For this roof, Thomas Rau went to find a roller coaster manufacturer. The result: 35 percent less steel needed than for a regular roof.
Photo (CC BY-NC-ND): turntoo

Forget about energy-efficient construction – architect Thomas Rau is a step ahead already, getting manufacturers and companies to handle raw materials sustainably and take responsibility even after they sell them.

Strictly speaking, Rau is an architect, and a very good one, too – he has virtually been showered with awards for his sustainable buildings; from his extension to the Dutch World Wildlife Fund headquarters in Zeist near Utrecht, which is considered Europe’s first carbon-neutral building, to Woopa, an office and residential complex in Lyon, one of the world’s first energy-positive structures. This means that it generates more energy than it takes to operate, heat and cool it.

Thomas Rau, an Amsterdam-based German architect, is considered a pioneer of climate-neutral construction, and for good reason. But, as the 56-year-old has come to realize in 25 years of practice: “Sustainability and energy neutrality alone are not enough to bring about real change.” He actually believes that the energy problem has already been solved: “It is all a question of attitude, we have plenty of renewable energy to go around.”

The challenge: You guys turn, too!

He deems the global waste of materials such as glass, stone or steel to be a far more acute and pressing problem – “as is the resulting lack of raw materials, which is rapidly getting worse,” says the father of three as he paces across his open-plan office in the north of Amsterdam, where dozens of employees are sitting in front of their computer screens.

Yet Rau is not only an architect, but also a visionary, inspirer and changemaker. Seeing connections and breaking through barriers and hierarchies have been his specialties since his college days in the early eighties, when he chose to major in architecture, but refused to be pigeonholed. Two years into his studies, he dropped out: “This is all nonsense. What they teach me here isn’t relevant to me at all.” Music and dance, economics and ecology, sculpture, painting, philosophy – he wanted to learn all these things, as well. Persistent and hard-headed, he managed to do things his way and created his own schedule that included all these subjects. “I think universal studies should be mandatory for all prospective architects during their first three years of college.”

For then – and that is his mission – architecture could become a vehicle for social change from the ground up, turning problems into challenges rather than threats.

One such challenge is the scarcity of natural resources, which he addressed in 2010 by founding Turntoo. After a quarter-century of sustainable building, he shifted his focus to a new niche: architecture meets resource management. The goal is to move away from private property, away from consumables with a short lifespan that end up in the trash – towards sustainable services. “We have to abandon the idea of private property; we must stop defining ourselves via the objects we own.” In the future, people will no longer consume based on the notion of property, but on the notion of service, hence the company name: Turntoo – you guys turn, too.

Put accountability where the power is

Rau leads by example: He approached lamp and lightbulb manufacturer Philips about his office lighting with a highly unusual request: “My friends, I want my work desk illuminated at 300 lux for 1,600 hours. I don’t care how you do it. I don’t want your lamps, or your bulbs, or a power bill. I just want the light.” Rau smiles as he recalls how challenging Philips found this request. But now the corporation bills the architectural firm for hours of lighting, which quickly resulted in a much lower power bill, because Philips is the one who has to foot it now. They chose and mounted the lamps and light fixtures in a way that reduced energy costs by 30 percent. “This is what happens when accountability remains with the powerful, in other words, with the supplier of the service, rather than being pushed off onto the consumer,” Rau reports almost triumphantly. Another example: A society for social housing projects contacted him, telling him that many tenants refused to pay their rent because of the many broken washers and fridges they had to contend with. Did Rau have an idea how to remedy that? “No surprise there!” he huffs. “If you’re poor, you’re not going to buy an eco-friendly washer. The one you buy is likely to break down sooner rather than later – and your energy bill ends up being higher than your rent!” The remedy he suggested sounded outrageous at first: “Why don’t you buy your tenants top-of-the-line fridges and washers – and charge them for hours of cooling or loads of laundry instead?”

So that’s what they did. The appliances that were made available to the roughly 100 households were taken within 12 hours. “If they break down, it’s on you, you bear the cost,” Rau had warned the producer ahead of time. The supplier paled, for the average pump fails after three years, washer doors break after five. So he made sure that he only supplied the best and sturdiest appliances, which would last at least fifteen years. Which goes to show, as Rau points out once again, that accountability must be where the power is: “It changes everything.”

Look for roller coaster manufacturers and create identities

The same principle applied in 2014, when his firm wanted to put a steel roof on a new construction for a power company while at the same time lowering material costs. The feat succeeded after Rau had the idea to bring a roller coaster manufacturer to the table. “Everyone else was trying to sell us as much steel as possible. Yet a roller coaster must be set up and dismantled fast, every kilo counts. The result: The roof was built using about 35 percent less steel than regular roofs. “As a matter of fact, we should always look for roller coaster manufacturers to work with.” All his ideas are in his book Material Matters, which appeared on the Dutch market in 2016 and is to be translated into German and English. And on 10 December 2018, marking the 70-year-anniversary of the UN Declaration of Universal Human Rights, Rau wants to proclaim the “Universal Rights of Resources” in 33 articles: He wants to lift them from anonymity and give them an identity. “For something that has an identity doesn’t just get squandered.” He demands that each product, each building, must be given an ID, a sort of passport listing all the materials that went into its construction, to make sure that they are not lost and will be reclaimed when the product itself reaches the end of its useful life.

The town hall of Brummen in the Netherlands, one of Rau’s most recent projects, already has such a natural resource passport: Suppliers have obligated themselves to take back all natural resources and building materials in case the building should ever be demolished. The new headquarters of Triodos bank near Utrecht, scheduled to be completed by 2018, is not only energy-positive, but also equipped with a natural resource passport. Yet it might be a long time before this building will have outlived its purpose: Rau designed it in a way that the bank can easily be converted into 16 residential units. Rau believes that architects must always think on their feet and look ahead if they are to rise to the challenge of changing society from within by making positive contributions. Because, as this visionary among builders says: “Architecture always anticipates the needs of the future.”