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As many of you know, our programs typically cover the latest trends in the various building markets, but we often address larger industry concerns as well, such as economic drivers and environmental sustainability. Last Thursday’s program, hosted by SMPS New York and Liebhaber Company, was one such program, focused on the topic of the Circular Economy and what it can mean for the AEC industry.
The idea of a circular economy isn’t entirely new, but in an era of corporate social responsibility and more widespread concern for climate change, it’s gaining traction in many trend-dependent industries such as fashion, manufacturing…and now architecture. For many technical professionals and their clients who are concerned with “greenwashing”, the concept represents a radically alternative viewpoint, whereby keeping buildings and their components in their “highest and best use” at all times can have a much larger and more positive impact on an industry than typical reuse and recycling programs. In addition, circular economy appeals to a talent pool of millennials who are looking to work for companies that really make a measurable difference in the world.
To better understand the concept ourselves, and to share this new knowledge with our technical colleagues, we asked an architect from 3XN, an engineer from Arup, and a Circular Economy expert to share what they know about its potential impact on design and construction.
Kate Daly, Executive Director for the Center for the Circular Economy at Closed Loop Partners, started things off with an overview the concept. She offered up some pointed statistics, such as how with the current “take, make, waste” economic model, “Resource consumption is set to triple by 2050”; “Building materials account for nearly half the waste worldwide”; and the shocking but not surprising fact that “China, in the last 3 years, used as much concrete as the U.S. in the last century”. She also provided solid scenarios from various industries, including fashion. 60% of clothing on racks is polyester-based, which is derived from petroleum. Research has shown that we’re keeping this clothing only half as long as we used to and are now eating it in our fish.
Kate was quick to stress, however, that it’s just not environmental reasons for this way of thinking, but economic ones as well. “There are real business reasons to turn to circularity,” she stated. Tom Kennedy, a Principal at Arup, offered this one: By using a lightbulb replacement program in collaboration with Philips, Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam has cut its maintenance costs by 50%. Essentially, circular economy principles applied to construction and real estate represent a significant opportunity to reduce the current waste cycle AND offer building owners and operators long-term cost savings.
Matthias Altwicker, a Senior Architect with 3XN, shared detailed information about circular economy solutions that can be applied to architectural design. Citing his own firm as an example, he said their research division, GXN, has completely changed the way they think as a firm and how they design. By “designing for disassembly”, they’ve learned they can increase a building’s service life by implementing flexibility—and by designing reversible connections of building components, including structural, they can make true flexibility a reality for building owners.
His case study— 50 Bridge Street in Sydney, Australia—allowed their client, AMP Capital, to save approximately 10% off the cost of a new building, by keeping the one they had outgrown and which, frankly, looked dated. Rather than tearing the building down entirely and designing a new one from scratch, 3XN worked with their current asset, retaining 98% of the existing structure, and redesigning only 2% of the building internally, along with a complete reclad/reskin. To a bank like AMP Capital, that just made a ton of financial sense, he said. Additionally, by applying the firm’s knowledge in the social science of office environments, they came up with an atrium concept that reorients the building, maximizing natural light and views, while inventing an easy “IKEA-like kit-of-parts solution” to help fill in floors later, if and when AMP’s needs change.
Tom expanded on this idea of flexibility and reuse, citing innovative solutions across markets. Sometimes, these solutions simply identify reuse possibilities nearby, such as one that has taken the slightly worn tires no longer safe for airplanes and is repurposing them on jet bridges used for boarding.
Beyond economy and flexibility, what are the selling points for our clients? The volatility of construction material supply markets, for one. There is a huge distinction between circularity and sustainability, explained Tom, and while there tends to be a large upfront cost on “green materials”, there is no such premium on making buildings circular. So if your firm is looking for a competitive edge on traditional sustainable design and construction, certainly start thinking circular!
See photos from the event on our blog here!