Contextualizing the circular economy in building design

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When 2050  that often-cited and seemingly distant milestone  comes around, I will still have a good decade of my career to go. With this in mind, it is vital that my generation participates in discussions shaping the future of our built environment.

One such discussion point is the circular economy and how this can be made into a practical proposition in the built environment. In fact, there's a growing buzz around the circular economy: as we speak, books are being written, events are being held and time is being spent understanding what this topic means.

This buzz is being driven in part by widespread agreement that there are economic gains to be realized. Work by McKinsey predicts that, by increasing resource productivity, adopting a circular economy approach could add $710 billion to the EU's economy by 2030. If you throw in non-resource and externality benefits, that figure rises to $2.13 trillion.

The challenge remains, however, to translate all this talk into real action on real projects. So, in this piece I'll explore the key questions we, as an industry, can ask to bring us closer to a circular economy.

What is the circular economy?

The concept can be traced back to the work of architect Walter R. Stahel and academic Genevieve Reday-Mulvey, who produced a report titled "Jobs for Tomorrow" in 1976. The report was commissioned by the European Commission, which was concerned by the loss of jobs in manufacturing.

I take "circular" to mean avoiding waste. In addition to Stahel and Reday-Mulvay, other early circular economy thinkers, particularly American architect William McDonough and German chemist Michael Braungart, were inspired by natural ecosystems in which there is no waste, only nutrients. Circular economy, therefore, has a strong connection to biomimicry. It's important to say the circular economy is about a lot more than waste; nevertheless, this idea is a useful starting point. 

Having established that circular equates to avoiding waste, pretty much everything else in the circular economy is about economy. If we are not going to throw things away (there is no such place as "away," only "somewhere else"), then we need to define how can we get the most value from the things we do not want or need anymore.

First, how can we add value and reduce waste in our existing buildings?

Use buildings more intensively

The average European office building is unused or unoccupied 35 to 40 percent of the time  this is during office hours. The opportunity to make better use of available space  flexible workspace for an increasingly mobile workforce  is huge. One idea is for architects and landlords (whether corporate or commercial) to partner with innovative platforms such as Haus to offer empty desks and tables to freelancers or start-ups.

By using an asset more intensively, the demand for building new, purpose-built venues diminishes. The industry, therefore, uses less material while at the same time adding to revenue-raising capabilities of existing assets.

Keep the materials for as long as possible

Intensified use naturally brings additional wear and tear, increasing the need to refurbish, replace or upgrade internal fixtures, fittings and finishes. Regarding refurbishment, only worn or obsolete parts should be replaced, minimizing new material entering a building. A new approach to design and detailing is required to make replacement of parts cheaper and easier.

New business models should be considered, where responsibility for and value from the replacement process lands with companies best-placed to capture that value, namely the suppliers of the products themselves.

Keep the building relevant for as long as possible

Eventually, market conditions will change and demand for different uses of a site will grow. For example, imagine that as more people work from home, demand for offices will drop. Demand for housing in cities such as London will remain — so the market signal is to change office buildings, at least partially, into apartments. Are office buildings being designed with such use-change in mind? Unlikely, although open-plan styling and generous floor-to-floor heights are a good start. Challenges around facades and services distribution arise, so we should consider the design responses that will allow such issues to be overcome.

Deconstruct, do not demolish

The market, however, will keep changing and some buildings inevitably will need to be replaced. Following circular economy principles, buildings will be deconstructed, not demolished. Depending on the materials, whole façades and even building structures might be saved for re-use.

We must apply the lessons learnt in re-using buildings when designing replacement buildings. Scenario planning can be used to envisage a variety of futures for new constructs, ensuring design does not lock-in any unrectifiable challenges for future use changes. With flexibility designed in, low impact or reused materials should be chosen, and anything likely to wear out or become obsolete designed to be easily replaced.

Next, what are the key steps to thinking circular in future projects?

Define how long your building will last

Some buildings require a long-term view, designing for flexibility, adaptability, changes of use. For others, a lighter-touch approach is more appropriate; designing for reconfiguration, replacement, upgrade — even mobility. In the former, it will be easier to justify bespoke parts due to their anticipated long life; in the latter, standardization, a much-discussed topic among built environment professionals, will help achieve a better flow of materials from one project to the next.

Work to incorporate second-hand materials

We will not find a productive use for second-hand materials if we do not find ways of incorporating these into new buildings. This has important implications for designers; we are accustomed to freedoms granted to us by abundant, customized materials supplied for our projects. In a circular economy, this freedom is limited; the designer is constrained to work with materials already available.

Explore new business models

The circular economy requires business models to change; we must move from buying and selling products to buying and selling services. This will affect several project elements, most notably who retains ownership of materials, and the cost of materials  which will shift out of CapEx budgets and into OpEx budgets. This latter point should help promote a long-term, whole-life approach to design and procurement that will lead to better outcomes.

A future-proofing tool

The circular economy is ultimately a tool, one that should be considered in most, if not all, projects. As with any tool, its use must be tailored to suit the job at hand. Circular economy principles will be harder to apply to some projects than others.

This tool helps us maximize the residual value of materials in a building, future-proof our buildings and their components against future uncertainty, identify whether we are building for occupation or investment and decouple resource use from economic growth.

If the idea of the circular economy as a tool feels a little utilitarian, I want to say that the ideas in a circular economy are also inspirational. These ideas inspire us to create new designs and new business models to meet evolving industry needs while protecting the value of materials in the built environment.

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