This article is the first part in a three part series looking into circular economy principles and how they can be applied to the built environment.

I just finished reading Building Revolutions by David Cheshire, which I though was a really good book that I highly recommend. Even if you don’t work in the built environment, we all engage with an interact with buildings on a daily basis, and we all share a common interest that they be designed, built, used and demolished in the most efficient way possible. This book is packed full of ideas that will help to make this a reality.

Principles are something that is really important and are probably not talked about enough in sustainability.

I am minded to quote from Ray Dalio and his book Principles, which I thought was one of the best non-fiction books of recent years. He explained that:

Principles are fundamental truths that serve as the foundations for behaviour that gets you what you want out of life. They can be applied again and again in similar situations to help you achieve your goals.”

Whether we need more principles in sustainability is a good question, it is probably more the case that we just need to make better use of ones that already exist and make sure that they are properly applied in all cases.

Principle 1: Design out Waste

This is the sort of principle that is commonly associated with circular economy thinking. It is also the sort of principle that is really easy to pay lip service to and to not actually deliver in real life.

This principle is all about refitting and refurbishing buildings as opposed to demolishing the existing structure and starting again. Exponents of this principle see waste as a resource, that can be extracted and then put to productive use again. It is also about using lean design methodologies to create buildings that require fewer resources, with reduced complexity.

In the book, there is a really important figure from a RIBA paper called What colour is your building? Their research showed the following:

Roughly speaking, half the embodied carbon in a building is tied up in the foundations and the structure.”

For people wanting to adhere to the design out waste principle, this should make them think about whether they can retain the substructure and superstructure of the existing building and refurbish it. Rather than demolishing these and building new ones from scratch. These two elements are high carbon investments and should be treated as such.

A little later on there was a good observation about the conflict between a desire to build developments with low embodied carbon as well as strict adherence to circular economy principles. David Cheshire had the following to say:

Focusing only on reducing embodied carbon does not necessarily fit into the circular economy ideal, as it can drive designers to substitute highly recyclable (and recycled) materials, such as metals, with materials with lower embodied carbon – for example thermoset plastics, which are difficult to recycle. Also, focusing on embodied carbon does not consider the other impacts associated with mining and processing the raw materials, such as its scarcity or the impact on biodiversity of mining or drilling operations.”

This was an interesting perspective that I had not though much about before. It calls for a balanced approach, where circular economy principles and embodied carbon are traded off, with win-win solutions being the ideal outcome.

The section that was dedicated to designing out waste was really good and was packed full of useful information.

We already touched upon the need to refit and refurbish buildings where this is possible, because of the high amounts of carbon locked inside the building’s frame and foundations.

In terms of designing out waste on site, this can be achieved by moving from construction to production, with components made in factory settings and then delivered to site. It is important to always check that the waste created in the factory is put to good use.

Designing to match the standard size of sheets and panels is another way that waste can be substantially reduced on site.

Reusing components and materials is another hallmark of the designing out waste principle. Disappointingly there is a downward trend in using reclaimed materials in the UK.

The advice from David is that this cannot be an ad hock pursuit, but rather needs to be a primary consideration from the beginning of the project. From fit out components to bricks, kerbs and roof tiles, it is amazing what can be reclaimed from another site for use on a project. It is certainly not an easy thing to make happen, but it is worthwhile.

Another technique is lean design. This has a number of benefits. Each component in a building has its own lifecycle, with associated environmental costs, by aiming to have only the bare essentials, means that these costs can be reduced. This is something which if done correctly can reduce the embodied and operational carbon footprints simultaneously.

What you need to know

This article looked into designing out waste as a circular economy principle.

We looked into how the frame and the foundations are responsible for a significant proportion of a building’s carbon footprint, so if they can be retained, then savings can be made.

The we looked into a number of focus areas that are important if the design out waste principle is to be out into action, these include: refitting and refurbishing where possible, using offsite manufacturing techniques, reusing materials from other sites or industries and lean design.

Overall, I thought Building Revolutions was a great book and I will go into more detail on creating structures that are built to last in part two of this three-part series.

Thank you for reading,

By Barnaby Nash

Please share your thoughts in the comments section below, or reach out to me on social media. What do you think needs to be done to make the circular economy a reality in the built environment?

 Let’s stay connected

I can be reached on LinkedIn and on Twitter @FollowBarnaby


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