The Architecture of Waste: Can designers challenge fundamental presumptions about waste and the economic models that make it necessary?

Hokaido, Japan site visit

Site visit to Hokkaido, Japan, for the "Making Next to Forest" studio. Photo: Maggie Janik

A linear economy conceives of waste as an end. It presumes that refuse cast off, flushed, or buried terminates the processes of consumption. The world’s dominant understanding of capital depends on this view, an idea that begins with resource extraction and leads eventually to disposal—what Annie Leonard, executive director of Greenpeace, refers to as “Take, Make, Waste.” Conceptually, “waste” represents a fundamental redesignation of value by separating out material that no longer seems to have potential. This conversion of material to waste results in the burial of more than 200 million of tons of detritus each year in the US.

An additional 100 million tons or so of disposed material feeds back into the consumption stream, but this happens almost invisibly. Sorted and repurposed for recycling and composting, divided waste streams merely hint at an inflection from “Take, Make, Waste” thinking. As far as most people can tell, different waste bins direct material to different trucks, which carry it to different ends. Even with effective recycling, it is difficult for people to conceive of the consumption process as other than linear, because used material still goes “away.” And virtually everything we use seems to start out as new. Even things made from reconstituted material, such as recycled or partially recycled paper, plastic, and metal, are essentially indistinguishable from the same items made from new materials. Compost is not much different: for most consumers it comes as soil, freshly packaged in branded, brightly printed plastic bags. So, crucial as it is, an effective recycling system disguises itself, for consumers, as waste disposal.

Rendering of parking deck of La Défense
In Cynthia Deng (MArch I/ MUP '21) and Hannah Hoyt’s (MArch I '21) “Platform for Reuse,” the vast parking deck of La Défense is repurposed to store salvaged construction materials and house repair and upcycling workshops.

Huge changes in the linear consumption stream have developed since the 1970s, but they are hard to discern. In their 2015 Harvard Design Magazine essay, “The Missing Link: Architecture and Waste Management,” Hanif Kara, Andreas Georgoulias, and Leire Asensio Villoria point out that “drastic efficiency leaps, environmental impact improvements, and technological innovations all happen far from the public eye.” They argue that architects should be more deeply involved in making these visible by creating better-designed waste facilities. These would not merely soften the harsher aspects of waste infrastructure, they also could help turn public attention toward the multiple ways we dispose of material. “With their innovative programming, and welcoming and transparent architecture,” they emphasize, “these buildings help to promote healthier communities.” This is one important way to elucidate the problem of waste, but it doesn’t fundamentally challenge the system of consumption that creates it. Waste is still an end product.

Mycelium Stool
Luke Warren (MArch '22), Aditi Agarwal (MDes '20), Hangsoo Jeong (MArch '22), Victoria Patricia Lopez Cabeza’s (MDes '20) “Mycelium Stool” uses the vegetative root structure of fungus, which is grown around the wood structure in a mix of corn and hemp byproduct. The stool is entirely constructed from renewable resources, and at the end of the its lifecycle, the mycelium is fully compostable.

Designers can also reconceive the consumption system in more subtle ways. As a circular economy develops, its goal of disposing of no material moves the challenge of waste more deeply into the system. Waste becomes as much a beginning as an end. In their book Building from Waste: Recovered Materials in Architecture and Construction, Dirk E. Hebel, Marta H. Wisniewska, and Felix Heisel question “whether the consideration of the waste state of a product should not become the starting point of its design proper.” In this view, waste becomes an essential concept in design, since the depleted value state of the material informs the process from the beginning.

Alternatively, designers could focus their attention on utilizing materials that have already been used. For now, however, designing with reused building materials can be challenging because they are not widely available. As Alejandro Bahamón and Maria Camila Sanjinés point out in Rematerial: From Waste to Architecture, “The design process for a building that incorporates recycled materials and products differs significantly from the conventional way of conceiving architecture…. The design team must first identify the sources of materials suitable for reutilization and then start to define the details.” While this shift in design process can drive creativity, the limited market for reused material can constrain innovation. As a circular consumption system develops, designers must continue to question conventional design processes, but they must also shift the ways they think about waste.

Over the past year, a number of GSD courses have directly addressed this challenge. Waste in its many manifestations was the central theme of the first-year courses in the Masters of Design Engineering program. In Architecture, the spring semester studio “Making Next to Forest” confronted the concept of a circular economy in Japan’s wood production industry. And several Landscape Architecture courses have focused on how urban sewage can support agricultural production and food systems.

Waste “is on some level unappealing,” points out GSD instructor Jock Herron. So, while waste may not necessarily be the big idea designers first turn to, it presents “lots of different design solutions,” difficult engineering challenges, and “big behavior elements.” Consequently, as a theme for the first-year course sequence in the MDE program, “it worked extraordinarily well.” Twenty-two students worked in multidisciplinary teams to unearth the huge challenges waste presents. Herron says that the program structure lends itself to broad investigations—“We give them the theme, and they figure out what the problem is”—but the research teams moved, over the course of the year, toward tightly focused and very specific design solutions.

During the fall semester, students worked with the faculty team of Andrew Witt, Joanna Aizenberg, Elizabeth Christoforetti, and Cesar Hidalgo to investigate multiple different kinds of waste—electrical, medical, nuclear, and so on—and the systems associated with them. Naturally, these intersect, and their interactions point out how waste occupies the complex interfaces between human and natural systems. Continuing with the theme into the spring semester, student teams worked with Jock Herron, Stephen Burks, Luba Greenwood, and Julia Lee on developing specific products to help contend with waste-related challenges.

Groups addressed a wide range of topics including noncompliance in medical regimens (which results in wasted medicine, economic resources, and human capital); waste of ink and paper in book publishing; furniture disposal by large and very mobile student populations; sources of food waste in agricultural production and at points of sale; efficiency in the complex timeline for liver transplants; the use of algae for carbon sequestration; and identification and disposal of trash in national parks. Each team designed a tangible product to deal with the challenge.

Sketch of Alkiviadis Pyliotis's project "Archive ad Infinitum"
Alkiviadis Pyliotis's project “Archive ad Infinitum” for Toshiko Mori's “Making Next to Forest” studio conceives of a tilted, circular volume as the new site for a design archive.

Coming at waste from a very different angle, Toshiko Mori’s “Making Next to Forest” spring semester studio started with the idea that waste “is a completely wrong notion.” “We really should not have any waste,” Mori emphasizes. Her studio focused on “a global approach to proposing alternative forest economies,” using wood production in Hokkaido, Japan as a model. Japanese resource usage is highly effective, in part because it balances natural forest management with industrial wood production that produces little waste. “In Hokkaido when they harvest trees,” Mori explains, “there’s only 10 percent waste. Ninety percent of everything they harvest is being used, even the small branches… they’ll be used for chopsticks, which makes sense. Even though the last 10 percent is unused, it could be used for biofuels.”

Students studied the processes that contribute to this highly efficient system, including natural resource preservation, timber harvesting, furniture building, and material reuse—both in Boston and while visiting Hokkaido for two weeks in February. Their first design included a masterplan for a forest research center on an abandoned university campus in the city of Asahikawa. The center’s primary purpose would be to promote a circular economic model—finding ways to make use of otherwise wasted wood, particularly byproducts of industrial processes. Their final project, a chair museum in the township of Higashikawa (a partner and sponsor of the studio), sought to connect the research on forest ecology with design at all scales, using regionally sourced materials.

Waste of another kind is the central focus of a GSD faculty team studying the complex interactions between Mexico City and the agricultural Mezquital Valley, about 37 miles northeast of the city. A massive pipe connects the city and the valley, pumping an almost incomprehensible volume of raw sewage into its highly productive soil. Wastewater nutrients support a rich agricultural economy, but modern sanitary standards of sewage treatment threaten the balance.

Xochiaca landfill, Mexico City
Algorithmic soil profile from the Bordo de Xochiaca landfill, Mexico City. Drawing by Seth Denizen.

In their research proposal, “The Right to the Sewage: Digesting Mexico City in the Mezquital Valley,” which recently won a major prize from the SOM Foundation, Montserrat Bonvehi-Rosich, Seth Denizen, and David Moreno Mateos propose to undertake a systems-based multidisciplinary study that includes the whole waste-production cycle, with the goal of better understanding and supporting its productivity. Their 2019-2020 courses on food systems, ecosystem restoration, and soil formation offered a prelude to a future research and design studio that will address the challenges of waste disposal and reuse in Mexico City, and, more broadly, the future of the urban water cycle in cities throughout the world.

In multiple ways GSD faculty and students are challenging fundamental presumptions about waste and the economic models that make it necessary. By incorporating waste deeply into their thinking, and the products they envision, they are questioning design processes, reconceiving consumption, and finding new value in refuse.