Pursuing a Circular Economy

Understanding how materials, design, and planning can increase sustainability
Sponsored by Armstrong World Industries
Sponsored by Armstrong Ceiling and Wall Solutions
By Jessica Jarrard
1 AIA LU/Elective; 1 GBCI CE Hour; 0.1 ICC CEU; 0.1 IACET CEU*; 1 AIBD P-CE; AAA 1 Structured Learning Hour; This course can be self-reported to the AANB, as per their CE Guidelines; AAPEI 1 Structured Learning Hour; This course can be self-reported to the AIBC, as per their CE Guidelines.; MAA 1 Structured Learning Hour; This course can be self-reported to the NLAA.; This course can be self-reported to the NSAA; NWTAA 1 Structured Learning Hour; OAA 1 Learning Hour; SAA 1 Hour of Core Learning

Learning Objectives:

  1. Explain the difference between a linear and circular economy.
  2. Recognize how the building industry can be part of a circular economy.
  3. Describe how the building industry drives reduce, reuse, and recycle processes.
  4. Discuss how materials, design, and planning allow buildings to reduce their carbon footprints.
  5. Identify programs, initiatives, and projects that promote sustainability.

This course is part of the Sustainability Academy

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The traditional manufacturing, specification, distribution, and waste-management process is a linear path that begins with extraction of natural resources and ends with landfill disposal. In a world of endless resources, this may be a practical approach. However, the reality is that this linear path is neither sustainable nor viable anymore. By contrast, a circular economy is one based on the philosophy of extracting the maximum value from each resource available and then establishing a system that encourages the best use, reuse, and replenishment of natural resources possible. This course will discuss how the building industry is part of the circular economy, and how design and planning allow for more sustainable buildings.

Photo courtesy of Armstrong World Industries

Michigan's Kalamazoo Public Library is a strong example of how design elements like natural lighting, recycled materials, and creative use of space can support a circular economy philosophy.

The Circular Economy

At the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, materials that were once meticulously and painstakingly made in small shops or in people’s homes started being mass produced in large factories using heavy machinery. These new and improved manufacturing processes were made possible through technological advances and inventions like the steam engine, which helped power manufacturing equipment.

Textiles, clothing, building materials, and even food were made and processed at a much faster rate than could ever have been imagined before. The invention of the steam engine not only helped boost production but also improved the way that materials were shipped from the manufacturer to the end user.

The Industrial Revolution quickly created a new way of life and a new speed at which raw materials could be turned into consumer goods, building materials, and commodities. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, the earth seemed to have more resources than its occupants could ever possibly use. Materials were harvested, manufactured, used, and then discarded.

More than 100 years and many technological advancements later, we have now learned that the earth’s natural resources are not nearly as abundant as they once seemed. Standard manufacturing practices and demand are depleting the earth’s resources faster than they can replenish themselves, and landfills across the globe are filling up. This linear process of take, make, and discard, also known as the linear economy, is no longer a viable plan for our current time or the future.

In 2010, the Ellen McCarther Foundation launched an idea for a new concept called the circular economy, consolidating various schools of thought and ideologies that have been around since the 1970s. These include cradle to cradle, biomimicry, industrial ecology, regenerative design, and natural capitalism.

In a circular economy, every element of what is created or produced is considered a resource, meaning that all materials and the products they make are designed in such a way that they can be returned to the cycle through recycling, biodegradation, composting, or upcycling. The circular economy is focused on reducing or eliminating waste, including material waste from the beginning to the end of the product’s life cycle.

The circular economy concept took off in many industries worldwide as stakeholders realized that it is time to be creative in how we as a society handle population growth and increased housing density, advancements in computer and phone technology, and waste management, to name a few. While the concept of a circular economy can apply to most modern-day industries, it is especially important in the construction industry, which uses more raw materials than any other industry.

Two Main Types of Cycles in a Circular Economy

There are two main types of cycles in a circular economy: technical cycles and biological cycles.

Technical cycles recover and restore products, components, and materials. This is achieved through recycling, repair, and reuse, where materials are manufactured into new products.

Biological cycles refer to “consumption,” for example when food and biologically based materials, such as cotton or wood, are designed to feed back into the system through processes like composting and anaerobic digestion. These cycles regenerate living systems, such as soil, which provide renewable resources for the economy.

Both the technical and biological cycles are currently present in the construction industry, as materials range from those that have been engineered and manufactured to those that are naturally occurring, renewable, and/or biodegradable. Specifying a combination of these materials, takeback, and creating a construction waste plan can help with the sustainability and longevity of a project, as well as the responsible disposal of waste materials.

The Importance of a Circular Economy

The circular economy helps reduce waste and environmental impacts caused by production and consumption of materials, drives greater productivity, helps boost the economy, and reduces scarcity concerns with regard to resources. This all happens at multiple levels and on multiple scales, whether it is being done by large corporations, small businesses, or government entities, on a global or local scale.

This transition to a circular economy not only refers to adjustments aimed at reducing the negative impacts of a linear economy, but it also represents a systemic shift that promotes long-term resilience while generating new business and economic opportunities as well as opportunities for sustainability.

Another benefit to a circular economy is in the reduction of embodied carbon in materials. By using recycled material streams, the burden of these materials is basically “free.” This then reduces the overall carbon footprint of a product.

Identifying Key Players in a Circular Economy

Many industries and entities (including government entities) worldwide are interested in being part of the circular economy. Not only does it make fiscal sense, but it is also an investment in long-term sustainability for businesses, communities, and our economy as a whole. Over the long term, the circular economy will prove to be more cost-effective while also reducing waste and pollution, which in turn reduces greenhouse gas emissions to combat climate change.

Stakeholders in the circular economy include engineers, material specifiers, others involved in the design process, material and supply-chain providers, building industry companies, contractors hired for installation and/or deconstruction, occupants, consumers and end users, building owners, government entities that track emissions and waste management, code enforcers, agencies that provide recycling and waste management services, and many others in between.

In a circular economy, it is vital that all stakeholders do their part. Suppliers must responsibly source materials and ensure that they are sustainable. Manufacturers must design innovative solutions and specify quality materials to produce products that will last, have low impact on the environment, and be recyclable at the end of their useful life. Manufacturers should also provide a process to return products for recycling.

Specifiers should limit the use of different types of materials in a single project. Construction waste plans and recycling of each material should be outlined in specifications.

Specifiers should also indicate the use of mechanical fasteners, such as bolts, nails, and screws, instead of adhesives or sealants.

Additionally, specifiers should include requirements in the project specifications for recycling of construction waste and materials. These specs should include detailed instructions with specific programs for each material and key contacts. Most manufacturers provide specification language to use.

When it comes to planning deconstruction activities, it is vital that those involved in the process develop an adaptation or assembly plan in advance, and that they have access to blueprints, building drawings, lists of material types and structural properties, etc. Planning ahead helps allow for workers on the product to move safely and efficiently during the project deconstruction and reconstruction.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) provides great resources for stakeholders in various stages of the process, including design, manufacturing, construction, and waste management.

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Originally published in Architectural Record
Originally published in June 2020