Seven thoughts on the circular economy

A man using a miter saw in a room to cut wood.
Published: 09/02/2019

We have put together seven thoughts on the circular economy and its potential in the built environment sector. These are in light of our event ‘Are we making things last in construction?’ (13th March 2019, Glasgow) and our newsletter focused on the circular economy.

1. What is the circular economy anyway?

While the circular economy sounds like a financial model, which it is, it is more about:

  • the movement of goods and services
  • using elements to their highest value for as long as possible
  • avoiding unnecessary waste

As Nick Ribbons from Zero Waste Scotland, mentions in his blog: “It’s about designing and engineering things so that they can be maintained, repaired, remanufactured, re-used and adapted. Where waste will arise, we need to think about how we can maximise the material value by using it again and again (and again?).”

2. Can the circular economy represent any opportunities for me?

We don’t see why not. It is a system with innovative thinking at its heart and builds value into things that currently hold little value.

Nick Ribbons noted in his blog that: “It makes sound business sense: businesses that adapt don’t just survive but flourish. Now larger construction companies are beginning to recognise the value that circular economy methods bring not only to their clients but to them.”

3. But I am just an architect / designer. What can I do?

Design and creative thinking are the keys to unlock the circular economy: nothing can happen without them. Lynn Wilson is an A&DS board member and founder of The Circular Economy Wardrobe. In a blog she told us:

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

  • 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 a structure’s useful life
  • evaluating the long-term impact and use of a building or space and designing to minimise environmental and material impact throughout the structure’s life
  • championing new business models by designing buildings and spaces that encourage owners and tenants to share high environmental impact goods and services, therefore reducing their impact
  • co-designing with users where possible to ensure buildings and services work and have a low environmental impact: for example, the design of communal spaces, waste disposal, road access, heating, and lighting
  • ensuring the process of procuring buildings and services is designed with the environment and raw material impact in mind at all times”

4. So design has value in this circular economy?

As Lynn Wilson notes in her blog, 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.”

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. It says: “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.”

5. But why should we bother?

Do we have the resources to carry on as we are? As Lynn also says in her blog: “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.”

6. This is all a bit theoretical. What can I actually do in my day-to-day working life? What are the practical considerations for both clients and designers?

Architect Chris Morgan’s useful blog in the newsletter outlines the key tactics to employ in designing out waste.

A good place to start for both designers and clients is Zero Waste Scotland’s guide Designing Out Construction Waste.

Another useful piece of guidance for clients and contractors is Zero Waste Scotland’s procurement guide: Procuring Resource Efficient Construction Projects.

7. So is this blog post representative of the circular economy?

Yes it is. We have found valuable content and re-used, re-presented and adapted it in the hope that we can maximise its value to you, the reader.

Header image credit: Annie Gray on Unsplash