Upcycling the future of architecture

Pallavi Shrivastava
31 Mar 2015

An interview with Singh Intrachooto, design principal at OSISU, on eco-design and upcycling in architecture

Singh Intrachooto is design principal of Osisu, Thailand’s leading eco-design venture as well as founder of Scrap Lab and Head of the Creative Center for Eco-design, a design and research centre focusing on green products and material development at Kasetsart University of Architecture (Bangkok). He was recently in Mumbai to attend the 361 Degrees Conference as one of the speakers. Pallavi Shrivastava, WAN’s Mumbai correspondent had a chance to speak to him on various facets of his upcycling journey.  

Q. You switched a couple of times before you arrived at your laser sharp focus on upcyling of materials and construction waste. Do you recall, at what point you felt, that's it, this is what I want to do as my focused work? Explain a bit about your journey so far.

A: Actually I have been trained as an architect all along since my bachelor’s degree at the University of Washington (Seattle). In 2002, I came back to Bangkok after staying in the USA for over 20 years and immediately joined the Faculty of Architecture at Kasetsart University since it was the only architecture school in Thailand that focused on sustainable design at the time. Most of the sustainability discourse on sustainable architecture in Thailand was largely on energy efficiency, particularly on active mechanical systems and lighting. 

Even though buildings are made of materials, when talking about sustainability, most did not pay great attention to materials. A monumental amount of trash, debris and scraps have becoming overwhelming everywhere. I thus took it upon myself to know more about materials and to address sustainability from a materials standpoint. That was when I started focusing on Upcycling for architecture around 2005 and started Osisu, through which I began selling upcycled furniture in 2006.

Q. When you spoke about your work, it came across as something you are extremely passionate about, you are someone who is in his core elements. You made it all sound very easy and to a large extent, fun, but in reality it is rather a difficult path as it is something where you are always working against norms. What it been like so far?

A: The beginning was tough. As a designer, being mindful about humanity was and is a great challenge. Without my partner, Ja Tanchookiat, I could never have made it. She is a building contractor who appreciates my design. She at the time also saw an opportunity that most people in Thailand did not. After designing for her, we decided to join together and set up a company, Osisu to sell the upcycled furniture, even though there were not any customers in Thailand. Most people, including our workers, did not see a future in our endeavour. We even were invited out of factories. We were not welcome. Few believed that we wanted to reclaim scraps for upcycled materials and furniture productions. That was in 2006; now in 2015, things have changed tremendously. Designing products from scraps and discards has become accepted in Thailand. Young designers have followed. I am most delighted.

Q. One of most troublesome thoughts that occurs to me is when I see heavily packaged and complex food and cosmetic packaging; the layered tetra pack, for example. The upcycling you mentioned is something truly fascinating. Would you ever propagate less or no packaging so as to reduce production of such complex materials heading towards waste at the very source?

A: Packaging is critical to many industries such as medical supplies and food. I feel that as long as packaging is created to serve beyond mere aesthetics and branding, it is fine. Packaging is a science and helps ensure hygiene. Packing for only aesthetic reasons seems wrong in this day and age. I, however, feel that we should be obliged to find effective systems to bring them back into the production process. A complete re-circulation is indispensable to achieving a healthy environment and economy.

Q. What have been your most difficult and fascinating moments so far in this journey of Upcycling? Were there moments when you questioned your path, or moments that made you feel more convinced to keep going. Please elaborate.

A: The most fascinating moment in my upcycling journey has been the appreciative buyers, especially at the time when most were not. Doing upcycling business and gaining friendships at the same time have been something unexpected. We found that most of our customers are very kind and well educated and look for something soothing. I was also excited when I worked with medical staff at various hospitals because most people fear hospital waste. They don’t know that nearly half of hospital waste is super clean and of high quality. We are able to reclaim and produce new products, which gives all of us great strength to go where no man has gone before (sounds like Star Trek movie). I am happy that my design can provide great delights for them. The biggest challenge in upcycling is how to maintain a steady flow of scraps. We often see huge piles of scraps in factories, but when it comes to actual production, we frequently don’t have enough. Designing with scraps, one must be quick because factories won't wait for long. They usually get rid of scraps quickly to clear areas for normal production. Fast design response is key.

Q. During the 361 Degrees Conference, a question came up on sustainability in architecture and sustainability of human spirit, which thrives on triumphs that we witnessed in some massive architecture endeavours. Can they both co-exist or is there is a natural subtle tension between the two, as one against the other? Tell us in detail. 

A: If one sees sustainability as a balance of ecology, economy and society, it would be hard to achieve sustainability of mankind. Mankind is self-destructive and will find reasons to justify economic gain at an expense of ecology and culture. If one feels that sustainability of human spirit equates sustainability of architecture, again, architects are fooling ourselves.  Architects should practice architecture being mindful of humanity. I think we should all be allergic to the word ‘sustainability’ because it is all about compromises, full of trade-offs. If that is the case, whose needs get traded off first? Sustainability goes against human nature of greed, conceits and freedom. How can we curtail our desires? Our desires are unlimited. Designers fuel desires. GDP (Gross Domestic Products) measures the increase of greed. Higher is better! We need to develop ‘disciplined desires’. Sustainability is both spiritual and physical. One cannot choose to ignore environmental impact for uplifting human spirit.  

Q. Traditional societies have always had sustainable practices at the very core of their lives. Slowly, we have moved towards a consumerist world, which brought branding, packaging, trendy influences, and it seeped into the building industry as well, which eroded these practices. Do you agree or disagree? Can you elaborate your thoughts from the building industry perspective?

A: Agree. Humans have unlimited desires. We always want more of everything – bigger spaces, more money, more options, rarer food, etc. Buildings reflect well the human's great desires for comfort and ego.  

Q. What would your advice be to young and aspiring architects and designers who want to work in the field of sustainability. Who can they look up to as role models for inspiration?

A: Future designers and architects need to explore more, conduct more experiments. That is the only way they can find new and innovative ways to do things beyond form manipulations. I like a Native American Indian’s philosophy: Thinking seven generations ahead! That is approximately 140 years into the future before making a decision. Such decision when applied to architecture can really change the way make buildings.

Q. What is the one material that fascinates you and challenges you continuously? Do tell us why. 

A: The materials that fascinate me are the ones that I have not been able to reclaim or to turn into new materials. Once I solve a scrap, then the fascination ceases. I enjoy working with new scraps that are so worthless and have no value because they are about to become an environmental problem. At the moment, I am working with leather flakes and hemp stalks. Hopefully, one day I will be able to create novel upcycled products from them.

Pallavi Shrivastava 

Mumbai correspondent

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