In theory, the circular economy offers an elegant alternative to the siloed, short-sighted and waste-ridden reputation of the building industry — an industry that accounts for 38 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions by some estimates. This lens provides a compelling opportunity to expand the ecosystem around the design, construction, operation, renewal and repurposing of buildings and invites stakeholders to take a longer-term view of a building’s lifecycle; it’s a chance to consider the past, present and future use of materials and components within the economy.
In new construction, the possibilities are endless. We’ve seen impressive examples of circularity in the built environment: projects that conceive of buildings as materials banks enabled by digital materials passports that are modular, flexible and built with the highest standard of sustainable materials.
But what about the buildings that are already built?
Bay Area-based All for Reuse is tackling one complex piece of this puzzle, an untapped — yet seemingly obvious — opportunity to apply the basic principles of preserving value and keeping materials at their highest and best use. The two-year-old initiative launched in collaboration between the San Francisco Department of the Environment, Stop Waste and Arup to help developers, owners and renters of the largest portfolio holders in the Bay Area to increase the reuse of commercial building materials.
Given the high turnover of startup office space adjacent to Silicon Valley, the group, structured as a network of building professionals, is focused on addressing the waste from tenant improvements. In Class A office space, the combination of short-term leases and high turnover from startups that either outgrow their space quickly or rapidly combust creates a significant amount of barely used materials that are currently treated as waste.
Infrastructure has to be a precursor to any policy.
"One of the reasons I’m so excited about the All for Reuse Alliance is that it’s the infrastructure for a network, a network of suppliers and receivers," Eden Brukman, senior green building coordinator at SF Environment, told me during a recent panel at VERGE 21.
"While this idea works at a systems level, the work that needs to happen has to be at the regional level," explained Frances Yang, a structures and sustainability specialist at Arup, during the panel. "People need to be in proximity to each other and these materials need to go under projects that have some proximity to each other."
Earlier this year, the city of San Francisco received a grant from the Carbon Neutral Cities Alliance to fund an online exchange for building products in the Bay Area, one that can serve as a model for other regions. The exchange is being built by the resource exchange startup Rheaply, and is set to launch next year.
"Infrastructure has to be a precursor to any policy," Brukman told the VERGE audience. "Ultimately we'd love to see a policy around rescue and reuse, but we need to have the network. We need to have the virtual infrastructure, the inventory capabilities and a physical location to help sort this out first."
This article has been updated to more accurately describe the startup Rheaply.