September 13, 2023
10 Provocations for Circular Design
01. How much must we recycle?
The Ellen MacArthur Foundation, the leading nonprofit promoting the idea of the circular economy, lays out three principles for circularity: eliminating waste and pollution, circulating products and materials (at their highest value), and regenerating nature. The building sector, as it is structured today, remains largely intractable on all three principles.
If we want to create a built environment that is in harmony with nature, then we must stop downplaying the elements of the built environment that are currently the most discordant and contribute most heavily to our reliance on fossil fuels. Switching our buildings to renewable energy is a vital first step, but another challenge looms beyond that. According to the International Energy Agency, the petrochemicals used to make plastics are slated to become the largest driver of oil demand in the near future—outstripping the demand for energy and fuel by 2035. Meanwhile, the building and construction industry is the second-largest consumer of plastics (after the packaging industry), using up about 16 percent of all plastic produced globally. Plastics, not energy, will be the bête noire of a sustainable built environment.
And the outlook for a solution isn’t promising at the moment. An October 2022 report by Greenpeace found that the United States’ plastic recycling rate actually fell to a historic low of 5 percent last year. It is clear that even as we continue to advocate for recycling, we must explore other avenues. Extending the life of products by simply reusing them is one option, but there are barriers to that idea (see provocation #2), and switching to bioplastics is an enticing solution that might come with its own challenges (see provocations #7 and #8). The hard truth is that we simply must consume less. But to face that future, an architecture and design culture rooted in trends and consumerism needs to find other creative ways to remain economically viable.
02. Are reclaimed materials good enough?
Many currently popular materials and products typically depreciate in value— or are simply appreciated less—in their second life.
Postconsumer PVC products, for example, are generally recycled into carpet backing, outdoor decking, or filler; ground-up ceramics must be either combined with virgin material for new products or used as aggregate in concrete. These two materials are commonplace in every building, and there are scores of others like them that currently have no clear recycling stream and cannot be reused as is or recovered without costly and extensive new manufacturing infrastructure.
Even products and materials that escape damage during decommissioning have trouble finding a place in another project. Upholstered furniture is always a challenge for circularity because reupholstering is as expensive as buying new. Meanwhile, good luck finding a sustainable upholsterer like Kay Chesterfield in your area. How might this situation change? We need technological innovation in new materials and reasonable recycling processes, design shifts in how we build for disassembly and incorporate disassembled components, and a cultural revolution in how we value “used” commodities.
03. Can we recycle buildings?
Construction and demolition debris account for about 30 percent of all waste produced globally. And while scrap materials from construction and the detritus of demolished buildings can’t be recouped with the same value as virgin materials, it is estimated that 75 percent of all that waste still has some residual usefulness.
This suggests two avenues of opportunities for the building industry. The first is to innovate in the decommissioning process—not just taking things apart with more care but perhaps removing assemblies or systems in ways that leave them intact for other immediate applications. (Architecture firm New Affiliates is piloting an approach that reuses building components in this way, and with a positive community impact.) The second is to build more horizontal integrations with other sectors. That will entail first aligning owners, contractors, architects, engineers, and workers around the value of building materials, then building new bridges with other industries so we can become part of their circular loops of materials and they can become part of ours.
04. Is adaptive reuse enough?
Among those who are passionate about sustainable architecture and design, an adage coined by former AIA president Carl Elefante has come to be accepted wisdom: “The greenest building is the one that has already been built.” There seems to be a corresponding shift in practice, with billings for renovations and retrofits outstripping billings for new construction for the very first time in 2022.
However, all retrofits and renovations are not equal. Many buildings are repeatedly adapted for different uses over time—see the case of Detroit’s Book Depository Building, which is now in its third incarnation—but whether those adaptations are done with an eye to long-term resilience, circularity, and regenerative impact on the planet’s life and resources is another matter altogether. We must also consider the social impact when low-income communities find that the old abandoned building around the corner is now a boutique hotel that makes their neighborhood too expensive to live in.
For adaptive reuse to be truly considered a part of circular design principles, the retrofit itself must be as sustainable as possible. It must support our role in creating equitable communities and prepare the building for similarly sustainable retrofits in the future.
05. Do you really need that renovation?
Any building tends to experience many changes in its interiors over its lifetime. On average, most offices are renovated every ten years, and hotels might be refreshed much more frequently than that. With each renovation, old materials are pulled out and generally sent to the landfill; then new products are installed, which generates embodied carbon emissions.
As studies done by Seattle-based LMN Architects show, these emissions tied to interior updates can add up to be more than those embodied in the structure and envelope combined. This is an aspect of carbon emissions that needs urgent attention because it’s a booming business—renovations and refreshes accounted for 49 percent of all projects at Interior Design Giants firms in 2022.
In the face of the climate crisis, we must ask—is that renovation project worth the greenhouse gases it is going to send into our atmosphere? And if we must renovate, can we do it more responsibly?
06. Are trends destroying the planet?
In his 1971 book Design for the Real World, sustainable design pioneer Victor Papanek incisively diagnosed what he called “Our Kleenex Culture”: “When people are persuaded, advertised, propagandized, and victimized into throwing away their cars every three years, their clothes twice yearly, their high-fidelity sets every few years, their houses every five years…then we may consider most other things fully obsolete. Throwing away furniture, transportation, clothing, and appliances may soon lead us to feel that marriages (and other personal relationships) are throw-away items as well and that on a global scale countries, and indeed entire sub-continents, are disposable like Kleenex.”
More than 50 years later, things have barely changed. Meanwhile, home renovation and DIY videos amassed 39 billion views on TikTok in 2022, more than any other design topic. This, then, is the most resonant aspect of architecture and interior design to the larger public: a means to discard a previous lifestyle like used Kleenex and adopt a new style because we have been sold this behavior over and over by media. We’ve built a design culture that valorizes retrofits and renovations—acts that look circular at the architectural scale because they extend the life of existing buildings, but in actuality rely on wasteful practices at the level of interiors and products.
07. Will biobased materials save us?
Over the past decade, we have seen something of a revolution in biobased materials—especially in soy-, corn-, sugarcane-, or hemp-derived plastics that offer comparable performance to their conventional fossil fuel–based counterparts. Can we avoid ecological catastrophe by switching our material economy to biobased alternatives?
The first warning that both critics and admirers of bioplastics issue is that the sources of these materials must remain renewable and not impose a new burden on the planet. To produce enough materials to serve our current needs, we’d no doubt require a large-scale shift in our agricultural system. The second caveat is that these materials haven’t been around long enough for us to accurately predict what will happen at the end of their useful life—a November 2022 paper published in Frontiers of Sustainability found that 60 percent of plastics marketed in the United Kingdom as “home compostable” fail to disintegrate even after six months.
With these unknowns, it’s best to be cautiously optimistic about biobased materials, but know for certain that there is no salvation for us that does not involve consuming less.
08. Who will compost your chair?
Here’s a thought experiment: If we could wave a magic wand and make every material in every product today biodegradable or compostable, would that be a good thing? Unfortunately, without the millions of composting facilities we would need, all those products would end up in landfills where they would decompose to produce methane—a greenhouse gas 21 times more potent in its ability to warm the planet than carbon dioxide. Or, as Dr. Andrew Dent, EVP of research at Material ConneXion and chief material scientist at Material Bank, explains, “when bioplastics do end up in the ocean and begin to decay it will raise the acidity levels of the oceans.”
So anyone who is enamored with the possibilities of biobased and biodegradable materials needs to become a composting advocate. It’s easy to learn how to properly tend a compost heap in the backyard; it is more challenging to petition local governments to scale up composting in places where people aren’t always lucky enough to have backyards. But pick one of those options, because if our industry is set to become the number one consumer of fossil fuels through our use of plastics, we’d better become the number one adherents of composting.
09. Is circularity sustainable?
The Ellen MacArthur Foundation defines the circular economy as a “resilient system that is good for business, people, and the environment.”
Many initiatives in the architecture and interior design industry fall far short of this standard by merely focusing on recycling or reclaiming materials. Not every building component (looking at you here, asbestos insulation) is worthy of being reused, and not every material—PVC with orthophthalates, for example—should be recycled because of the harm it could cause to people and the environment. Each year, new chemicals are added to an already long list of toxic components, and indeed the day might arrive when a future generation might consider all petroleum-based materials worthy of being Red Listed.
10. Can we design less?
Closing the loop on materials and energy is not enough if it merely confirms and facilitates our current culture of overconsumption. Indeed, is expending the energy needed to keep materials in constant use worth the cost to our planet’s already exhausted resources—especially when imperfect waste collection and recycling processes could release new, less understood toxins or cause unintended harm to ecosystems? The scenario generally painted in our industry, where business as usual can be tweaked into a closed loop through supply chain management and material substitutions, is a pipe dream.
Instead, in the ideal circular design approach, we would continue to apply our design abilities in areas where proven, clean, and regenerative extraction, manufacturing, construction, and reclamation processes are available. Where such processes cannot exist, we must eventually stop designing, producing, and building.
Could we then redirect those efforts into areas where our skills as shapers of space are sorely needed but rarely provided—outside of downtowns, commercial districts, and booming neighborhoods, and in places currently shaped by default to the detriment of people and the planet? In such places and communities we might need to become listeners, partners, and advocates, learning and honing skills that many of us still lack. We might find we need less design as we practice it today, and more new forms of creativity that still need to be imagined.
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