Annie Guilfoyle looks at how designers are repurposing recycled and reclaimed materials
When specifying hard landscape materials, I try to re-use as much of the existing site material as possible – using old concrete paving to form a shed base or to pave a utility area is more environmentally friendly than shipping it off to landfill. But importing recycled materials onto site can increase costs, and may work out more expensive than buying new. Should we be trying harder to be more sustainable and simply factor in the related costs? With the battle against plastic at its peak, is it time to re-think our attitude towards waste and recycling, and make much more of an effort, regardless of the expense?
The recycling missive is not a new one. For many years, designers have been using recycled materials in show gardens, and this year’s Chelsea Flower Show was no exception. Sarah Price’s M&G Garden featured walls made from stacked, reclaimed terracotta tiles. Tom Stuart-Smith MSGD designed a garden inside the Pavilion for the Garfield Weston Foundation that included not just hardscape materials but also plants that have been around the show circuit block a few times.
Tom Massey’s garden for the Lemon Tree Trust took the subject of recycling and re-purposing a step further, by showing how displaced refugees living in the Domiz camp in Northern Iraq have created gardens out of the few materials that are around. His message is that these brutal, harsh, discarded materials can be made beautiful by polishing, crafting and casting them into new forms.
Through innovative show gardens, Nigel Dunnett has regularly demonstrated how it is possible to make attractive, functional gardens, using materials such as old shipping containers and recycled council paving. In his 2011 RHS Chelsea Flower Show garden, he up-cycled an old shipping container into a funky garden studio, and repurposed large kerb-stones that had recently been removed from Exhibition Road in Kensington. During the construction of his 2017 Chelsea garden, there was a lot of interest shown from other contractors in his ‘superstylish’ paving, which was actually recycled council pavers, cut into narrow lengths and laid in a particularly considered way.
It’s all very well preaching sustainability on the show circuit, but what about in the real world – are designers successfully reusing and recycling in gardens for clients? Dunnett showed me a small community scheme that he has designed for Sheffield Council, called ‘Love Square’. “All the hard materials are recycled, apart from the big concrete pipes, which are factory seconds. The paving materials are recycled kerbstones, old street cobbles and municipal concrete paving slabs, all as leftovers from street renewal schemes in Sheffield. This represents a very big cost saving – the scheme would have been impossible to complete if all hard materials had to be purchased as new,” Dunnett explains.
“The gabion baskets are filled with the same materials. Even the apple trees in the concrete pipes are recycled – they are leftovers from a university research project and would have been thrown away, so these were all obtained for free. I think it is very successful, mainly because these materials have been laid with the same degree of care and professionalism by the contractors as if they were brand new.”
Juliet Sargeant FSGD agrees that the key to succeeding with repurposed materials is attention to detail. She won the Hardscape category at the 2015 SGD Awards for her design for Rose Cottage in Sussex, where the owners wanted to reuse as many hard landscaping materials from the original garden as possible. The designer took an inventory of materials and decided what could be recycled and used in exciting new ways. She laid repurposed bricks on the dining area, reused clay drainpipes, and old walling and capping as paving, and old oak from the local church as edging and a seat. This helped to keep the hard landscaping budget to just £6,000, while creating something good looking and sustainable. “It defies the stereotype of the ‘messy’ recycled garden,” Sargeant said.
Low impact, low budget
The subject of recycling and environmental awareness is also very high on designer Dan Lobb MSGD’s agenda. He won the Judges’ Award at the 2016 SGD Awards for Breaker’s Yard, where he used a multitude of recycled and repurposed elements, from tyres to troughs. Lobb thinks that we all should be spending more time considering where our materials are coming from, and has been looking into more sustainable building materials, citing Suffolk-based Lignacite, who produce a range of masonry products incorporating a high percentage of recycled materials such as shell, glass and mother of pearl.
Lobb hosted this year’s SGD Spring Conference on the theme of ‘A light touch’, and introduced speaker Julie Bargmann, the founder of D.I.R.T (Dump It Right There) Studio. A Harvard-trained landscape architect, she has a self-confessed obsession for working with marginalised communities and urban regeneration, and her designs rely on the reuse of found materials – D.I.R.T’s office has a zero-budget garden. At the garden for Urban Outfitters Headquarters at Philadelphia Navy Yard, Bargmann used concrete demolition debris as stepping stones; and at Turtle Creek Water Works in Dallas, she also replumbed old water tanks and highlighted existing graffiti as features.
Contractor Steve Swatton has plenty of practical advice on reusing materials. “Use hardcore created in demolition for drive and path foundations where possible,” he says. “It can be counterproductive to break up old concrete too small to be used effectively – labour costs will begin to outweigh savings. Imported crushed concrete and road planings can be a cost-effective substitute for MOT Type 1 in some situations, like drives and areas where there is considerable build-up required, with Type 1 used as the final layer.”
Swatton is often asked to restore or re-use materials on site, and when these have a strong historic tie with the building, reinstating them enhances new work. “In the past, when building flint-faced retaining walls, we have salvaged flints from excavations and used these with collected flint from the local farmer. Often stone for wall repairs and changes can be found on a property.”
His work also often requires blending new features with existing buildings and details, “so we’re constantly trying to source similar materials. On older properties, the result is far more pleasing, but there is a cost implication and specific skill set required. Reclaimed Yorkstone can vary considerably in thicknesses – when laying paving, it is likely more bedding material will be used to take up uneven thickness.”
When building steps and laying coping, he advises that these have to be selected for an even thickness and at times the stone dressed to produce square ends. “This is time-consuming but it is all relative. New stone will be supplied for purpose, which will cut down on time and labour. The choice and overall result is dependent on the project.”