Revival Projects is an organisation like no other. Recognising a disastrous waste problem within the building industry – with almost half of waste worldwide coming from construction and demolition – the company has positioned itself between the materials themselves and the tip.
This has spawned not only a business focused on distributing reusable building materials from demolition projects but a social movement aimed to bring the Hippocratic Oath to design and architecture in Melbourne. For Founder Robbie Neville, long-lasting materials such as timber and brick, which still constitute a majority of buildings in inner-Melbourne, are “one degree of separation” from being usable again. All that was needed was someone to step in and advocate for their re-use.
Hidden in the backstreets of Collingwood is a dusty warehouse slated for demolition. The shear walls are lined with 100-year-old red bricks, a common feature of this formerly industrial, now hip inner-Melbourne suburb. Inside, opaque light glares through steel-framed windows illuminating a raked timber-clad ceiling, supported by majestic tree-like beams spanning more than 20 metres. Every corner of the space is occupied by shelves stacked high with timber beams and offcuts, a tell-tale sign that this is the next iteration of the Revival Projects Zero Footprint Repurposing Hub, a halfway house for building materials as they await their new home. Quiet now, this space is usually a flurry of activity, power tools and creativity ablaze as existing materials are given a new purpose for someone in the community. Arrays of tools are arranged busily in racks across a dusty timber benchtop; chisels, clamps, pliers and drills poised with potential, overseen grandly by a row of 40 or more handsaws, each telling a story of kilometres tirelessly wandered back and forth across countless planks of wood.
This is the work of Revival Projects, which Robbie founded in 2016. Revival Projects does a lot of things, primarily though, it is a building practice unwaveringly committed to sustainability. Robbie has a simple, no-nonsense definition of sustainability: “use what you already have.” Practically, this means that Revival prioritises existing materials at every turn. This commitment is not skin deep – not a feature wall of second hand bricks, a table of re-used pallets, nor a façade clad in rustic timber – but an insistence that every part of a building, from the walls to the beams and throughout, has the potential to be constructed of existing materials. The problem thus far has been hesitancy from designers and engineers, Robbie says. “That was the inception of Revival, [a recognition that] it’s just too difficult at the moment and too expensive when you have to pay each contractor separately [to reclaim materials], so let’s bring it under one roof,” he explains. And so he assembled a team of designers, licensed structural engineers, registered builders, joiners and furniture makers to not only make it possible but to show how good re-used materials can look, to combat the stigma that existing materials will always look rustic. “If we want to change the way the industry perceives [the relevance of] existing materials then we need to demonstrate with tangible, delivered projects,” he says. The task then, over the last six years, has been for the team to build up an impressive portfolio of completed work, including shopfitting, commercial and residential projects, showing the potential of these materials to meet the refined aesthetic of high-profile architecture projects.
That hard work has finally been recognised, with the Zero Footprint Repurposing Hub awarded the 2022 Melbourne Design Week Award. The hub is a simple concept – take a. space slated for demolition and turn it into free storage for materials disassembled from current demolition projects, on the strict condition that those materials are intended to be incorporated back into the new development on the site from which they came. More than just a purgatory for the discarded, these spaces become a ‘waiting room’ for materials as they are taken from one project and channelled back into the next. Robbie explains that they do not take ownership of the materials, nor supply them, their role is simply as a facilitator: “our focus is purely helping people use what they already have.” While each hub in the Revival Projects Zero Footprint repurposing story is itself slated for demolition, the space is not left as a graveyard but is imbued with a new meaning and liveliness, just as the timber and brick is given a new purpose and meaning in life. The current hub in Collingwood has seen its own resurrection of sorts, cleaned up and enlivened with white paint and inspiring murals. The mission, both a description and a promise – “we are here to normalise responsible use of existing materials” – is printed in bold white font against a black background.
The first hub, in 2020, was a modest space in South Melbourne, in two halves. While one part was demolished, Revival set up in the other part, channelling demolished materials from the structure (including around 2,000 lineal metres of timber) through the hub either back into the new construction or into projects in the community, such as bars and eateries, and running workshops for women. “These are wonderful community-designed-and-built projects that are now places you can go and touch those materials and be part of that narrative of reuse,” Robbie proudly explains. This second hub, a 1,500 square metre warehouse, is far more ambitious. Where the first consisted of timber and bricks with approximately 25-28 tonnes of embodied carbon, the new hub contains more than 800 tonnes. Considering all that was accomplished as a result of the first hub, the possibilities for the tonnes of materials readily available in this second phase are limited only by the imagination. Tony Ellwood AM, Director of National Gallery of Victoria, says, “Zero Footprint Repurposing is a project of ambitious scale with global importance. Offering a unique platform for the design and construction industry to make a sustainable impact, the project is a real catalyst for positive change.” Reflecting on winning the award, “it feels promising,” says Robbie. “The award seemed to give us this gravitas that makes people think that ‘if the NGV decided that they are legit, then maybe they are.”
This unrelenting commitment to sustainability does not come from nowhere, and Robbie says that it all started with his family. “My parents gave me a value of being resourceful. As a kid, it probably annoyed me; we would always have to get things repaired, shoes resoled, clothes handed down from sibling to sibling. That was born out of modest circumstances but having that value of being resourceful means it makes you uncomfortable if you see shit getting thrown away.” The drive, then, isn’t a grandiose gesture to save the planet (although Robbie does recognise that the flow of materials has global impacts), but a simple understanding that this material still has more to offer. He had originally started a small construction business in England specialising in heritage refurbishment, taking on projects such as the original Oxford University Student Halls, which inspired in him a “passion for things that last” and a skill for integrating the old with the new. Moving to Christchurch to restore heritage buildings damaged during the September 2010 earthquake, his dreams were dashed when the second, more destructive earthquake hit in February the next year. His belongings still sailing from London to Christchurch, “we moved to Melbourne with nothing.” Starting work on construction sites straight away, he sold his records to purchase power tools, all the while studying at night to become a registered builder. Within a year of living in Melbourne, he moved to Fitzroy; “I fell in love with the music and the cultural scene and the community.”
Exploring the streets of Fitzroy is where it all started, Robbie explains. “I would walk past a site and see timber beams being thrown in the skip, so I would get chatting [with the tradespeople].” Soon after, he was salvaging materials locally, stockpiling them in his garden. “It started so humbly,” Robbie recalls, “before I had a van, I would be putting materials onto skateboards and wheeling them back to the apartment. And then [when] I got a van, I would pay the demolition guys with slabs of beers at the right time. They would say, ‘leave the beer here, and we’ll leave the gate unlocked here.’ Me and my friends would spend all night getting the wood out, and we would take it back and store it in my garden.” This wasn’t without risk, as he explains, “I got in trouble with the owners’ corporation because we were living in a block of flats, and the garden was overflowing with building materials.”
His first big demolition salvage was The Lyric Theatre on Johnston Street (opened in 1911 and demolished in 2016). It was the first time Robbie spent a significant amount of his own money on handling and storing the timber, with no fixed project to channel them into. “I had no certain use for the materials, but I wanted to invest any money I had to ensure it didn’t go to landfill.” It didn’t take him long to find uses for it. As his building business began to take off, he was able to channel the materials into different projects over a period of five years, such as retail fit-outs including several R.M. Williams stores and Patagonia on Little Collins Street, as well as smaller domestic projects. “We used it very efficiently so that it could go into as many uses as possible and tell that narrative to as broad an audience as possible.”
Robbie’s work on Revival Projects started in earnest in January 2020, but in March 2020 the pandemic hit, and “every lead that I had and every job that I had was effectively cancelled overnight.” Faced with a make-or-break moment, Robbie and his wife went all in, “that period tested my conviction more than ever,” he recalls. Simultaneously though, he recognised that the opportunity would never come again. “I remember saying to my wife, maybe we’re doing exactly what we’re supposed to be doing at exactly the right time.” His commitment paid off. By 2021, they’d turned a corner and the industry started to take notice, with an increasing amount of interest in their mission.
The time feels right, Robbie reflects. “I’ve been in the industry for 21 years now, and I’m only just ready.” While skills in building and construction are important to this work, fundamentally, repurposing is about people, demonstrating the potential within these materials and the extent to which existing structures can be re-used. Looking at the Collingwood space, Robbie describes, “everything there can be nominated either for repurposing or recycling. One of the key inhibitors for repurposing materials has been the issue of storage. When a building is demolished, there is an enormous volume of material available. With the Collingwood space, we were able to take away that barrier.”
With the barrier removed, the offer is then open to anyone in the industry to use this storage space to store disassembled materials, on the condition that they are incorporated into the new design. Because of its size, the Collingwood structure is supported by impressive 20-metre Douglas fir beams, likely harvested from an old growth forest in North America more than 100 years ago. “If you take [the beams] down, there is no processing required to use them again, maybe removing some nails. Compare that, in terms of energy consumption, to the harvesting and transport of new materials; it’s a win-win.” He describes how this is just one building of many across the city, each containing a wealth of timber and brick that have already and will continue to outlast our lifespan. Through the act of harvesting these materials, we have an obligation to use them to their fullest, Robbie explains. “These old-growth trees never should have been cut down. All that we can do now is make a clear distinction between us and the people who harvested what should have never been harvested.”
Robbie believes that this kind of consideration can and should be commonplace, requiring changes to take place at two levels: industry and policy. He imagines legislative change to the Building Act, which would require designers and developers to stipulate exactly the volume of material from a demolition going to landfill and why it could not be re-used. This is where the industry change comes about. He recognises that “the demolition guys are just the hired guns; they are constrained within an industry which needs them to get in and out as fast as possible and as cheap as possible.
In normalising the responsible use of materials, who has the responsibility? Ultimately, explains Robbie, designers are in the most influential position to identify where existing materials can be used in the place of new; “we need designers to embrace accountability for the percentage of existing materials on their demolition plans that is allocated to landfill. Then we’ll start to see really engaging creativity around how we use existing materials,” he says. “When you start building something new, before you throw away everything that is already there, take a look at what you’ve got, because some of what you are throwing away is bound to be actually incredible.” Far from a burden, these materials provide limitless creative potential, offering new palettes and textures and, ultimately, creative constraints that can help sculpt the shape of the design.
The 2022 Melbourne Design Week Award is just the beginning for Revival Projects. Getting people involved is about more than just changing minds, it’s also about supporting the community. The materials salvaged from the South Melbourne hub, as well as being incorporated into large developments, also went into making small community projects possible, such as public spaces and small businesses. This isn’t just a matter of keeping timber out of the bin; it is a recognition that sustainability is fundamentally about making the world a better place for everyone. When asked what the future holds, Robbie is candidly excited. “I don’t know what the next five years will bring, but we will continue to tell our story and advocate for legislative change around the responsible handling of existing materials. We will continue to make it easy and accessible for people to adopt a sustainable approach to construction. As the momentum builds, it will become the new normal. I’m pumped.”