the team gathers ethnographic data and embeds findings in theoretical debates that bring anthropology and architecture together, resulting in the editing of a special issue of an open access journal, several peer-reviewed articles, a PhD dissertation and one monograph as part of the Principal Investigator’s habilitation. In the second phase of the project, the team engages in academic and public activities to foster reuse practices in Switzerland and beyond. Among others, the podcast "Another (Reused) Brick in the Wall" - produced by the team throughout the project and highlighting best practices in the reuse sector through interviews and visits to reuse sites - will help in reaching out to non-academic audiences, as will a policy paper on practical challenges inscribed in the circular economy.