15 Minutes With: Marshall Blecher (Sustainability 2/5)

For the second installment of our sustainability series, we had the pleasure and privilege of chatting to award winning architect and co-founder of Danish maritime architecture studio, ‘MAST‘, Marshall Blecher.

MAST‘s visionary approach to building on water is reshaping the landscape of sustainable architecture. From developing sustainable building systems that allow for limitless potential, to promoting community and biodiversity in urban areas, MAST’s work is nothing short of breathtaking. MAST has worked on multiple award winning design projects, including the Copenhagan Islands, and the ‘Land on Water’ system, flat packed modules made from recycled and reinforced plastic that make it possible for almost anything to be built on the water.

We chatted with Marshall about how he’s thinking about sustainability, and his vision for a more sustainable future that’s (partly) on water.

FR: Maritime architecture is a pretty unusual field. How did your interest in it come about, and how did that tie in with living in Copenhagen?

MB: So I moved to Denmark before I had any idea about doing anything with maritime architecture – I studied here 9 years ago which is where I met Magnus Maarbjerg (MAST cofounder). We both had some sort of relationship to the harbour in Copenhagen. He grew up on a big ship, sailing around the world from a young age – so he had quite an interesting perspective on harbours all around the world.

I could see that cities were sort of turning their backs on harbours, and saw an opportunity in how we can reconnect cities to the sea. I was also living on a houseboat at the time in Copenhagen, and I grew up swimming and surfing and diving. We actually had the idea (for MAST) quite early, but went off in our own directions. Then a few years ago we started doing projects on the side, and built that up and now MAST is our main focus.

FR: Sustainability seems to underpin quite a lot of the work you do at MAST. How do you think working with water links to sustainability?

MB: I think there are a few ways. You have to be very aware of sea level rise for one. I think Denmark’s a bit ahead of the curve, they take it very seriously. It’s a very flat country, very close to the ocean so they’re actively trying to find ways of preparing the city for sea level rise. A lot of what we do is thinking about how we can do that in an interesting way. When you build on land, you typically build something which will sit there for 20-50 years, and then when you want to build something else you knock it down and most of the waste goes to landfill. When you build a house or a building on water, when you don’t want it anymore you can move it somewhere else – It gives the potential to extend the lifespan.

“When you build a house or a building on water, when you don’t want it anymore you can move it somewhere else – It gives the potential to extend the lifespan.

FR: I guess that sense of non-permanency is something kind of unique to building on water. You mentioned rising sea levels as an environmental risk factor for construction, and your projects have those concerns in mind. Would you say you see maritime architecture as a solution to a crisis that’s already occurring, or more preventative?

MB: I’m not sure it’s a solution. I think it’s a small part of the solution. I think it’s also good to refocus. Copenhagen has done a really amazing job – London has a little way to go with the Thames…I’ve worked on the Thames before. By changing the way we think of the river or the harbour as a sort of public asset, which we can all share and use in interesting ways, and build businesses on it, and make it a backyard of the city – that also brings attention to the environmental problems. In Copenhagen, the amount of energy that’s gone in to cleaning the harbour and bringing back fish and sea life is really amazing. I think by creating nicely designed sustainable buildings and public utilities along the harbour, that also focuses our attention as a community on how we can improve the environment.

FR: Yeah, definitely – do you also then see it as an extension of green spaces, and a place to promote biodiversity?

MB: In the past we’ve just treated water as water, but in Copenhagen, there’s certainly a growing appreciation of what’s under the water and how we can improve that, and we’ve done a lot of projects that specifically focus on that – giving people a glimpse of whats in the water and trying to restore the ecosystems. Another thing I’d say about the environmental side of things is we see floating buildings as an alternative to land reclamation.

In many places around the world, from Copenhagen to Dubai to the Maldives, its quite common when you need some additional space, you pump sand and silt from the seabed to make new land and that’s a really destructive practice environmentally. So instead of doing that, we think it’s a much more positive approach to build floating buildings, which disrupts the ecosystem much less and can actually enhance the ecosystem if it’s done properly.

“By changing the way we think of the water as a public asset, which we can all share and use – make it a backyard of the city.”

FR: Amazing – following on from that, some of the islands that you’ve made are built from recycled plastic. Why do you think not everyone uses sustainable materials or sustainable ways of working? What do you think the main blocker to that is?

MB: It’s a few reasons I think. It’s unproven – and it’s also more expensive, mostly. That’s just the way it is. I’m sure it can be done more affordably if incentives were changed, but at the moment it seems to be more expensive working with reclaimed materials. Labour is the biggest cost, and it costs more to handle these materials – it’s really unfortunate but we do it wherever possible.

FR: Is there anything that strikes you as a way that could make costs come down for sustainable materials – what do you think needs to change?

MB: The opposite should happen to be honest. I think the cost of new materials should go up. We should tax materials which are polluting and damaging, like virgin plastic and concrete – that would all of a sudden make recycled materials more competitive. Because the people making this concrete and plastic don’t pay for any of the externalities that they’re creating, it’s so cheap. You can buy a brand new concrete and Styrofoam pontoon for less than you can use old barrels which seems wrong to me.

“The cost of new materials should go up. We should tax materials which are polluting and damaging, like virgin plastic and concrete – that would all of a sudden make recycled materials more competitive.”

FR: Yeah, the fact the environmental cost isn’t reflected in the price of those materials seems insane. How do you think sustainability informs your projects, and what’s your favourite project you’ve worked on when it comes to sustainability?

MB: Again, I think Copenhagen is quite progressive in the sense that it really is part of every project and every conversation. It’s not like it used to be – something that you would sort of add on as a small piece at the end of your presentation about ‘Sustainability’. But now it’s the main focus – it’s always in the conversation when we’re talking about materials and details and programs.

My favourite project…we’re working on one at the moment which is interesting. It’s a sort of self initiated project for a floating cabin, it’s going to be floating out in the harbour, not connected to the land. The challenge there is to use sustainable materials but also a new technology to create a totally off-grid accommodation. I think it’s possible, but we haven’t built it yet. That’s something I’m excited about, using solar panels and I want to make an onboard sewage processing system – as boring as that sounds, I think it’s an interesting challenge.

FR: And would that be the first step to creating a wider floating community, or would it be just that isolated structure?

MB: It’s a stepping stone I hope. I think it’s an important thing to do to make a small scale prototype.

“Copenhagen is quite progressive in the sense that sustainability really is part of every project and every conversation.”

FR. For sure. what are some of the unexpected downsides or the problems you’ve run into if you were going to live on one of these structures?

MB: I mean, the downside is if you want to go shopping you have to take a boat. For me that;s not a downside but there are limitations. You can only generate a certain amount of power and you’re relying a lot on unproven technology. It’s been getting much better – I think its possible now, but it’s not as easy as building a house on land and plugging in sewage and electricity intot he main grid. That’s the main challenge, but I think if we can solve that it could it could be great.

FR: I guess its a prototype of what could be possible.

MB: Yeah – It’s a nice visual metaphor for going off grid. People build off grid houses all the time on land, but I think by putting it in the middle of the water, you see very clearly that it’s not possible to be ‘on-grid’. I liked that as well – It’s a bit of a space pod.

FR: I love the idea of that – there’s a lot of attention towards technologies like 3D printing and repurposement methods at the moment, what idea in sustainability are you most excited for, in terms of future application and innovation?

MB: We’ve done a lot of stuff with modern timber construction – that’s really exciting. I think the potential is sort of limitless with what you can do. We’ve built a sauna recently where we’ve tried to remove all the plastic from the construction. So we had wooden insulation, and CLT construction – it’s pretty amazing what you can do with a robot and a piece of wood, so I still find that really exciting. It’s maybe not most on the edge, but I think it’s got a lot of potential that hasn’t been fully realised yet.

You can explore Marshall and MAST’s incredible work on their website.

We execute all our projects at Formroom sustainably as possible – one of the ways we do this is by researching and learning from industry innovators. To discuss more about sustainable design, or if you’re interested in taking part in the sustainability conversation, get in touch below.