Investigating the circular economy in the building industry. How can we demonstrate the potential of reusing building components in the DC area?
the circular economy in the built environment

Despite current efforts to build structures in a more sustainable manner, the energy and resources embedded in building materials and components themselves are not given as much attention as the energy consumed during a building’s life. And yet, materials like concrete, gypsum, flooring, and windows require large amounts of energy and finite resources during production. Unfortunately, their lifecycles end, for the most part, in the landfill after demolition. In a minority of cases these materials end up being recycled or down-cycled, processes that still require plenty of energy.

This raises three main issues: first, the continuing increase in construction waste, which already consumes too much space and results in serious health consequences; second, the reduction in availability of finite raw materials; and third, the environmental pressure caused by extraction and production—which results in pollution, ecosystem degradation and increasing emissions contributing to climate change.

How will we end this waste? All around the world businesses, researchers, policy-makers, architects and engineers are experimenting with ways to implement the principles of The Circular Economy within the building industry. This means finding ways to deconstruct and reuse building materials, as well as encouraging the most effective recycling when re-use is not possible.

linear economyResearch conducted by Arup found that:

  • 10-15% of building materials are wasted during construction

  • 54% of demolition materials are landfilled (in the EU)

  • 10% of global carbon dioxide is created in the process of producing cement and steel for construction

Process: After researching the current practices, as well as the capacities and resistances of the local construction context, this project will focus on designing a specific building component that allows for re-use, and develop a design solution that re-uses an existing building component. Ideally the results of this research will result in an exhibition piece to be displayed in the city for people to interact with and learn more about the reuse of construction waste.

More about the Circular Economy: The Ellen MacArthur Foundation states that the Circular Economy looks beyond the current take-make-dispose extractive industrial model 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, it is based on three principles:

  1. Design out waste and pollution
  2. Keep products and materials in use
  3. Regenerate natural systems

the circular economy for consumer goods

Resources for further reading:
The Circular Design Guide by The Ellen MacArthur Foundation & IDEO
Sustainable Materials Management Plan and research from the US EPA
Circular Economy Insights business case research from Accenture and the World Economic Forum.
The Circular Classroom interactive teaching guides
The Disruptive Innovation Festival
Arup’s Circular Economy and the Built Environment research
IDEO’s CoLab Circular Economy portfolio
Autodesk’s Circular Economy presentation

Who to contact for more information: Melanie De Cola