“The Cold Equations,” a famous Golden Age science-fiction story, featured a rocket ship on an emergency mission to a faraway planet. Per the cold equations of time traveled and oxygen available, a young stowaway had to be jettisoned—abandoned in cold, empty space—for the mission to succeed. The story influenced a whole generation of engineers who admired its relentless logic and, perhaps most of all, the way it showed that engineers must often make practical decisions upon which lives depend.
Flash-forward about 50 years: Many see planet Earth, itself, as a spaceship, one with limited resources that are subject to cold equations—a spaceship that needs to be managed properly if everyone aboard is to survive. Civil engineers in particular are influenced by this view, as they are designing the infrastructure and cities that use the majority of Earth’s available resources.
“Globally, cities consume 75 percent of global primary energy and are responsible for 70 percent of global carbon-dioxide emissions.”—Nitesh Magdani
“The construction and operation of the built environment consumes 60 percent of all materials in the UK,” according to “Circular Business Models for the Built Environment,” a report by design and engineering firm Arup and European construction group Royal BAM. Group
“It’s not just the UK, of course,” says the report’s coauthor, BAM’s Group Director of Sustainability Nitesh Magdani. “Globally, cities consume 75 percent of global primary energy and are responsible for 70 percent of global carbon-dioxide emissions. Just in Europe, it would take between two and three planets’ worth of resources to sustain the current lifestyle. There are many good companies working on circular business models for things like soda bottles and other consumables, but none of that will matter much if designers and contractors don’t start making more efficient buildings.”
The application of circular business models (CBMs)—those that consider the entire lifecycle of a product or, in this case, building—is key to realizing the circular economy. According to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation the circular economy is “restorative and regenerative by design,” and it “aims to redefine products and services to design waste out while minimizing negative impacts.” Achieving the circular economy requires reinventing current material-recovery systems while committing to renewable energy sources. For construction, as Magdani’s report states, CBMs in design, use, and recovery are paramount.
Circular design is simple in concept but fiendishly difficult to apply to buildings. “We need so much data,” Magdani says. “There is so much to learn about capturing data and creating value in building materials after numerous years of initial use. As a whole, the construction sector is not really capturing this information during building lifecycles, and that’s a problem—material without information is waste.”
Fortunately, there is considerable motivation to begin capturing this data and to build in a way that extends the use and value of construction materials. In addition to sustainability benefits, the potential economic gains are staggering: According to the report, capturing efficiencies and values in building materials and design could add 4 percent to the world economy in the next 10 years.
“We know that certain materials are going to become scarce and therefore more expensive,” Magdani says. “If we want to survive as businesses, we need to start thinking of materials as assets that remain valuable, as buildings, systems, components or as a material again, after its initial use.”
As part of his work, Magdani is exploring the application of CBMs to buildings in many different ways. BAM is active in engineering, facilities management, and public-private partnerships—which makes it perfectly suited to test the realities of circular-design ideas. It’s as if the built world is BAM’s laboratory.
“Buildings are hard to experiment on because they last so long,” Magdani says. “To speed that up, we teamed with Arup, Frener & Reifer, and The Built Environment Trust to design and build a Circular House in London—a building that we would intentionally deconstruct after a short time to see if we could successfully reuse materials and components. Our brief to manufacturers was that we wanted to ‘borrow’ materials and that we would give them back. And we have begun that journey: We’ve disassembled the building successfully and will be reusing materials and components in other projects to test the concept before giving them back to manufacturers—we’ve learned a lot.”
Another circular building that BAM cocreated, a pavilion called Circl at ABN Amro’s headquarters in Amsterdam, was designed specifically for easy disassembly, relying heavily on demountable components and reused or reusable materials.
Changes in ownership, however, can be a barrier to collecting reliable building data. “I’ve designed many buildings that I think are sustainable, but there’s just no guarantee that they won’t end up in a landfill,” Magdani says. “Part of the problem is that designers don’t know who will own the building, or asset, 50 or 100 years down the line. It’s frustrating.”
One solution is for building designers and contractors to become the operators of new facilities, on behalf of owners. “That way, the Building Information Model used for construction is also used for operations, and all the asset information remains current and is with the building when it’s time to disassemble,” Magdani says. “This will realize value for asset owners rather than the industry thinking about their assets as a liability.”
But there’s also value in the most basic building materials and fixtures—if the market exists. “One project we’re working on is for an engineering company that wants office space for just the next 10 years, for which they would pay fixed rent as tenants,” Magdani says. “Our design response was to repurpose an existing warehouse, and we were able to source secondhand materials like rafters, cubicles, ductwork, et cetera. It worked, but we had to convince investors that their investment will still have sufficient value at the end of 10 years, if it gets disassembled. For that, a marketplace will help.”
To that end, BAM is developing an online marketplace that makes supply and resale of building systems, products, and materials more practical. Magdani also believes that demolition contractors need to redefine their roles when it comes to materials. “Really, they’re urban miners,” he says. “When they disassemble buildings, they are recovering valuable resources that can be put back into buildings and cities—it’s a tremendous opportunity.”
Applying circular business models in construction will certainly be disruptive, but doing so has the potential to provoke positive change in an entire economic sector. And if Earth is indeed a spaceship with limited resources, embracing the circular economy might be the best way to keep all its passengers alive and comfortable.