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Circular Economy in Architecture

Circular economy in architectural design represents an innovative and necessary perspective to address environmental challenges and build a sustainable future. This approach aims to radically transform the way we conceive, build, and manage buildings, shifting the focus from a linear “take-produce-dispose” model to a virtuous cycle of reuse, recycling, and waste reduction.
In particular, circular economy is based on key principles that redefine the very concept of construction. At the heart of this philosophy lies the awareness that buildings and their components can have a second life, thus contributing to minimizing environmental impact and optimizing resource efficiency.

 

Roots and principles of circular economy in architecture

The theory of circular economy has deep roots dating back to the 1970s, with concepts such as the “Limits to Growth” by the Club of Rome, “cradle to cradle” by Braungart and McDonough, “performance economy” by Stahel, and “regenerative design” by Lyle. These models challenge the traditional linear approach of the construction industry, known as “take-make-waste,” which is responsible for massive resource consumption and 40% of global CO2 emissions.

The key principles are defined by the European Commission in the document “Circular Economy – Principles for Building Design.” Among these:

  • Durability: Planning the lifespan of buildings with a focus on medium and long term.
  • Adaptability: Extending the lifespan through changes in end use and facilitating future alterations.
  • Waste Reduction: Focus on producing less waste and the potential for high-quality reuse or recycling.

Specifically, the European Commission initiated the two-year project Level(s) in 2018, a European approach to assess and define the sustainability performance of buildings. This project aims to guide Europe towards a circular mindset.

Best practices: upcycle house and building in layers

Projects like the Upcycle House by the Danish foundation Realdania Byg and the “building in layers” model by ARUP and Ellen MacArthur are tangible examples of successful application of circular economy in architecture.
The Upcycle House experiments with recycled building materials, while the “building in layers” model allows for the separation and replacement of elements with different lifespans.

Located in Denmark, the former is an experimental project that clearly and tangibly conveys the principles of upcycling. This means that many of the materials used for its construction were previously used in other contexts and subsequently recovered, reflecting the concept of giving new life to elements that would otherwise be considered waste. The Upcycle House demonstrates that it is possible to marry contemporary aesthetics with sustainability, offering a concrete example of how circular architecture can be not only an ecological solution but also an aesthetically innovative option. This pioneering house remains an inspiration for the industry, highlighting the potential of building design that respects the environment and promotes the rebirth of materials.

The latter, on the other hand, stands out for its in-depth reflection on durability and long-term resource management. The essence of this model lies in the design of buildings in distinct layers, each with a specific lifespan. This allows for selective deconstruction, where elements with shorter lifecycles can be easily removed and replaced without compromising the fundamental structure of the building. This approach not only promotes space flexibility and adaptability but also minimizes the waste of precious materials during renovation operations.
The “Building in Layers” model embodies the concept of circular economy, reducing environmental impact and bringing about significant change in how we conceive building design and management, with the aim of creating structures that can evolve and adapt harmoniously to the constantly changing needs of society.

 

Best practice from Italy

The reuse of structures intended for Expo 2015 and temporary events is emerging as a key strategy in sustainability and responsible resource management. Historically, many of these structures, built to host athletes or trade fairs, have remained unused or have become eyesores after the conclusion of the events that justified them. However, today, with growing environmental awareness, efforts are being made to reverse this trend.

In the context of Expo Milano, for example, the Ministry of Environment promoted the “Towards a Sustainable Expo” award to encourage sustainable solutions in the design and construction of these structures. The approach includes criteria such as design for reuse, use of recyclable materials, and the use of renewable sources. Several post-Expo 2015 examples highlight the success of this strategy, with pavilions being transformed into schools, children’s centers, humanitarian organization headquarters, and even sports fields. Sustainability-oriented design can thus give rise to a meaningful second life for these structures, contributing to waste reduction and strengthening positive impacts on the global community.

 

The role of the client and supplier

Technical innovation in the architectural sector is increasingly focusing on sustainability-related challenges, such as design for disassembly, modularity, green energy production, and home insulation. However, an urgent appeal emerges from a social perspective, highlighting that circular economy in architecture requires active engagement of people.

Technological transformation may be relatively straightforward, but cultural change poses a more complex challenge. The focus must shift beyond the technical aspect, including attention to the social implications of change. Architects are called upon to shape urban planning in a socially and ecologically conscious manner, addressing the challenge of decarbonizing lives inclusively and financially accessible to all. This requires an expansion of urban imagination, which goes beyond building design to also involve new business models.
The need to create financial incentives for disassembly and reuse of components at the end of the building’s life is highlighted as an essential component of change, and architects are invited to play a crucial role in this context, going beyond mere aesthetics in design and considering the financial and social aspects of the entire life cycle of structures.
Innovation in product design and access to more precise and detailed data are identified as key drivers for improved developments in the context of circular economy. According to Dr. Kristian Steele, a member of the research and advanced technology group at ARUP, the key to getting more out of what we already have lies in better connecting the various stages of the supply chain, existing resources, and waste and resource flows.

However, the critical issue, emphasized by Anders Lendager, founder of Lendager Group, concerns the understanding of Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) and related barriers. Lendager argues that, although it is often claimed that there is not enough data to properly use LCA, in reality, in many projects, data has been generated internally. The real obstacle, according to Lendager, is the lack of a global or, better yet, local database to collect and share this data globally or nationally, thus assessing the overall impact. The proposal to collect specific local data represents a key strategy, as it would allow for the creation of a comprehensive LCA and the definition of a materials circular economy adapted to specific contexts. Lendager has also called for greater transparency from manufacturing companies, emphasizing that access to detailed data is essential for assessing the sustainability of materials and that complexity should not be an insurmountable obstacle.

Architects and engineers are facing real dilemmas, such as structural resistance vs. ease of disassembly and longevity vs. flexibility. The lack of quality data makes many decisions uncertain, especially in the context of end-of-life Life Cycle Assessment (LCA), where the future is still a subject of assumptions.

In summary, circular economy in architecture is a necessary response to environmental challenges and future needs. With the support of innovative projects, models, and frameworks, the architecture industry can lead the transition towards a more sustainable and circular future. The key is collaboration among all stakeholders, from design to demolition, to create a built environment that respects the planet and future generations.

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