Feature Article

Circular Economy at Scale: Six International Case Studies

These teams are applying radical life-cycle thinking to entire projects—and redefining what building ownership means in the process.

The Bosch Siemens Home headquarters features a variety of building components designed for eventual disassembly and reuse.

Photo courtesy Delta Development
We don’t normally conceive of buildings as disposable. Yet cultural and economic undercurrents make it all too easy for our buildings to become trash.

The typical service life of a commercial building in North America is less than 50 years—and many structures are lucky to hit the ripe old age of 20. Once a building ceases to function, it is extremely rare for materials to be reused or even recycled. The amount of waste from this carnage is staggering. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency reports that annual construction and demolition (C&D) debris from buildings in the U.S. is around 136 million tons annually—amounting to about 840 pounds of waste per person per year. In the northeastern U.S. (one of the only regions for which reliable statistics are available), only about 10% of that waste is diverted from landfills.

This all-too-typical trajectory of our building materials represents a linear system. It is by definition unsustainable because it puts valuable resources permanently out of service after they’re no longer useful to their first owner. Linear systems are at the core of our most pressing environmental crises. We send toxic chemicals and carbon dioxide on a one-way trip into our environment, while irreversibly damaging habitat and natural treasures as we extract resources. Linear processes are deeply ingrained in the developed world’s economies and cultures; they won’t be easy to change.

But it doesn’t have to be this way, according to advocates of a circular model. Groups like the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and its supporters, which include major global corporations like Philips, Cisco, and Google, believe we can create new economic conditions under which materials and energy retain their value for a much longer period of time—perhaps to the point where “waste” would virtually cease to exist.

New work has begun to apply this circular model to building materials. Product certification systems like Cradle to Cradle and the Living Product Challenge spread these concepts and aim to optimize the material flows of individual products. However, we could keep wasting valiant efforts like these unless we design buildings as a whole to exist within a circular life cycle.

According to the corporations and nonprofits that are actively reviving the philosophical framework of a “circular economy” first developed in the 1960s and 1970s, businesses need to redefine their concepts of value and ownership if we are to shift from a linear economy to a circular one. While work continues at the product scale, project teams—and particularly a group of corporations and firms in the Netherlands—are beginning to apply them at the building scale.

Although no product or project can yet claim to be fully circular, below we highlight a number of firms that are working on at least one leverage point in the conventional construction process by focusing on:

  • Long-term value rather than first costs
  • Design for continuous cycles of use
  • Rethinking building ownership, with value arising from performance rather than from physical objects
Published October 5, 2015