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Product, Service & Design Innovation
A Deconstructive Tool for a Constructive Future

An awareness of these circular strategies will identify opportunities for any project team to consider the potential of a more 'constructive' future for the built environment.

The 20th century’s destructive, underlying economic model assumes a linear lifecycle of products and services that begins with extraction of raw materials from the earth and ends with landfills of waste. Circular economy thinking fundamentally challenges this conventional wisdom, upending industrial-era norms in every sector of the economy. The built environment industry is no exception.

Our current “take-make-waste” approach to construction and demolition accounts for 40 percent of the solid waste stream currently crowding our landfills. However, this failing presents a major opportunity to reduce waste and pollution in the built environment through circular strategies that take a value cycle approach of “reduce-reuse-recover.” To achieve this fundamental shift, the industry must embrace methods of design and construction that anticipate disassembly and upcycling of materials with residual value at the end of a building’s useful life.

Design for disassembly and upcycling are just two of the 30 strategies identified in a new, interactive tool developed by Cuningham. The purpose of this tool is to guide project teams in applying circular business models and principles within the built environment.

A 'deconstructive' mindset

Image credit: Cuningham

“Deconstruct” has several definitions, though used here it means to “adapt or separate the elements of for use in an ironic or radically new way.” In more specific terms: The necessary transition from linear to circular thinking requires a radical shift in the way we think about cycles and the use of materials in creating (and recreating) the built environment.

So, how can we adapt and separate the elements of a building in a way that eliminates waste, preserves the value of materials longer, and restores ecosystems? The most impactful change we can make is to shift our view of cycles — from linear “lifecycles” to circular value cycles.

This necessary shift toward circular value cycles would redefine the economics of the built environment industry in the following constructive ways:

  • Accounting for the preservation of natural capital that factors the costs and risks of “externalities”

  • Sharing responsibility among all supply chain actors for any negative or harmful consequences caused by their business activities

  • Raising awareness of broader material risks to investors in real estate development, ownership and operations

  • Aligning built environment impacts with environment, social and governance (ESG) reporting

  • Forming new business partnerships that extend the value of materials through all stages of the built environment

An interactive tool

With the above ends in mind, the 30 circular strategies identified in our tool and listed below are sorted into four stages of the value cycle that form a circular framework:

  1. Resource exchange — Strategies for redeploying upcycled and downcycled materials recovered at the end of design life

  2. Design and deliver — Strategies for applying or minimizing the use of materials in innovative ways to eliminate waste in constructing, redeveloping or disassembling the built environment

  3. Intelligent built environment — Strategies for the "buildings-in-use” stage that optimize the utilization of all resources, and the performance of all systems thereby extending the useful life of materials while maintaining them at their highest value

  4. End of design life — Strategies for the recovery of materials, assemblies and systems once they are no longer in use or of service (also referred to as “End of Service Life”)

Anyone can explore the circular strategies beginning in any of the four stages in the cycle.

1. Resource exchange

  • Optimizing material transportation — Sourcing local materials and making sure they are efficiently loaded onto transport eliminates the waste of resources that occurs in transporting materials by minimizing the number of trips and miles to the construction site.

  • Product as a Service (PaaS) — Manufacturer retains ownership of the products (e.g. light fixtures) and instead sells their performance (e.g. light). This allows clients to purchase a desired product output vs the equipment itself, creating an incentive for manufacturers to create long-lasting, dependable equipment.

  • Leased materials — Contracts can be made with the supplier or manufacturer to take back their product for reuse or replacement at the end of its use or lifespan. This differs from take-back services in that the materials are still owned by the manufacturer, have a contract attached to them, and a plan for recovery that is upheld by supplier.

  • Take-back services — Collection services offered by manufacturers/suppliers at the end of their product lifecycle for re-manufacturing and upcycling (e.g. ceiling tile, carpet). These services depend heavily on demo entities involving manufacturers at the end of design life.

  • Brownfield remediation — Revitalizing brownfields returns contaminated “waste” site into use, prevents development of greenfield sites, and can restore habitat.

  • Capturing waste materials from other industries — Also called “industrial symbiosis,” captures waste from unrelated industries (e.g. agriculture) and turns them into useful building products (e.g. hempcrete, straw bale).

  • Remanufacturing salvaged materials — When previously used material is modified into a new product. In this case, these materials would otherwise go to a landfill or a recycling facility vs being reused. The remanufacturer then can give the new material a passport.

  • Connecting salvage supply and demand — Online platforms that utilize a digital inventory of materials to bypass physical warehouses and connect supply and demand of salvaged materials directly from site to site.

  • Storage and distribution facilities — Physical marketplaces and services that enable the harvest, holding, and distribution of materials from building demolitions and other industries.

  • Material passports — Material passports are with a material throughout its entire life to ensure its continuous use and circulation. The product may be in use as part of a building, in a storage facility ready for reuse, or with a manufacturer ready for upcycling/downcycling. The material’s passport allows designers and builders to find and specify these materials in their projects.

  • Open-source designOpen-source solutions can help propagate circular concepts to a larger audience (e.g. wikihouse / shared solutions)

2. Design and deliver

  • Prefabrication — Pre-fabrication enables construction in controlled environment and greater material/energy efficiency.

  • 3D printing cradle-to-cradle material3D printing allows for minimal construction waste.

  • Designing for material optimization — Designing with and cutting materials to modular or off-the-shelf dimensions reduces onsite waste of materials by minimizing unusable scrap pieces and gives the materials a better chance of being reused.

  • Maximizing space utilization — Making sure the building program is designed to maximize use of all spaces, designing out superfluous square footage in the plan to save on materials and energy.

  • Designing for adaptive reuse — Ability to evolve into new future programs can prolong a building’s life and minimize waste of existing building stock. The more adaptable and durable the structure is, the more chances there are for it to survive changes in societal and user needs and therefore prevent premature end of life

  • Modular design — Modular design enables pre-fabrication and standardization of elements which can drive further optimization.

  • Designing for mixed use — Ability to accommodate various building programs can optimize a building’s use and minimize waste of existing building stock.

  • Demountable design — Demountability enables a material to be reused at the end of its design life. This becomes important during the design process as it has a large impact on how joints and details are designed. Mechanical fasteners enable various materials to be demounted, separated and reused, which is often impossible with adhesives.

3. Intelligent built environment

  • Natural lighting and ventilation — Can help minimize operational waste related to lighting and mechanical systems.

  • Harvesting runoff — Harvesting runoff reduces water waste and utilizes the natural regenerative nature of the site.

  • Harvesting grey water — Reusing the building’s water reduces waste by keeping the water in use for longer.

  • Adaptive reuse of existing building — Prolongs life of the building and diverts existing structure from landfill.

  • Existing structure — The structure of a building can be reused for a future project, diverting it from becoming waste.

  • Space utilization — Web-based platforms can help to match underutilized spaces (e.g. office, homes) with potential users (e.g. Airbnb, WeWork)

  • IoT/BIM for operations — Use of sensors, tracking systems and management software can assist with more effective operations and timely maintenance to prolong a building’s life.

  • Selling renewable energy — Enables use of surplus green energy generated on site.

4. End of design life

  • Salvaged materials from demolitions — Materials can be diverted from landfills for upcycling, reuse or recycling. This can include harvesting from the project’s site or other demolitions.

  • Downcycling — Materials/elements can be designed with future uses in mind, extending their material lifespan. This type of reuse allows a material to have a new use that is of lesser quality and functionality than its original state — i.e. plywood to OSB board to MDF board or biodegradable materials.

  • Upcycling — Materials/elements can be designed with future upcycling in mind, therefore designing a longer material lifespan. This type of reuse requires a material to be of the same or higher quality or value than its original state. These materials can capture waste streams or be upcycled in their own processes.

The tool provides definitions and additional resources for each of these strategies, including the opportunity for others to contribute new content. An awareness of these circular strategies will identify opportunities for any project team to consider the potential of a more constructive future for the built environment.

The interactive tool may be freely accessed online here.

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