Blog – Less is more : Designing for a Circular Economy, Lynn Wilson

Add to Scrapbook

As a recently appointed  Architecture and Design Scotland Board Member, textile designer and circular economy design specialist the Materials Library is a key area of interest and importance to me. For a textile designer, there is nothing more interesting than the construction, deconstruction and tactility of a material and its aesthetic and functional properties.

From the circular economy perspective, the environmental impact of raw material extraction and usage needs to be urgently addressed. In 2000, a report from the German Federal Environment Agency (GFEA) found that;

With 80% of the environmental impact of today’s products, services and infrastructures being determined at the design stage, designers have a critical role to play in tackling these issues more comprehensively, fully integrating a green approach into their standard practice.’[1]

This is interesting because being a design student in the 80s and 90s the doctrine of the day was from another German influence, Bauhaus. The lessons of Mies Van Der Rohe ‘less is more’ has never been more pertinent in the wake of climate change, polluted oceans threatening our fresh water and food chain and the depleting stocks of natural resources. From Scotland’s perspective, Terry A’Hearn, Chief Executive of the Scottish Environmental Protection Agency (SEPA) said;

“While Scotland is recycling more and landfilling less than at any point in our recent history we must dramatically cut waste production across the economy, recover more and dispose of only the very minimum”.

To achieve this the Scottish Government has taken the lead from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and adopted a circular economy model; Making Things Last – A Circular Economy Strategy for Scotland published in 2016. It is a design driven strategy that interprets the GFEA research;

Action on a more circular economy and to prevent waste starts with design: the design of products, the design of business models, the design of services and the design of processes.”

The end of life of a product and its circular potential to avoid waste is determined by the material choices and the flow of those materials within the supply chain and the impact of the end use. To achieve a circular economy products and services need to be designed to enable materials to be processed multiple times using low impact chemical processing to avoid incineration or landfill.

This is the process of industrial open and closed loops. An interesting example of an open loop using recycled denim can be seen in the Materials Library; insulation made from 85% recycled cotton by Inno-Therm a company that according to their website are  a partner in the ReTraCE Project (Realising the Transition to the Circular Economy: Model, Methods and Applications) a European funded project to support cities and regions transition to a circular economy.


Architecture and built environment design professionals have an excellent opportunity to lead by;

  1. designing out waste at the commissioning stage of a building or masterplan with carefully considered material choices and designed in systems that make it easy to recapture materials at the end of the useful life of a structure
  2. evaluating the long term impact and use of a building or space and designing to minimise environmental and material impact throughout the life of the structure
  3. champion new business models by designing buildings and spaces that encourage owners and tenants to collaboratively consume and share high environmental impact goods and services, therefore reducing their impact.
  4. co design with users when and where possible to ensure buildings and services work and have a low environmental impact such as the design of communal spaces, waste disposal, road access, heating and lighting.
  5. Ensuring the process of procuring buildings and services is designed with the environment and raw material impact in mind at all times

To help navigate the transition to a circular economy the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and IDEO have collaborated to create The Circular Design Guide. Architects and designers understand the principles of designing more with less and the flexibility and value of materials makes good business sense as well as environmental sustainability. The Materials Library at the Lighthouse and the online resources are an excellent space to research and reflect on how to do this.

Lynn Wilson, FRSA
Lynn Wilson is currently a PhD in Management researcher at the Adam Smith Business School, Glasgow University funded by the Economic Social Research Council. Her research explores understanding consumer behaviour in relation to the barriers and opportunities of achieving industrial material closed loops to achieve a circular economy.

[1] Mies Van Der Rohe, 1925

[2] How to do Eco-design: A guide for environmentally friendly and economically sound design, German Federal Environment Agency (ed), 2000




Materials Library Online Resource

A new online sustainable materials resource for construction professionals, architects, builders and home owners has been launched.

Selecting the correct stone

This is a pre-recorded CPD by SFGB which will have industry experts for the live Q&A on selecting the correct stone.

Scroll to top