The construction industry accounts for 40 percent of the world’s energy usage, according to the US Green Building Council, and is a major contributor to the world’s pollution, particularly through material production. For the architecture and design community, that means a responsibility to take on creative approaches to reduce waste and repurpose materials. Upcycling—the process of using, adapting, and upgrading materials that would otherwise be waste—is a practical way for architects and designers to reduce their environmental footprint.

Whether it’s a project at home or a underused community anchor that the town may be fond of but doesn’t quite know how to reimagine, upcycling is all about resourcefulness. By developing a blueprint for better, architects can look at a project as more than a new structure and get creative with materials to contribute a symbol of good for the community.

In the case of the Blue Barn Theatre in Omaha, Nebraska, upcycling materials to build a new small arts organization resulted in an innovative space built with local resources, repurposed historical pieces, and handmade features. Its maple lobby floor is reclaimed from a demolished building at 27th and N Streets, the seating for the audience is from the Omaha Community Playhouse before it was remodeled, and the sinks are repurposed from Angie’s Steakhouse, which was previously located on the building site. The new Blue Barn Theatre asserts the creativity and freedom that a small arts organization can have in a city like Omaha, Nebraska.

In an interview with the Omaha World Herald, project architect Jeff Day, AIA, of Min | Day said, “The use of artists to design and build different parts of the building, such as the stone entryway, is not a common way to integrate art and architecture. Artwork usually is done after construction is finished.” And, Day said, “the building’s design nods to its neighborhood: a mixture of homes, brick industrial buildings, a post office.” The architecture and design team worked to make the Blue Barn Theatre as unique and intriguing as the performances the building itself hosts, while also ensuring it represents its community.

So the next time you’re thinking of throwing out old things around the house or redoing a room, think of the Blue Barn Theatre. Some of those materials could be repurposed throughout your home with just the right facelift—the old shed in the backyard could be converted into a guest room, the wood from a bedroom set could be made into the perfect kitchen table for your child’s first home, and even your grandfather’s thermos could be turned into an eclectic vase. Upcycling lets you maintain the sentimentality of the original materials while also reducing waste, creating eco-friendly and cost-effective solutions.

For more Blueprint for Better stories, check out the third annual I Look Up Film Challenge. AIA has invited filmmakers and architects to team up to share their stories. All submitted films were reviewed, chosen by an esteemed panel of judges from the media and architecture world, and then shared with the public for a special People’s Choice vote. Winners will be screened at the Architecture and Design Film Festival in New York City, and win cash and distribution prizes. To join the conversation, use the hashtag #ilookup.

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