Villa Welpeloo in Enschede, the Netherlands, doesn't look like a recycled building. Its austere lines and spacious interior have nothing of the junkyard aesthetic about them. Yet despite appearances, it's reused to the bones. To accomplish this, architects Jan Jongert and Jeroen Bergsma of 2012Architects reversed the typical order of the design process—first house, then materials—and instead began by scouting the local area for items to recycle.
Villa Welpeloo was the architects' first house, designed for clients Tjibbe Knol and Ingrid Blans. "Reused materials account for 60 percent of the structure," says Jongert. "And that goes up to as much as 90 percent when it comes to the interior." The benefit of this approach, which Jongert and Bergsma like to call "recyclicity" or "superuse," is, of course, a greatly reduced construction carbon footprint, due to material recycling and lower transportation costs. But it's also, insists Jongert, "a way to reach a very high level of lively aesthetics."
The architects came to the idea of superuse architecture when they were student at Delft University of Technology. "We were using waste materials for our small-scale models," he recalls. "We asked ourselves: Why don't we do this for real?"
So when they received the commission for Villa Welpeloo (Jongert and Blans have been friends since Jongert was eight), step one was to create a "harvest map," an inventory of possible suppliers from within a nine-mile radius of the building site. "We kept our eyes open for storage places and visited all the factories—where we made sure to go in through the back door," says Jongert. They even scanned Google Earth for brownfields and abandoned-looking buildings, the telltale signs of defunct industry—and possible scrap material.
Their resourcefulness paid off. The house's steel framework was harvested from the disused machinery of a nearby textile mill (fabric production was once a major industry in this eastern Netherlands region near the German border). The facade is clad in weathered wooden planks, repurposed from 600 dismantled cable reels and heat-treated at about 300 to 377 degrees Fahrenheit, a natural Dutch weatherproofing technique known as the PLATO process. The wooden cladding envelops the house protectively, overhanging the doors and windows. In some places it acts as a screen, covering some of the bathroom windows, for example, but still admitting light.
With recyclicity driving the design, the house has strong local roots—exactly like the couple who commissioned it. Knol was born here, and Blans fell in love with the city more than 40 years ago, in her 20s. But for a quarter of a century, work had taken them away to the Hague. "We wanted to comeback to grow old here," says Knol. "It feels like coming home to both of us."
The couple, who have been married for 27 years, certainly lost no time in personalizing the interior—without, one senses, the total approval of the architects. "It took Jan and Jeroen a while to get used to the idea that we weren't going to fill the place with modern furniture," says Blans, sitting in the light-filled white living room. Around her an eclectic range of objects jostles for attention: a well-preserved Louis XVI console, an inflatable plastic armchair, an early-20th-century Amsterdam school table that once belonged to her grandmother, and many other idiosyncratic forms. "They're old pieces, things we're looking after," she says. The couple's belongings attest to a family culture of careful preservation and use—an approach that, despite the stylistic differences, is actually close to the architects' heart. "We introduced the concept of reuse structurally, yet it's already part of the lives of the clients," says Jongert.
Blans is also a voracious collector of modern art, and part of the couple's brief to the architects was "to have wide, tall walls for showing pictures," she says. A purpose-built art storage room was another requirement (it's tucked neatly away at the house's core), as was a recycled builders' elevator, essential for moving larger pieces. While the ground floor of the house is essentially one big space, it is organized into public and private areas—another request from Blans, who wanted "to have an area in which I can make as much mess as I like and that people only see if I invite them to see it." The raised private area begins with the kitchen, which is divided from the public area by its height and screened by a ceiling-high display cabinet housing a collection of ceramic, glass, and metal objects ranging from a Sudanese pot to a pair of penguins.
The recycling continues in the interior fixtures, where old billboards have been used for the kitchen cabinetry; they reveal their former nature through "now you see it, now you don't" expanses of colorful graphics when the drawers are opened. Old umbrellas have been cannibalized to make delicately wiry halogen lamps. Harvesting these materials was an equally inventive process: The architects leafleted a neighborhood in Utrecht, asking locals to drop off their broken umbrellas at a colleague's apartment. Playful touches like this humanize the house, softening its uncompromising modernist proportions and die-hard environmental credentials. "You do and you don't recognize the reused parts," explains Jongert. "It's simultaneous recognition and estrangement—which is what gives rise to beauty, and humor."
Aesthetic considerations were important to both clients and architects, and not always easy to achieve: "The biggest challenge of the project was to feet all the suppliers and contractors to understand that they were working on a project that would have to look really great in the end," says Jongert. "In the beginning, I think everyone tended to think—not having worked on a project like this before—that it would end up looking like scrap. They were surprised when the outcome was something that looks this good." There's a certain serendipity that takes over, he thinks, when you source local leftovers to create something new: "Unexpected occurrences shaped this house," he says. "For example, finding the builders' elevator encouraged us to reorganize the routing on both floors, and a mis-measured window eventually became the skylight."
There's a fitting symbolism in recycling Enschede's junk to create a new house. The plot on which Villa Welpeloo stands was laid waste by a huge firework factory disaster ten years ago; the region's history is commemorated in a poem by Dutch writer Willem Wilmink etched into the glass by the house's main entrance. "If you'd seen how this area looked after the firework disaster, you wouldn't believe it," says Blans. "Our house really is part of a new beginning." Indeed: Out of the ashes, a new model for architecture has emerged.