Circl Amsterdam

Is there value in quirky ‘green’ design features?

Should we line buildings with recycled jeans for insulation – or would that be written off as a slick marketing ploy to get people talking?

That’s not a hypothetical question. Recently over lunch, an architect asked me if I’d heard of a building in Amsterdam that did, in fact, use old jeans as insulation.

The building in question was Circl – a mixed-use development built on the premise of packing in as much recycled materials as humanly possible. Even the on-site restaurant is in on it, using vegetables “rescued” from being thrown away.

Despite its lofty aspirations (Circl’s website calls the building a “circular platform”; elsewhere it’s a “clubhouse for circular pioneers”), what got us talking was the fact that this building used 16,000 old pairs of jeans.

Would we have talked about it – or about circularity in general – had it not been for those jeans? I’m not sure.

But what if the building in question had dumped thousands of old jeans into the ceiling with no actual effort to cut down on waste anywhere else? Would we have been talking about a building that didn’t warrant our attention?

Telling a story

Tetris JLL Manchester

JLL North West office in Manchester, England

“There’s an opportunity to be sustainable in your design, but also let those unaware of the efforts become aware of it,” says Nikhil Dhumma, design lead at Tetris.

His team was behind several JLL offices, one of which ­– in Manchester, UK – was lodged in my memory from a few years ago because it used recycled yoghurt pots for its worktops. That was the main feature I remembered ­(and one reason I turned to him for his thoughts on the subject).

Dhumma tells me that designs always have to start with hitting clients’ performance and technical requirements. These might include certificates such as BREEAM or WELL, and non-certifiable targets like whole-life carbon assessments.

Those recycled yoghurt pots became part of a bigger sustainability agenda, which saw JLL’s North West HQ receive WELL Platinum, BREEAM Excellent and SKA Gold certifications.

But, once a design has achieved the substance it needs, his position is: “If there is a ‘quirky’ angle that we could take, let’s explore that. And if it fits within the aesthetic concept, great, because it might add that storytelling piece.”

While standardising processes is good, Dhumma argues there are many ways to achieve a single goal. So why not use materials that are specific to the area or that set the building apart from others around it? Why not haul in recycled Italian leather for cladding when the opportunity arises?

Avoiding material traps

But that’s not say you can throw some greenery around an office for Instagram after getting a strong BREEAM rating and call it a day.

Dhumma says any materials they use have to be appropriate for the duration of the project. “Yes, you could put a moss panel on a wall, but how long is that going to last?” he says.

While living walls have their benefits – among them better mental wellbeing, better building thermal performance and noise reduction – there are other factors to consider. How much water will it need, and where will that water come from? Does it need artificial light? What is the energy consumption of all those things? It doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it, but the calculation isn’t necessarily straightforward.

So what about those jeans?

Just like the yoghurt lids, insulation jeans are almost a narrative device. They tell the story of the building without assuming listeners understand terms like circularity or ESG. “There are recycled jeans in the ceiling” tells you what you need to know.

At Circl, that works because the features don’t stop at jeans. The window frames were taken from old office buildings; there are 500 solar panels on the roof, which also boasts a roof garden to improve biodiversity. (I asked ABN AMRO, the Dutch bank behind the building, about the environmental impact of the jeans themselves, but they have not responded at the time of writing)

If, however, there is no substance behind these conversation starters, they will eventually attract accusations of greenwashing. If you decide to include them, remember that they might spur conversation – but conversations will inevitably lead to questions. Are you prepared to answer them?

Explore the inside of Circl with this virtual tour

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