The Circular Economy – What is it? & How do we design for it?

A Circular system employs re-use, repair, refurbishment, remanufacturing, recycling and sharing to create a closed-loop system that minimises the use of resource inputs and the creation of waste, pollution and carbon emissions. This can apply to all industries, including manufacturing, service and construction – where eliminating waste is a goal.

The Ellen MacArthur Foundation has been researching and promoting the idea of the Circular Economy for over 10 years and their website contains a vast collection of resources, videos and a really helpful Toolkit1 that is designed to guide you through a selection of resources to learn, apply, and contribute to bringing circular design to life.

One of their studies, Circular Economy in Cities looks at the macro scale of design, operation, maintenance and infrastructure of the cities we live in, and what needs to change to bring them closer to a circular economy. Systems, infrastructure, vehicles, buildings and products need to become more durable, adaptable or easy to maintain and repurpose. In doing so, significant quantities of waste can be reduced and a there is potential for an entire new industry dedicated to sustaining this sector to bring new jobs and other possibilities. Significant change can only happen though if governments and Local Authorities implement changes at planning and legislation level.

We, as designers, are thinking about the life cycle of our proposals and how we can reduce our long term impact on the environment, and a useful tool to assist with this are these Factsheets3 with ideas and opportunities for how to design with the Circular Economy in mind. For those with less time on their hands, we have extracted a few interesting and relevant topics to the construction industry;

Designing for adaptable and flexible use

New concepts and techniques, that bring greater flexibility and resource-efficiency into residential and commercial buildings, support the efficient and effective use of a building during its lifetime. We can consider repurposing a commercial building into housing, using modularity to downsize a home or an office, or supporting sharing and mixed functionality. Alternatively, we could build only the essential parts of the building, allowing the residents to expand and adapt the building over time, thus opening up a way for low-income housing to be provided while contributing to building longevity.

Integrating material choices into design

Selecting safe and healthy materials to be used in buildings can result in healthier living and working environments for residents, as well as encourage the re-purposing of materials at the end of their use.

Taking design inspiration from nature

Low-tech solutions, such as bioclimatic and passive design, make use of natural conditions to cool, heat, light, and ventilate buildings. These increase a building’s performance and minimise

energy consumption. Biophilic design, i.e. greening of building exteriors, façades and roofs, reduces air pollution, noise, flooding and the urban heat-island effect.

Sourcing materials strategically

Selecting construction materials that can be sourced locally (including by-products), and kept in use continuously, can reduce virgin material demand. Materials made available during deconstruction could then be reused. Selecting renewable materials where appropriate, can furthermore reduce dependence on finite resources.

Building with resource-efficient construction techniques

Prefabricated building elements can easily be assembled on-site, significantly reducing construction time. 3D printing (also known as additive manufacturing) of building units on- or off- site, from components to entire buildings, can minimise waste generation and resource consumption.

Developing ‘buildings as material banks’ (BAMB)

BIM and similar digital building mapping technology can help turn buildings into ‘banks of material’. With such building material maps, owners will have information on what materials and components are in the building, where they are sourced from, and guidance on their potential future use.

There are a number of organisations that have popped up in the past few years with goals of standardising the circular economy for the construction industry. A popular one is the Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute6 offering Certification for both products and systems.
On their website, they have a helpful Online Products Registry which lists all the products that have been certified across numerous industries – there will be a few big names on there that might surprise you.

As Architects & Designers, we are always looking for new ways to think about the design process and how we can reduce our impact on the environment. The Circular Economy is a concept we believe in, but to date have found difficult to address, as products and construction techniques typically follow a more linear approach.

There is however an increasing appetite in our industry for circular design. At early stages in the design process, we should all be considering how Circular Design strategies can be adopted to strengthen our proposals and promote long-term benefits.