RAU’s vision for a better future

“We need to start from the premise that everything we do and create is temporary. And everything that is temporary must not have any negative consequences for the future,” says Thomas Rau, whose firm RAU Architects produced the world’s first circular net energy positive building for utility provider Liander in 2015.

While RAU Architects, founded in 1992, has been hugely influential in the movement for sustainable architecture, these days Rau dislikes the term. “Sustainability only means we optimise our system, so we need a little less of this, a little less of that. Optimising processes only means things will get more expensive in time, and the steps we can take will get smaller and smaller. But we’re not changing the system. It’s a huge misunderstanding to think sustainability is the answer to the current challenges. What’s worse, it can block real transformation. What we really need to do is completely reorganise our system. We need to ask ourselves, who really owns the materials? Do I still want to own products? Should we operate on a performance basis instead?”

Creating a passport for materials

As a world-leading expert in his field, Rau is well-placed to talk about the future of architecture and construction. The German-born entrepreneur and innovator has won a number of awards, including the ARC13 Oeuvre Award from professional journal De Architect for his long-standing work to promote sustainable architecture. Rau, who has lived and worked in Amsterdam since 1990, has a bold vision for how materials are used in construction: “The earth is a closed system, and in a closed system, everything is limited. That means all materials are limited, too. If we use limited resources for construction, it’s only logical to note down where these limited resources currently are, so we know which materials are in which building at what time and for how long.”

Thomas Rau of RAU architects

This vision requires a radically new approach. “In the future, every new building will be a material bank. Not only do I depose of materials within the building, I can also free up the value of the materials again,” says Rau. To that end, he helped found Madaster, a public platform that allows every owner or developer of a property to create a so-called ‘material passport’, which lists all materials used in a building, their exact location and their value.

Rau thinks the Netherlands was exactly the right place to start up Madaster. “The Dutch have that mentality of being extremely interested in all that is new. New ideas, innovations... Madaster is a typically Dutch initiative.”

Building a new culture in construction

A willingness to embrace the new is essential when it comes to disrupting construction. Rau thinks changing our mindset to see buildings as material depots is the only way to deal with the finite nature of resources. “We have to assume that everything we build will eventually reach the end of its term. And when that time comes, we should have ensured that it’s been designed in a way that means it can function as a depot for materials. This way, we can take out the building materials one by one at the end of the building’s existence.”

The interior of the Triodos building by Bert Rietberg

In order to do that, materials also need to be processed in a way that makes them reusable. “It requires an entirely new culture of building,” says Rau. “You see the reflexes of developers, they always think... you know, when I have a hammer, everything’s a nail.” One shining example of how this can be done is RAU Architects’ latest project, the head office of the Triodos Bank, achieves complete ‘de-constructability’ by being made almost entirely of wood.

“It’s the
world’s first office building that has been devised to be completely re-constructable. That means we can remove all materials from the building in their original state. It’s been built from 82% wood, including a static wooden core – that’s never been done before. In its entirety, the building is held together by 165,312 screws, as we can’t have any wet bonds. Otherwise we couldn't remove the materials.”

What this means for Amsterdam's future

As for what that means for the future of Amsterdam, Rau says we need to realise that “the city isn’t only home to people, but also to materials. Cities will become giant repositories of material. We will have databases, so for every city we will know not only which residents are registered, but also which and how many materials are registered, in which building they are, and for how much longer they may be needed. There will be a local, a central and a decentralised exchange of materials.”

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