Applying circular economy thinking to the built environment

Applying circular economy thinking to the built environment

Can the circular economy really work for something as enduring and complex as a building?

Applying circular economy thinking to the construction industry is not as straightforward as it sounds. Buildings are far more complex than most consumer products, have a far longer life and are made from thousands of components. A different approach must therefore be taken argues xx in a new RIBA book called Building Revolutions which sets out some circular economy principles specifically for buildings.

Figure 1: The circular economy principles, as set out in Building Revolutions


The inner three circles show that retaining existing buildings is the most resource-efficient option, followed by refits and refurbishments. The outer three circles apply to building elements, where the priority is to design components that can be reclaimed or remanufactured and only recycled or returned to the biosphere as a last resort. The five segments on the diagram demonstrate the design principles associated with a circular economy.

It is easier to imagine how a more circular approach could be taken to these inner layers: interiors could be designed to accommodate their shorter lifespans by using modular systems that can be reconfigured; or elements could be leased instead of purchased to allow them to be returned for reuse or remanufacture. But this still leaves the question of how to deal with the longer-life elements, the structure and the fabric of the building. Should they be designed as robust, adaptable structures that can endure, even when this may demand additional resources, or should we acknowledge the short lifespan of many buildings and design for disassembly and reuse?

The answer is more nuanced than simply choosing one route or the other. It leads to some interesting ideas that could make buildings and their components have a longer life and even become assets that are independent of their site.

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