Renowned architect: A future without buildings and raw materials
It will take more than just efficiency increases and process optimisations for us to realise our goal of sustainable building. This is the message from the acclaimed Dutch architect Thomas Rau. He calls for a transformation that fundamentally shifts our role as humans on Earth.
Something that strikes you when talking to the Dutch architect Thomas Rau is the way in which he engages linguistically with the topic. Such as when he says:
“The biggest misconception is that we think that we have to build buildings. In future, buildings will be the product of a logistics process,” he says. In the same way, raw materials will not be raw materials either, but nature’s works of art or limited editions, and in future we must see buildings as repositories of such ‘limited editions’.
“We are temporary guests on Earth, which also means that our needs are temporary. So, when we devise a solution to meet our temporary needs – for example the need to build a house – it’s really just a collection of temporaries,” he explains.
When Thomas Rau devotes so much effort to redefining the concepts within building, it’s because he is seeking to fundamentally change the way in which we view the world and our role in it.
“What really needs to change is that we must acknowledge that we’re not hosts, but guests of Planet Earth. And a host behaves very differently to a guest. We must organise our economy as if we were guests, because everything is handed to us. We didn’t create it,” he says.
Sustainability leads to manipulation
Thomas Rau, who established RAU Architects, and in 2013 was named Architect of the Year in the Netherlands, is not afraid of challenging the status quo. For example, he concentrates his fire on one of the most frequently used words of our time – ‘sustainability’:
“Sustainability and the circular economy are often used as if they were synonyms, but they’re not. Sustainability is all about optimisation within the existing system – consuming fewer materials, using less energy or reducing pollution. But optimisation processes basically equate to not changing a thing,” he says. He cites as an example the so-called Dieselgate scandal, where German car giant Volkswagen used software to cheat the system so that its cars met the environmental authorities’ emission requirements.
“The quest for optimisations and efficiency increases ends up leading to manipulation,” says Thomas Rau.
The opposite of sustainability is the circular approach, where you fundamentally change the system – and this is where we return to Thomas Rau’s point that people should learn to conduct themselves like guests:
“The circular approach is a fundamentally different take on what is going on between people and everything that makes our lives possible. It’s a completely new agenda in the relationship between people and nature,” he says, adding that the approach needs to be adopted right across the board, from the construction sector to the automotive industry.
Buildings with circular potential
This is when Thomas Rau points to a future where buildings are no longer buildings – but simply the results of a logistics process, serving as repositories of ‘limited editions’.
“When we no longer need the building because our temporary needs have been satisfied, we can dismantle it and take out the materials,” he explains.
This is also the basic idea behind the materials database, Madaster.com, which Thomas Rau co-founded.
Madaster is an online database of building materials and products aimed at construction professionals. The database is used in a wide range of countries – including Denmark, Germany, Norway, Finland, the Netherlands, Austria, Switzerland, the UK and Australia.
Madaster issues so-called material passports based on the information which is entered about the various materials, thus giving future generations the possibility of locating and assessing a building’s recycling potential once it has served its purpose.
“We can’t do anything for the future, because we don’t know what the future holds. There’s no way of knowing what people will do with a building, even if it can be taken apart. If they throw the materials away, then the circular potential is lost. All we can do is to organise ourselves without depriving future generations of the opportunities that we have enjoyed,” he says.
Responsibility and power in one place
Thomas Rau does not just want a system that documents where the raw materials – or ‘limited editions’ – have been used. He points out that the necessary transformation is only possible if we fundamentally change the way that power and responsibility are divided.
“In our existing system, power and responsibility are separate. Some have the power – those, for example, who produce the building materials or a building – while others have to assume responsibility at the end of the building’s useful life. In this way, you could say that a product is an organised problem. But how can we arrange our economy so that power and responsibility are always in the same place?” he asks rhetorically.
Because the answer is that power and responsibility must rest in one and the same place – so that the manufacturer of a product is also responsible for taking back the product and making the most of its circular potential.
“In this way, the manufacturer becomes responsible for his own decisions. So if, as a manufacturer, you produce a bad product, that is what you will receive when it’s returned to you. If you create a good product, you might get a collection of materials back which you can dismantle and assemble in new ways,” he says.
Thomas Rau sees the war in Ukraine as a turning point, as it has made us aware of how limited our resources are.
“As human beings, we must learn to act voluntarily. Because if we fail to change in good time of our own accord, then we will be forced to do so at some point,” he says.
A logistics process as DIY kit
Thomas Rau and RAU Architects are behind several projects that have explored the ideas about the circular economy. One of the buildings (or ‘logistics processes’ as Rau refers to them) is the Tij Observatory, which is located in a fragile natural area near the locks at the entrance to the Haringvliet inlet in the Netherlands. Tij Observatory is a lookout tower for birdwatchers wanting to observe migrating starlings.
“It’s a very fragile natural area, and people are not allowed to visit at all. So, the challenge was to organise a logistics process that was as gentle on the environment as possible,” explains Thomas Rau.
The solution was a unique wooden lookout tower shaped like a colossal starling egg:
“The wooden beams were made in Helsinki. We found a company that can cut the wood according to a 3D model, which resulted in an assembly kit comprising approx. 400 beams, all individually shaped. With it came what can best be described as IKEA-like assembly instructions. It meant that we could assemble the building on site without disturbing the locality significantly,” he says. And most importantly: The building has circular potential.
“It can be taken apart and transported to another location. The Tij Observatory can be dismantled and rebuilt many more times than any IKEA chair,” he says.
Facts about Thomas Rau and RAU Architects
- Thomas Rau (b. 1960) is an architect and founder of both RAU Architects and Turntoo.
- RAU Architects and Turntoo are two of the first companies to focus on the circular economy in the Netherlands.
- Together with Sabine Oberhuber, Thomas Rau has also published the book Material Matters, which explores their shared philosophy.
- The ideas in the book provided the foundation for the materials database Madaster.com, which was established in 2017.
- Thomas Rau often appears as a speaker – among other things at Building Green 2022 in Aarhus.
Thomas Rau, architect and founder af RAU Architects and Turntoo.