The 20th century’s destructive, underlying economic
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
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
that take a value cycle approach of “reduce-reuse-recover.” To achieve this
fundamental shift, the industry must embrace methods of design and
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
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
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
Resource exchange — Strategies for redeploying upcycled and downcycled
materials recovered at the end of design life
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
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
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
(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
Brownfield remediation — Revitalizing brownfields returns contaminated
“waste” site into use, prevents development of greenfield sites, and can
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,
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 design — Open-source
can help propagate circular concepts to a larger audience (e.g. wikihouse /
2. Design and deliver
Prefabrication — Pre-fabrication enables construction in controlled
environment and greater material/energy efficiency.
3D printing cradle-to-cradle material — 3D
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
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
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
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
The interactive tool may be freely accessed online