Architecture and the circular economy

The circular economy is being increasingly proposed across industries as a solution to climate change.​​​​​​​ Lucy Ingham hears from experts in the field how it can be applied to architecture to help bring true sustainability to the built environment.


much as architects are increasingly focusing on wellness and the environment, architecture as an industry is not the most environmentally friendly. Aside from the immense reliance on concrete – a devastating contributor to carbon emissions – the industry also has a serious waste problem, particularly given that so many projects involve the demolition of previous structures on the site.

But as the circular economy, which focuses on the elimination of waste and the continual use and re-use of resources, gains ground, it is beginning to draw support in architecture.

“We have to take both personal responsibility and collective responsibility as a profession, to deal with the issues around the circular economy and the reduction of waste, the reduction of pollution in as best a way as we can and to persuade our clients of the importance of doing this,” says Amanda Levete, founder and director of architecture studio AL_A, speaking at a talk on circular economy in the built environment at London Design Festival.

The circular economy in architecture

For Carol Lemmens, global advisory services leader at ARUP, a true circular economy in the built environment represents a “kind of holy grail”, answering a series of questions and challenges.

“In the last five years, I've seen a certain stages that not only myself and my firm as designers and engineers and economists etc went through, but also the whole industry, where we have gradually migrated from initially a material strategy, to a design strategy, to a business strategy to a strategy where we also come up with different financial economic models,” he says.

“It is about taking a view on circular economy from each position in the whole value chain, all the stakeholders; all the people involved in, for example, developing a building or creating a part of a city or developing part of the infrastructure.”

This approach, he argues, is beginning to take hold, however there is clearly more to be done if the industry is to achieve a true circular economy.

It is about taking a view on circular economy from each position in the whole value chain, all the stakeholders.

Part of this, argues Tom Raftery, global vice president and futurist and innovation evangelist at SAP, can be achieved with help from the myriad selection of technologies and tools now available to architects.

“There's all kinds of technologies,” he says. “There's things like building information modelling, there's material passports, there's strategies as well around whether you have short or long-life components and which kind of strategies you adopt for all of those kinds of things.”

At the core of circular design, however, is a focus on reusing materials.

“Not just assuming that everything is waste, but really identifying the real value and, for example, looking at other assets as donor buildings or looking at different purposes,” says Lemmens. “Not dealing with abundance, but dealing with scarcity.”

Open BIM enables more informed collaboration, resulting in better quality builds. Credit (all images): Reid Brewin Architectes

Changing mindsets around design

For all those involved in a project, at the heart of the issue is a need for a change of mindset, not only during the design process, but in the management of buildings beyond it.

“Mind change is much more important than climate change,” argues Thomas Rau, founder of RAU Architects. “And the question is not sustainable design – the question is circular design.

“Sustainability means we are optimising what we are doing. It's optimising the system: we reduce energy, we reduce material, so it's about reduction. But at the end of reduction, often nothing has changed.

“Circularity is about facilitating responsibility. So we have to create a new chain of value creation.”

Every building is a temporary answer for temporary need; maybe in 50 or 100 years, this building doesn't exist anymore.

Core to this, he argues, is a shift in thinking away from perceiving buildings as monoliths of permanence, but to become the repository for materials that will one day be reappropriated for other purposes.

“Every building is a temporary answer for temporary need; maybe in 50 or 100 years, this building doesn't exist anymore,” he says.

“So we have to realise that the building is a temporary component, and that means we have to change the design in a way that all the materials we need in the building, that we connect all the materials in a way that every material every building is becoming a material depot because we need the same materials for the next generation for other temporary needs.”

Convincing clients

Of course, architects being convinced by the value of the circular economy is only part of the challenge. Clients also need to see the benefit – and here some sectors are showing more interest than others.

“I think there needs to be a huge mindset change in the developers,” says Levete.

“A lot of my clients come from the cultural public sector, and they are highly engaged in this issue, and highly committed because the money for these projects comes from the public purse; they have a huge responsibility to spend money wisely.”

I think there needs to be a huge mindset change in the developers.

She argues that there needs to more incentive for commercially minded projects to embrace circular design.

“I think we have to understand as a society that quality of life has a value that you can't put a price to, and not everything has to be defined by a financial metric,” she says.

“And if there was an obligation for corporations or institutions to give that the bandwidth that it needs and for them to be judged as a company and reputation as well, not just on their financial profitability, but the contribution that they make to the quality of life of the people who inhabit their buildings, or who work in their buildings [then that could make a difference].”

Building for the future: The service model

However, one approach that may make a difference is a shift in the acquisition of materials.

One proposal that has gained considerable support for the circular economy is the service model, which would see materials and products rented rather than purchased outright, and returned for re-use at the end of a project’s life cycle.

“The service model brings together power and responsibility. I think this is very important in the circular economy,” says Rau, adding that will, in particular, increase the chance that future users will continue to support it.

“A circular building doesn't exist. We create buildings with the circular potential. And it depends on the people in the future, if they want to disassemble the building, or if they want to destroy the building.”