No More Waste: 10 Ways to Incorporate the Circular Economy into an Architectural Project

Saint-Gobain Weber Hong-Kong

(Article written in collaboration with ArchDaily)

A circular economy is an economic system aimed at eliminating waste and the continual use of resources. Looking beyond the current take-make-waste extractive industrial model, a circular economy aims to redefine growth, focusing on positive society-wide benefits. It entails gradually decoupling economic activity from the consumption of finite resources and designing waste out of the system. Underpinned by a transition to renewable energy sources, the circular model builds economic, natural, and social capital.

It is based on three principles:

  • Design out waste and pollution.
  • Keep products and materials in use.
  • Regenerate natural systems.

There are several ways that companies within the building and manufacturing industries can incorporate ideas of circular economy thinking into the fields of production and consumption. 

1. The Use of Glass as an Exterior Finish

As the focus of sustainable design continues to shift heavily from the core topic of the efficiency of buildings to the other two pillars of the discussion: sufficiency and consistency, the conversation of “renovation” comes to the forefront. When it comes to glass, industry leaders such as Saint-Gobain are constantly developing new and innovative ways to think about the material's potentials and prospective usage, updating systems that have become outdated. Simply swapping old glass-finish systems with new, sustainable, and efficient ones can make a huge difference in an architectural project's ecological footprint and energy efficiency rating. 

For example, the 2019 transformation of social housing in both Bordeaux and Paris by French architectural firms Lacaton & Vassal, Frédéric Druot, and Christophe Hutin show how powerful and lasting the effects of this process can be. The architects explain that “the transformation gives to all dwellings new qualities of space and living, by inventorying very precisely the existing qualities that should be preserved, and what is missing that must be supplemented.” Saint-Gobain's Glassolutions manufacturers in Coutras supplied the glass for the fully glazed external elevators.

2. Remanufacturing

Remanufacturing - also known as "value-added manufacturing" refers to the rebuilding of a product to the specifications of the original manufactured product using a combination of reused, repaired, and new parts. It requires the repair or replacement of worn-out or obsolete components and modules. Many companies are beginning to look towards ideas of remanufacturing, especially in the automotive and construction industries where machinery and material with large manufacturing systems can be salvaged and re-used in order to reduce environmental impact. For example, remanufactured wood can easily be used in the contexts of both framing, finishing, and other value-added operations within a built project.


3. Cradle-to-Cradle Fabrication

Cradle-to-cradle design (also referred to as 2CC2, C2C, cradle 2 cradle, or regenerative design) is a biomimetic approach to the design of products and systems that models human industries on nature's processes, where materials are viewed as nutrients circulating in healthy, safe metabolisms. The idea was deeply explored and brought to the forefront by architect William McDonough in his 2002 book "Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things." Since then, McDonough's ideas of C2C have taken a stronghold within areas of building and design ethics at large.

Flooring company Desso has been one of the pioneers of the Cradle to Cradle approach. The company continues to innovate around circular economy principles, developing take-back programs and products with recyclable yarn that can be separated from the backing and used over and over again. By using 100% renewable hydropower electricity at every stage of carpet manufacturing, as well as working on developing bio-degradable material bases for their carpets such as corn by-products and bamboo yarn, Desso is a great example of the practical application of C2C principles in architectural design. 

4. Glass Wool Insulation

Glass wool is an insulating material made from minuscule fibers of glass, arranged using a binder into a texture similar to wool. The process traps many small pockets of air between the glass, and these small air pockets result in high thermal insulation properties. Glass wool is produced in rolls or in slabs, with different thermal and mechanical properties. Saint-Gobain's ISOVER, for example, produces glass wool insulation which is both energy efficient and sustainable.

ISOVER glass wool uses a high percentage of recycled glass - up to 70% (and on average greater than 50%), and is fully recyclable with a very low CO2 per insulation performance. Other of its benefits include a reduced volume of packaging due to the high product compression, the lightweight nature of the product which allows it to fit very well into lightweight constructions, easy dismantling (installation in systems without glue), and recycling services offered in several countries.

Stefano Boeri Architetti's 2009 adaptive reuse conference hall, "House of the Sea" is an example of a sustainability-focused project that uses this glass wool to meet emissions output requirements.

5. Pay-Per-Lux

A number of new collaborative business models have emerged in recent years that aim to take advantage of the overcapacity that can be found in many industries. With these ideas in mind, a project developed between Thomas Rau and Philips sought to design out overcapacity from the start by selling light as a service. The 'Pay per Lux' concept consists of providing the exact amount of light for workspaces and rooms that employees need when using them for specific tasks -with maintenance costs included. Whenever the lighting needs to change, Philips can either adapt the existing system further to the client's wishes or simply reclaim its materials and recycle them via LightRec (Philips' partner responsible for the re-use of lighting components). Effective systems management resulted in a total energy reduction of 55% – 35% as a result of the LED installation, as well as another 20% through Philips' optimization process.

6. Furniture Re-Usability

In the United States alone, 15 million tonnes of furniture is wasted annually, and only 2% is recovered for recycling. At the same time, each year in a city like New York, a quarter of a million people either move in or move out. The actual potential in the used furniture market has been estimated at $10 billion per year. Alpay Koralturk set up Furnishare (now Kaiyo) in 2014, after a series of frustrating moves, having to sell and buy furniture each time.

Tired of the waste and cheap quality of furniture caused by this linear production and consumption model, Koralturk patented the Kaiyo model in which a number of components revolve around a central concept: to keep high-quality furniture in use, thereby creating additional value for previous owners and more flexible access options for future buyers. The model gives people a chance to monetize a burdensome or underutilized asset rather than simply disposing of it, a process that might itself cost money. When items are returned to Kaiyo after the lease period they are repaired, cleaned, and re-introduced into the market. 

7. Modularity 

The demand for office furniture is growing rapidly - by 2024 the size of the industry will be estimated at 100 billion dollars (USD). Manufacturing office furniture requires a lot of materials and energy, and 80-90% of these valuable resources are lost after a short use period. Ahrend, a Dutch workspace design company, offers their customers furniture-as-a-service (FAAS) where customers pay a monthly fee and return the furniture when they no longer need it.

"Furniture as a Service is a subscription in the form of an operational lease. This means Ahrend remains the owner of the furniture and you only pay for the period you use the product. So you keep your working capital available for your core activity and never pay too much because you only pay what you are using," says Ahrend former Senior Vice President Peter Veer. 

8. The Possibilities of Post-Consumer Glass Concrete 

Glass Reinforced Concrete (GRC) material comprises high-strength, alkali-resistant glass fibers which are embedded into a concrete matrix. These fibers act as the main load-carrying component, while the surrounding matrix keeps them in position, and transfers loads between the fibers. Both the fibers and matrix are good at retaining their physical and chemical identities, combining these properties to create a high-performance composite. This differs from traditional pre-cast concrete, which uses steel as the main load-carrying element. While this works well in the medium term, we all know that steel has a tendency to corrode, leading to potential structural issues within a couple of decades. Glass fibers do not rust.

The trend towards sustainable building and the circular economy is a huge influence within the current climate of architecture – and the new generation of lightweight GRC is definitely a key building block of this movement. Recent tests show that GRC is now seen as an energy-efficient building material that is capable of achieving a BREEAM A+ material rating. The Rieder Group is an Austrian company that offers GRC products using raw and natural materials. The panels made of glass-fiber reinforced concrete, are non-combustible, sustainable, and durable. They can be fastened visibly or concealed onto a metal substructure, and dyed throughout with natural color pigments.

9. Circular Building 

“We have a materials in the wrong place problem” is a heavily-quoted line from Cradle to Cradle pioneer William McDonough. Indeed, the majority of the resources found in products are simply ‘used’, rather than being ‘used up'. The materials themselves are still out there, but frequently are either difficult to collect and recover, or can’t be aggregated in a way that makes their collection viable. 

Villa Welpeloo is a house and art studio designed and constructed in 2005 by Superuse Studios. Whilst the house is certainly architecturally striking, there are two features of its creation that make it especially noteworthy. Firstly, 60% of the house is made up of materials salvaged from the local area, and Superuse employed a novel yet accessible strategy for finding this feedstock. “We spoke to people who have access to waste materials flows – Google Earth helps us to identify waste stock in industrial zones", explains Jan Jongert, architect and Head of Research at Superuse Studios.

Steel was sourced from machinery previously used in textile production, a once-prominent industry in the Enschede region of the Netherlands, where the house is located. The wood used in the facade was taken from 200 damaged cable reels, which gave pieces of uniform size and shape. This wood would traditionally be turned into particleboard (or worse, end up incinerated) effectively shortcutting the usefulness of the material. The desire to salvage also led to the design process being conducted in parallel with the materialization process. The "Superuse" strategy of changing a material’s performance has not only been adopted as the name of the firm itself but has also been researched and used on around 90% of its 180 projects. 

10. Product Passports

The shipping industry is currently reliant on two commodities in particular – fuel and steel, with steel comprising roughly 98% of the volume of the average container ship. In response to volatility in both steel and fuel prices, Maersk developed a "Cradle to Cradle Passport." The Passport, a first for the shipping industry, comprises an online database to create a detailed inventory that can be used to identify and recycle the ship's components to a higher quality than ever before.

As a result, the materials – including the 60,000 tonnes of steel per ship – can be sorted and processed more effectively, maintaining their inherent properties and hopefully commanding a better price when re-sold.

Since the building industry is heavily reliant on the shipping of materials and products globally, a system such as the "C2C Passport" can make a huge difference in the overall footprint of each project, from start to finish.