Moving from a Linear to a Circular Economy

By March 18, 20212019
Photo by Marc Goodwin ARCHMOSPHERES

The transition from a linear to a circular economy is more than simply optimising resources and minimising waste. It is an opportunity to link a company’s budget with environmental sustainability.

The rapid development and population growth of the countries in the region is putting increasing pressure on the current linear model of take, make, waste.  Accordingly, as the economy grows, so too does the demand for more raw materials for the production of goods and, in parallel, the generation of more waste. The building industry has always been a material-intensive sector and the waste generated from construction sites is extremely high with very little of it being reused or recycled.

As designers we are acutely aware of our responsibility of the impact the buildings we design have on the environment and this is one of the most important challenges we face. Not just in terms of the materials we source but also the future of the building.

While much of our effort and activation for change in the past has been focused on waste management moving from a linear to a circular economy requires a number of different, complementary strategies to be put in place right from the start of the project. The selection of construction materials, as one example, should be designed with their end of life in mind.

A circular economy is designed to change the traditional procurement and disposal methods within a closed-loop system where the end of service life for resources is limited and where very few items make it to the landfill. The circular model aims to design out waste and pollution, keep products and materials in use and regenerate natural systems.

There are several strategies that can be put in place to support a circular model. With the design for disassembly the intent is to recover and reuse components of a building once it reaches the end of its life. This, not only, increases the life of the materials it also provides both economic and environmental benefits for builders, owners and occupants. Architects should, of course, be involved with structural design from the beginning and at all stages throughout construction and the process should allow for maximum flexibility, versatility and durability. The building should be flexible enough to adapt to a new use or reconfigured in some way without too much disruption. It should be versatile to allow for a component, assembly or system to accommodate different uses with little change, and the materials used should be durable to remain unchanged over their expected life.

Although fraught with challenges designing for disassembly attempts to ease environmental burdens through key principles and strategies that facilitate recovery and reuse. The aim is to minimise waste associated with the construction of the building but the decision to do this rests with the stakeholders who need to be on board with the use of recycled materials or are happy with a design intent that allows for the future preservation of components and materials.

Sourcing recyclable materials, however, is challenging. A lack of opportunities to purchase couple with the availability of material as well as consistency of quantity and quality and lead-in times present unwanted barriers for specifiers, designers and clients.

Currently we are reliant on suppliers’ data sheets to provide the necessary material contents, the lifecycle impact and general disposal criteria. We do use an independent test lab from time to time to assess the characteristics of a material before specifying it but that is time consuming.

Sourcing can be made easier through material banks and sharing platforms which stores materials along with information such as test certificates and accurate recycled content assessments, however, helps simplify a time-consuming process enabling architects and designers to search thousands of materials from wood, paint and concrete to ferrous and non-ferrous metals.

Such facilities are still in the early stages though and still need further development. But the potential for a common database of all materials is certainly beneficial to the industry and to the environment.

Moving to a more circular economy will not be a quick and easy route and will rely heavily on the involvement of local governments as well as the collaboration across the entire value chain including architects, designers, developers and building owners, but a shift in attitudes will certainly be of benefit to the global economy and to the environment.

by Avinash Kumar, Associate Partner at Godwin Austen Johnson