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Wonderful Waste

Wonderful Waste with Robbie Neville

When Robbie Neville started his building practice, he was astonished by the amount of materials that were wasted in the industry — with barely any thought given to repurposing them. Having a natural tendency to be resourceful, he started asking questions about how he could salvage and repurpose existing raw materials into new designs. Hence, the beginning of Revival Projects.

The first of its kind, this multidisciplinary practice operates exclusively with existing materials and implements sustainability and community in the projects they undertake. From building Australia’s only inner-city timber mill where the Urban Tree Recovery initiative was launched, to completing multiple structural engineering projects using only existing materials, Revival (and Robbie) is paving the way with one goal in mind; to help make sustainable building practice more accessible to everyone.

NTS had the opportunity to sit down with Robbie, the last of our Wonderful Waste guest stars, to chat about the beginning of Revival Projects, their Zero Footprint Repurposing Hubs, and the impact Revival has on the community.

NTS: Please tell us a bit about yourself and about how Revival Projects started.
Robbie: My name is Robbie, and I come from a line of builders. So naturally, when I became a builder in Melbourne I was salvaging materials locally and trying to channel them into the construction projects that I was involved in. It was just really frustrating how difficult it was, whether it was pushback from the structural engineer who was uncomfortable at the idea of using recycled materials in their designs, or from the joiners or furniture makers who wanted to use something other than recycled materials on their machines.

It felt like the key stakeholders were set in their comfort zones that weren’t geared around re-use or being motivated to take a sustainable approach. That made me realise that if I wanted to make the process easier, I would need to set up my own business and bring it all in-house.

I started Revival about seven years ago, and we are a sustainable building practice with a commitment to change the way the industry approaches existing materials. We set up a business operation that has the ability to bring projects to life, regardless of what your vision is.

So, the vision with Revival was to say to someone who wanted to build something, whatever your vision is, if it’s using existing materials, we can bring it to life. It doesn’t matter if it needs structural engineering, commercial/domestic building, or furniture. We wanted to bring it all in-house and set up an operation where we could make that seamless and affordable.

NTS: What are some of the motivations behind Revival Projects?
R: A really important part of our work is delivering projects demonstrating the relevance of existing materials in the context of new design and showcasing how it can be done. There’s an environmental impact to using sustainable materials, of course, but there’s also a stigma that it’ll be more expensive to do so. Unfortunately, we have to take that into consideration — if someone can’t afford something, it doesn’t come to life.

That means it’s really important that we can demonstrate the commercial upside of reusable materials. At the same time, as a community and as an industry, we have to accept the cost of being sustainable and we have to arrest the perverted rationale that it should be cheaper.

I think we’re getting quite successful in doing that because we can very quickly prove that as soon as you’re using the materials that you already own, it should be massively cheaper than going and purchasing new materials.

In the last few years, we’ve become particularly focused on helping people use what they already have and trying to keep those materials on the site they came from. That’s why we have the tagline ‘Zero Footprint Repurposing’, meaning that you’re not sending anything to landfill.

NTS: Tell us more about how the Zero Footprint Repurposing Hubs came to be.
R: Our first Zero Footprint Repurposing Hub was in South Melbourne. There were two developers working side by side, Hip V Hype and Perri Projects, and the timing of their developments was that half the city block was demolished, and about 12 months later the remaining half was scheduled to be demolished.

There was an incredible opportunity to salvage all the materials from one half of the city block and wheel them into the remaining half — using the space as a workshop and a hub. We set up there in September 2020 and after the salvage mission, we started channelling those materials into a variety of local projects, including a whiskey bar less than 500 metres away.

Our first major salvage mission was where we invested everything we had commercially into salvaging the existing materials with the Lyric Theatre in Fitzroy. There was about three weeks of space before it was demolished, with three roofs up for purchase. After buying the third roof, I only had $4.50 left and was storing the materials everywhere and anywhere I could. We spent everything we had and channelled those materials from the Lyric Theatre into projects all over Australia and New Zealand.

Over a four-year period, we had to relocate them around the city with different storage situations. We lived through all the pain and challenges associated with large-scale reuse and that gave impetus to our zero footprint repurposing.

NTS: Which were some of the projects that you used these materials in?
R: We designed and built Rude Boy Burger using materials salvaged from our South Melbourne Hub. It was in the heart of the pandemic and so they needed to adapt to the circumstances. There was some structural engineering involved in lifting out their existing shopfront glazing, and we used recycled timbers as new structural members to create a new takeaway window. We also built a new front counter for their main service area when customers were allowed to come inside.

We were also engaged as the principal contractors, structural engineers, and furniture makers for the coffee roastery Industry Beans. In our structural engineering design, we repurposed every demolished brick from the site back into our structure. As it was designed to be a 90-person venue, we built the furniture using timber we salvaged from a site in West Melbourne, six kilometres away.

Our project on Easey Street in Collingwood is what we call the poster child of adaptive reuse. What makes this project particularly special is the scale of repurposing that’s going on in the project. We’ve facilitated, I’d say, the largest reuse of existing bricks on any project whilst keeping the bricks on site. We’ve significantly altered the structural form of the building and done that without a single brick leaving the site.

Adaptive reuse is what Revival does best, rather than a typical approach to demolition where everything is destroyed.

Robbie Neville

NTS: What would you say Revival is doing for the community?
R: After our event at Melbourne Design Week in 2022, I had this epiphany where I realised that to win the war on waste, we need community-led solutions. If it’s left up to the individual or one organisation, we’re not going to solve the problem.

At Revival, we’ve run workshops for underrepresented groups in the industry and tried to create a space that makes women want to get involved and celebrates their skills. We also came up with Revival Cooperative, an app we’ve built to keep each other informed about existing materials that we no longer have a use for that we would typically refer to as waste and probably send to landfill. It’s communicating with the broader community about those materials and allowing everyone to assess them and see if anybody has a use for them.

Urban Tree Recovery is an initiative that we put together in response to what we feel is a real missed opportunity when it comes to the way we handle the trees we need to cut down. Thousands of trees are cut down every year for various reasons, such as tree age, tree health, new development, or safety. Instead of handling the trees in such a way that unlocks this incredible resource, we do the easiest thing that we could do; destroy and mulch them on-site. What this initiative can do is demonstrate to what I hope is a global audience, an alternative way to approach this valuable resource — trees that have been in our communities for hundreds of years.

Whether it’s free storage, material sharing apps, or our initiative to help people use trees that they need to cut down, we’re choosing not to seek to make a profit out of it. We invest in these things because we think they’re going to make a change in the industry.

Robbie Neville

Sometimes you feel lonely when you’re trying to convince people to do things a different way, so having support and momentum from industry friends or organisations that believe in our vision is really important. It’s inspiring and energising.

Interviewed by Colin Chee, Elizabeth Price, and Luke Clark.

Edited by Claryss Kuan for length and clarity.

Images by NeverTooSmall & Revival Projects