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I thought I had already uploaded all the cartoons I had done for Indira van’t Kloosteer’s section ‘Interchange: Architects in Action’. ‘Interchange’ ran from March 2014 through April 2016 in the pages of A10: New European Architecture (issues #56-68), and all its entries featured a full-page cartoon in every issue (I might make a post soon with all of them as they appeared in the magazine), except for the first one, which, unfortunately, was too close to the deadline when I was approached. I thought it was a shame, at the time, because I had already come up with an idea for Jurgen Mayer H. when Indira contacted me that I thought was quite funny. However, I could scratch that particular itch a couple years later, when I could finally produce it for the compilation Indira put together in 2016.
However, it seems I had missed this one, featuring Brussels-Based Rotor Group. At the time of this interview, Rotor had recently completed their Deconstruction: An exhibition on salvaging and reusing building components Expo, where they exhibited the results of their work of selective deconstruction on a few buildings. Here, some excerpts of the conversation:
Last year, Rotor decided to take their commitment to reuse one step further. Since then, they have deconstructed about fifteen buildings, stripping them down to the base structure and reworking the matter amassed in the process into reusable materials that meet commercial demands. It has become a huge success. ‘The turnover of this business already equals our regular work,’ says founder Maarten Gielen as we spend the day at Rotor.
Visitors to the Vilvoorde office first see the showpieces: the doors, floors, chairs by Jules Wabbes, and ’90s postmodern kitsch. Their gaze is then drawn to the smart spinoffs, including upcycled old coat hooks sold per running metre and banisters offered in custom-length modules. Then there’s the yard, filled with dozens of toilet bowls, cupboards, chairs, benches, and textiles. Employees process a new load of products. Maarten Gielen smokes a cigarette at the picnic table in the meantime.
How do you find a suitable building?
Most of our clients are major players in the Brussels property market, and own hundreds of thousands of square meters of office space. When new tenants lease the building, which happens every ten to fifteen years, the interiors undergo top-to-bottom refurbishment. We take stock of the old interiors, such as the ceilings and walls, which we then offer to our 200-strong network of dealers, contractors, and architects. Then we start deconstruction, and transform the building into a showroom for clients to assess the quality. Most items are sold on-site. The top-quality features are taken to our depot, restored, and sold via our website.
Do you see this as architects’ work?
Of course. What we do here is similar to what an architect does on a construction site: coordinating activities, drafting demolition specifications, checking quality, and finalizing. Subcontractors take care of easy jobs, such as tiling, while our own staff takes on the more complex tasks. We must preserve the knowledge gained during demolition, so that the buyer knows its history.
Why do you focus on wholesalers, not private individuals?
While retail trade is more lucrative, given the much larger margins on materials, our goal is to professionalize wholesalers.
So you don’t work with the design potential of reuse, as other architects do with reclaimed objects?
No. We offer a standardized package at a competitive price. Working with second-hand material should be no harder than working with new, but you do need someone to create that bridge. We can take care of the logistics and the technicalities, so that for an architect it becomes more or less as easy as ordering newly produced materials.
Is it possible to reuse everything?
The ideological definition of reusable is ‘everything that can be dismantled’. However, these changes once translated into business logic, which dictates that a reusable material can be dismantled and resold at a lower price than the market value. All our material must contend either with cheap materials from China, or with products of new quality. Naturally, second-hand material competes better when it is of high quality, because then it can make a positive economic difference.
So it’s not cheaper for companies?
On the contrary, it’s never more expensive. We have different types of clients. The easiest ones are those who look for unique vintage design, whatever the cost. The second type is more pragmatic: they look for standard objects like urinals or floorboards. It would cost them €250 to buy it new, but €40 when they buy from us. If you need bucket sinks or urinals on six floors, and you can buy them from us and save €200 per item, this makes quite the difference.
Have you increased your knowledge of materials and regulations over the years?
Our projects have always had an experimental side, and we’ve learned that the materials hold much of a building’s intelligent design. Once aware of the economic logic behind the products and their origins, one sees that the architect is at the helm of a huge construction machine, yet possesses little substantial knowledge about it.
Excerpts from: Indira van’t Klooster: Creative Deconstruction – An Interview with Rotor. A10 Magazine #64. Jan/Feb 2016