Responsible Futures and a circular economy
Duncan Baker-Brown discusses designing a circular economy, and how tech and HE industries can help
Posted by Charley Rogers | May 05, 2018 | Sustainability
circular-economy, responsible-futures, university-of-brighton, duncan-baker-brown, sustainability

In his 2016 essay ‘Why wait for the future? There could be a present without waste’ Herbert Kopnick dreams about the launch of the iPhone 10. Kopnick speculates that the Apple CEO Tim Cook might point towards Apple’s change from a company selling products to a company selling services. Kopnick speculates on Cook’s justification for this about-turn, as far as Apple’s business model is concerned, describing the new business model as a ‘win-win-win situation’. Winner number one is the consumer, as they will have a place to return their old Apple products instead of putting them in a drawer to deal with sometime in the future. Winner number two is Apple itself, who ‘only have to buy the majority of the needed raw materials a single time rather than yearly’. The third winner, of course, is the natural environment. Kopnick points out that obtaining one tonne of gold by recycling 40 million used mobile phones is not only much easier and cheaper than getting one tonne of primary gold out of the earth, but that such a method is much less harmful to workers and to the environment. We have the technology to recycle over 95% of the 15 precious metals that are in a mobile phone. 

Now if we consider the construction industry, it consumes about one half of the stuff mined and processed every year. So you can see that there is huge potential to effect change in this industry. If buildings are designed as ‘material stores’ for the future, in other words if they are ‘designed for re-assembly’, this has to be an attractive proposition for landlords and investors in property. At the moment some property investors are putting their money into developments that have a ‘life expectancy’ of, say, thirty years, and at the end of that period the property is probably going to be demolished, or at least it would have had two or three major refurbishments. In each instance the materials removed from the building, and paid for by investors, would cost more money to be disposed of. In a circular economy the materials removed for refurbishment, as well as the building as a whole, are able to be disassembled without damage and are therefore a financial benefit to investors instead of a burden. Many financial institutions are beginning to understand this concept already. For example, ABN-AMRO, the Netherlands-based Bank, recently constructed their CIRCL Pavilion in Amsterdam. At over 18 million Euros it is quite an investment. Designed for re-assembly, with insulation made from ABN-AMRO employees’ old jeans among other things. Perhaps the most striking statement made by Petran van Heel from ABN-AMRO when I met him was that they saw themselves “not just as a financial bank, but as a material bank as well.”

By designing products and buildings so that in one way or another they are a material resource for the future, and not simply thrown away (there is no ‘away’), large corporations can increase their investment opportunities whilst reducing the need for the natural environment to provide millions of tonnes of new raw material every year. If Apple Corp designed their products for a circular economy, they could reduce their need for raw material by 99%. I believe it can work for the ordinary citizen as well. In effect we will lease more (clothes, phones, cars etc.) and return it back to the manufacturer when it is worn out. More corporate responsibility can’t be a bad thing. 

However, there are barriers and challenges that need addressing before a fully-fledged circular economy can function properly. For the most part architects, constructors and the construction supply chain are dealing with existing buildings not designed with re-use in mind. In the UK there are huge tax benefits (VAT mainly) that actively encourage demolition, as new buildings are often exempt of 20% VAT. In addition to this there is a lot of waste in the construction industry with approximately 20% of material arriving on residential sites is wasted. Much of this material is brand-new, never used, but surplusto requirements. There also needs to be buy-in to the systems required to facilitate a circular economy. I’m thinking of the sorts of live digital platforms used by Superuse in Rotterdam, or FREEGLE UK and even eBay. However, I believe that very soon there will be a national digital platform, a network of construction contractors, probably starting with the biggest companies who have most to gain, where we can swap surplus material or products for free. No money would need to be exchanged. It would work with a simple credit and debit system. In that way new-build construction sites could supply each other with surplus material instead of paying to throw it away. In addition, a ‘de-construction’ site will have valuable products and materials to re-use on another site or to keep on the original site, either way not a financial burden. 

One of the biggest challenges for the construction industry will be that of acquiring the knowledge of how to effectively de-construct existing buildings from the 20thand 21stCentury, as well as the challenge for the designers of the new circular systems, products and buildings that are the ‘material banks’ for the future. There is a real need for inspiring case studies that educate and prove that there are cost-effective ways to do this, and that is why it is so important for the University of Brighton’s Responsible Futures research hub to support the promotion of this good practice. For example, in early March 2018 we curated the ‘WasteZone’ at Ecobuild in London. This was a three-day symposium with 30 speakers considering the real short, medium and long-term potentials of a circular economy. We invited visionary academics such as Prof. Michael Braungart (author of ‘Cradle to Cradle’) and Prof. Walter Stahel (who has written about the benefits of a circular economy since the early 1970’s), as well as designers (The Agency of Design), architects (Rotor, The Living) and makers (Elvis & Kresse, Tengri) who are either re-working existing situations (buildings, products etc.) or working with new innovative materials and systems with an end of life strategy. 

We are also working on a number of EU-funded research projects, considering the potential for sourcing local waste materials and re-processing them into insulation and other construction products. Another one we hope to start in the autumn will work with Rotor Deconstruction in Brussels. They are gaining an international reputation for deconstructing late 20thcentury or early 21stCentury buildings literally one screw at a time, and they do this in a financially rewarding manner. We will be working with Rotor considering the potentials for teaching young designers to think like ‘de-constructors’, urban miners and designers of a truly circular economy. 

Duncan Baker-Brown is Senior Lecturer at the University of Brighton’s School of Architecture and Design