Published in 2/2024 - Matter and Intelligence


A Pioneer of the Circular Economy

Tarja Nurmi

The height of the warehouse hall has enabled new spaces on two floors, with the addition of a new wooden intermediate floor. Impact Hub Berlin is housed in the premises. Kuva: Studio Bowie

The warehouse of a former brewery in Berlin’s Neukölln district is now being used for work and living. The project named CRCLR House has been designed following the principles of circular economy.

At various times, Berlin has been a location for a relatively large amount of experimental construction. The recycling of building materials is familiar, for example, from the recovery of bricks and other building parts after the Second World War. On the other hand, do-it-yourself culture and squatting have also generated their own kind of aesthetics. The culture of utilising the old has gradually become institutionalized, gentrified and even in a way turned against itself. One of the most recent examples is the legendary Tacheles, which was originally built as a department store, but from the time of German reunification until 2012 served as a hub for artists and alternative culture. Since 2022, it has been used by the Fotografiska museum chain, and a large number of the city’s most high-end apartments have been built in the vicinity.

The CRCLR House, located in the Neukölln district, has achieved extensive media coverage as an experimental construction site. It does not represent the architectural peak of reuse, but has nevertheless received a lot of attention as a pioneer of the circular economy. In the recycled house, built originally in 1872 in the barrel storage hall of the Kindl brewery, the focus is on learning new ways of working, teaching them to those who are interested, and acting as an example, both in the Neukölln district and internationally. In addition to the actual architects and companies, enthusiastic volunteer builders from different countries have been involved in the construction along the way.

New timber-frame residential and office floors have been added to the former warehouse. Photo: Andreas Trogisch

Experimental Principles

The context for the project is an urban planning competition related to the brewery area, which was won in 2007 by the office ppp Architekten. Already then it was determined that the area should have both a high and a low culture use.

Cooperative TRNSFRM, linked to the the Swiss anthroposophical-oriented Edith Maryon Foundation, has been responsible for the construction project. Architect Christian Schöningh, who represented the cooperative, was responsible for the final stages of the design.

The Berlin-based architecture firm Hütten & Paläste was also previously involved in the design. In 2019, the design responsibility was completely transferred to Schöningh, because it was feared that the project, which includes a wide range of experimental principles and variables, was getting out of control at the same time as the construction costs increased.

The goal of the foundation and TRNSFRM was to implement a new type of building that does not produce unnecessary construction waste, saves on resources and operates on the so-called urban mining principle, that is, it strives to utilize already existing materials – which in turn are intended to be reusable. Many types of building parts, such as windows, timber parts and sanitary facility components, were obtained from demolished buildings and exhibition structures.

Around two thirds of the materials and products used in the Impact Hub’s premises are recycled and industrial surplus. Photo: Studio Bowie

A Building Within a Building

On its lowest floors, CRCLR House offers spatially well-organized, pleasant offices and meeting rooms with an inviting yet clearly environmentally conscious atmosphere. Impact Hub Berlin, a communal office and gathering space for entrepreneurs and citizens working with the circular economy, sustainable food production, diversity and inclusiveness, as well as green technology, is housed in the premises. LXSY Architekten was responsible for the interior design.

On the two lowest floors, CRCLR House is like a building within a building. The height of the warehouse hall has enabled new spaces on two floors. The new intermediate floors have not been extended all the way to the outer walls, which consolidates the connection with the history of the building.

The original warehouse-like character of Impact Hub’s premises is still nicely visible. A lot of the furniture is recycled and reupholstered, but it has been selected with good taste and quality first in mind. Handsome indoor plants complement the sympathetic atmosphere of the office and communal spaces.

Located at the end of the building and fitted with tall windows, the café-lunch room with its terrace is absolutely beautiful in terms of its aesthetics and finishes. CRCLR House is proof that structures built from recycled materials do not have to represent recycled aesthetics.

 The wooden standing grid with its width of 62.5 cm makes it possible to use even small offcuts of wood. Photo: Studio Bowie

Modifying Practices

There are three completely new residential floors above the warehouse hall as well as two office floors on the east end. The original shallow pitched roof was dismantled and replaced with a concrete intermediate floor structure supported on pillars. The walls of the new floors are a lightweight wooden construction. Straw has been used for insulation, and the walls have been given a clay plaster finish. The large windows of the apartment floors were found by chance on a demolition site. Balconies have had to be excluded for cost reasons, but in terms of the building structure, it would be possible in the future to build them. However, there is a courtyard-like garden platform between the apartment and office floors, which can also be reached by lift.

Klusterwohnunge, or cluster apartments, consist of several smaller independent rental apartments, whose residents also use the apartments’ various common spaces. Due to the material choices and installations, cluster apartments cannot be considered model examples of apartment design, but in being decent they nonetheless give an indication of a completely new way of building and thinking. Their most visible disadvantage is the load-bearing wooden pillars visible from the outside on the end facade, which coincide with the wide windows.

According to architect Christian Schöningh, CRCLR House was more expensive than a typical new building of similar size. Several factors led to this, such as the construction industry’s lack of familiarity with unusual projects as well as the pandemic, which caused a lot of hiccups during the construction phase. Regulations and practices adapted for new construction are quite rigid in such larger circular-economy projects. It will probably still take some time before new practices are established in the field and new types of builders and companies emerge that are able to creatively manage circular economy construction and construction sites.

In terms of environmental values, the site is classified as excellent. It is considered a revolutionary example in the field of the circular economy and an environmentally-friendly experimental construction, even though there are no final calculations to prove it.

On the same plot is also the actual brewery building, which currently functions as an elegant art centre. Its former boiler room, converted into a café, is also a stunning example of placing new functions in interesting spaces. ↙

TARJA NURMI is an architect, non-fiction writer, architecture critic and journalist and the founder and curator of architecture film festival Ark Rex.

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