A whole different process
Nuno Vasconcelos, architect
Interview August 28, 2013, Berlin
Nuno is a portugese-born architect currently based in Berlin. He had his first experience working with earth plaster in Berlin-Kreuzberg during a clay plaster workshop. This took place directly on a construction site – the renovation of an Altbau apartment, i.e. an old Berliner apartment. He tells us about his interest in building with earth, which traces back to his childhood in Portugal, and leads him to rethink the meaning of « building ».
You are an architect. Why are you interested in clay?
I became tired of the fast industrial construction system – it is just a market. For me, architecture is not something commercial. Instead, it is about working with people for people. I am interested in building with earth, because it is very different from industrial building methods.
Building with clay means working on a construction site with other people and coming up with creative solutions together.
Although ecology is not the main reason, as an architect, it is important to consider the environment and the vast amounts of plastic that are used to construct buildings. In one or two hundred years, we will see the ruins of plastic around us. However, it is no longer possible to build anything without plastic or other synthetic materials today. Moreover, the construction materials are manufactured industrially and you have to buy them.
« It was previously common in Portugal to build your own house. »
When I was young, people in my parents´ generation used to build their own houses, with some help from friends and relatives. They did not have to depend on large companies. Instead, all they needed was the help of a skilled craftsman. The concept is the same in earth building.
I believe this could be a good alternative, especially in the current financial crisis, particularly if you have the time. I think many people in Portugal have enough time right now.
Portugal is famous for its old historical buildings. How are they being renovated?
Many construction companies in Portugal favour the use of modern materials, like cement. It is easier to gut a building, keep the facade, and renovate it fast. It looks beautiful at first, but it does not last. Often, it is not necessary to gut the whole building. You get a lot of building rubble and removing material means a loss of cultural heritage. Many companies do not know how to renovate an old building with sustainable material.
I did a project for a family in Portugal that wanted to renovate their old house. A construction company suggested removing everything inside and rebuilding it. But why? We were able to reuse all the material that was in the house. It was not at all necessary to gut it completely! The dominating view in Portugal is that “new is better”.
Construction companies find it to be a big risk to renovate existing rooms. Most of the time, “surprises” come up during the process of renovation, and unexpected problems cost time and money. Besides, you have to know the material of the old house. But very often, it is not the case.
From real estate boom to empty houses – Time for a reflection?
How did the financial crisis influence the construction and renovation industry in Portugal?
I know that my friends in the construction sector are out of work today. The construction economy in Portugal has come to a standstill. Just a few years ago it was the biggest sector of Portugal´s economy. Many new buildings emerged during the real estate boom. Now, lots of houses stand empty or are up for sale. No one is interested in buying. On one hand, that is a shame. But on the other, it is an opportunity to take a break and rethink the system. Something has to change.
How would you support clients in Portugal, interested in building with earth?
Up till now, I have not received such a request. If I did, I would have to find a professional earth building team first.
How do clients get interested in building with earth?
Well, clients approach me with some sort of idea. If they want to build a modern house, I have to respond to their wishes; I am not free to decide on the design on my own. After all, my customer´s wishes come first for me as an architect. If clients already have a certain idea, it is difficult to get them interested in naturally sustained building methods, especially since alternative methods are not widespread yet.
Berlin: modern Earth architecture
Why did you come to Berlin? What is your impression of the city?
I needed a break from my work in Portugal. In Berlin, people have a different attitude towards life.
I live new experiences and get new ideas. That is how I discovered interesting possibilities in modern architecture, such as contemporary earth building. From visiting the “Kapelle der Versöhnung” (Chapel of Reconciliation) in Berlin Mitte, my interest in building with earth grew.
There are a few introductory clay plaster courses in Portugal, but none are directly on a construction site. In Berlin, there are companies that exclusively work with earth in modern architecture. There are people, who want to build a new house or renovate an old one with clay. That is something new for me. I find the introduction of earth in modern architecture very interesting.
You took part in a clay plaster course in an old apartment in Berlin. What was your impression working with clay?
My first impression was that the room air felt very nice. The material – the clay plaster – looked friendly and felt healthy. I felt light at this construction site.
I realized that clay plaster is a slow process. You have to take your time. But I also understand that usually deadlines are the main problem on a construction site; Work has to be efficient, as time is important for a company.
« I want to encourage people to build their own houses. »
What is your goal for the next years?
My wish is to encourage even more people to build their houses with natural materials. I would like to develop a new building process that differs from the industrial process, costs less, and helps people build their houses themselves. This new process should provide answers to questions such as: « How do I start my own building project? Where can I get professional advice? Where can I find technical support? » But first, I need more experience.
How are you going to continue your training in earth building?
I have been in Berlin for a year now and would like
to get more practical experiences. I would like to work with companies and craftsmen in the earth building business and make new contacts.
Interview Nuno Vasconcelos, architect, Berlin