Extreme Recycling in the Big Dig House


The Big Dig House by Single Speed Design is a testament to recycling.  More than 600,000 pounds of material were recovered from the massive Boston transit project known as the Big Dig and were reused to make this 3,400 square foot house.  Temporary road sections (formerly used as access ramps for a bridge), support beams that shored up a slurry wall, and other pieces were saved from being sent to a landfill and instead became the bones of this unique home.

A project like this isn't the kind of thing that is going to be reproduced, at least not directly.  Even when the materials can be had for free, there are still costs to bring the material to the building site. But more importantly, because they are not standardized materials and because they are not being used in standard ways, the labor (for design as well as assembly) needed to turn those pieces into a home such as this must be much more involved.

But when those talents are brought to bear, wonderful projects such as this house can be the result.  Something unique and interesting can be created out of discarded materials.  But neither the approach nor the end result is anything off-the-shelf.  As Single Speed Design notes on their website, "Most importantly, the house demonstrates an untapped potential for the public realm: with strategic front-end planning, much needed community programs including schools, libraries, and housing could be constructed whenever infrastructure is deconstructed, saving valuable resources, embodied energy, and taxpayer dollars."


Roofgarden Bridgestairs




[+] Thinking green, going global by The Boston Globe
[+] The House the the Central Artery Built by The Boston Globe.
[+] The Recycled Home by BusinessWeek.

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  • http://www.ecopolitology.org/ timhurst

    I saw a program about this project on This Old House or NOVA (at least somewhere on PBS I think). Considering the structural flaws that have caused rather severe leaking in Boston’s newest tunnels, perhaps they could get some of the materials back?!

  • Gabriel

    If everyone in the world would like to have a house this size, would we have the resources to build them and live that way?? If you want to live that well, go ahead, it’s your choice, but please don’t advertise it as a solution to anything, and please please please, do not feel well about your contribution to make this planet a better place. This is called hypocrisy.

  • Aaron

    To Gabriel, I don’t think the point of this article, or the project, was to be a solution to poor resource management. Rather, it’s an example of what is possible with recycling. I am not sure where you see the hypocrisy. Instead of dumping those materials into a landfill, they were modified and used to make a rather stunning house. It is the example they make that should be seen as the contribution.

  • Gabriel

    Yes it’s true, it seems I saw it a bit from the wrong perspective. It’s just that I see so much ‘green’ stuff and talking and the main course, the path we are into doesn’t change so much, yet we allow ourselves to feel well about these little changes we do. Hypocrisy would be in saying that we help the environment by building a big house like this for four or less people, even if we are recycling. But maybe no one is saying that, so never mind.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/psproefrock/ Philip Proefrock

    I agree with Gabriel about needing to keep an eye on the larger picture. I saw an ad in my paper this weekend for a recycled paper towel that was headlined with a statistic about how many million tons of paper get thrown away each year. The disconnect in this (talking about how many tons of paper waste are generated and then trying to sell paper towels) is far too common.

    Single Speed (the architects for this project) also did a proposal for a Big Dig Building (unbuilt) which would have extended some of these ideas into a larger, mixed use building with multiple residential and business occupancies. Probably a greener option than the single-family version. But sometimes you need the earlier proof-of-concept projects first.

    Keeping 300 tons of material out of the landfill and innovative design are legitimate claims this project can make. But it’s not a model of sustainability in itself.

    Designing temporary construction materials so that they can be readily re-used, rather than being discarded is the bigger lesson to be taken from this project, and not the specific implementation.

  • Philip Proefrock
  • Aaron

    And with the last points made by Gabriel and Phillip, and I agree: 1) multi-functional spaces need to become the norm. Urban planning in the US was more or less nonexistent during the development of most American cities, and that can be seen in the inefficient use of space. With ever increasing fuel costs and no real viable (and cleaner) replacement on the horizon, the idea of community will have to change. Commuting 10, 20, 30 or more miles to work or shop will be more and more expensive, “community” will need to be brought to a more micro scale: say the neighborhood. Along with that comes mixed use buildings, that will need to be sustainable and reusable.
    2) In the paper towel example, you are absolutely right: wouldn’t a cloth towel be more green? it’s reusable, basically infinitely. Energy is spent making it once. And cost to clean a towel has to be far less than to recycle, then reconstitute, a paper towel.

    Thank you for the great conversation!

  • http://www.jetsongreen.com Preston

    And to finish TimHurst’s comment, PBS did have a show on this house in the e2: design season one series. It was in episode 4 called Gray to Green.

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  • http://www.ssdarchitecture.com jh

    thanks for posting this! just wondering if an admin can correct the size of the house – it’s actually 3400sf, not 4300sf, a typo that’s proliferated across the internet.(approximately 2 times smaller than the new construction in the area).

  • icculus

    dig the big picture… too many fish in the fish bowl! who cares how big the house is? or how many paper towels are made from recycled paper? untill people grasp the population problem by the balls, the polution problem will always be presant. good for them, they bult a house from one mans garbage, in this case it becomes one mans castle. this is not an answer to any enviro-issue, but it is a fine looking design!

  • AEB

    No one is trying to make this project a solution to anything. This man saved 30 tons of materials from ending up in a landfill. Thats it. Hes not trying to say this is how people should live, but just that this is a great way to recycle

  • Rodney

    A little disingenuous! Steel I beams do not end up in the landfill. I’m not saying this isn’t a good thing for the most part. Just don’t make it more than it is.

  • http://www.topografiagarza-laser-cad.com.mx/ topografiagarza

    topografiagarza-laser-cad perfecto….

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