Pursuing a Circular Economy

Understanding how materials, design, and planning can increase sustainability
Sponsored by Armstrong Ceiling and Wall Solutions
By Jessica Jarrard
1 AIA LU/Elective; 0.1 IACET CEU*; 1 GBCI CE Hour; 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 circular economy is the most successful when everyone participates. Fortunately, there are many incentives in place to encourage all stakeholders to take part in the process, including rebates and accreditations that can lead to cost-saving benefits in the future. Many tools exist to help stakeholders follow best practices throughout the process and make decisions that can help build long-term economic, natural, and social capital.

Building Economic, Natural, and Social Capital

In our ever-changing world, growth is inevitable. As populations grow, housing density will continue to increase, as will the need for services and buildings in which to house those services. The design and manufacture of better products creates new jobs, and as materials are recycled and reused more instead of going straight to the landfill, recycling and waste management jobs will also see an increase. The circular economy helps build economic, natural, and social capital through innovation and advancement in technologies and processes.

By shifting our mindset as a society and as an industry, and by putting money and resources into projects and processes that promote sustainability, a circular economy allows manufacturers to design out waste and pollution that was so present in a linear economy. There are a few ways to do this, including the manufacture and use of materials that are built to last longer and are more sustainably made and reproduced. Longer-lasting products not only reduce the amount of waste going into the landfill, but they also reduce additional manufacturing impacts.

While the concept of a circular economy can apply to most modern-day industries, it is especially important in the construction industry. With populations in urban areas growing by more than 200,000 people per day, the construction industry uses more raw materials than any other industry and accounts for 24–40 percent of global carbon emissions.

Designing Materials and Products that Contribute to the Circular Economy

The construction and building industry can contribute to a circular economy in many ways. One of these ways is through innovation and design. When designing a building for new construction or renovations, it is important to consider that at some point in the future, some or all of the building may need to be disassembled as materials need to be replaced. Designing a building to support adaptation, disassembly, and reuse can reduce waste and extend its useful life while also providing economic and environmental benefits for builders, owners, occupants, and the communities. Planning ahead for disassembly during the design phase can help avoid future building removal and allows materials to be easily, cost-effectively, and rapidly taken apart and directed for further reuse. By designing for adaptability, disassembly, and reuse, designers and engineers are finding new opportunities early in the design process to reduce environmental impacts, conserve resources, and reduce costs.

Construction, Deconstruction, Demolition

Specifically in the building industry, the following three concepts play a role in the circular economy: construction, deconstruction, and demolition.

Construction refers to both construction of new buildings as well as construction being done in a renovation project for an existing building. New construction allows for the opportunity to use the latest and greatest materials and best practices to build a sustainable building with quality materials that will not only reduce energy usages and costs in the short term but also reduce the amount of waste and pollution created in the long run. Renovations allow for parts of a building to have better construction or materials and provide an opportunity to implement more sustainable practices, which can also lead to better energy efficiency, greener spaces, as well as healthier materials that make for quieter and more comfortable spaces. As overall building material performance is considered, including acoustics, lighting, and durability, many more products now exist where specifiers do not have to choose between performance and sustainable criteria. Better-performing materials lead to spaces that provide better occupant comfort and safety.

If an existing building or parts of a building need to be removed prior to construction, there are two methods in which this can occur: deconstruction and demolition. Deconstruction is preferred, as it allows for building materials to be taken down piece by piece and potentially reused in a new project or recycled into a new product. This can range from reusing an entire structure or foundation, to select assemblies and systems, to the careful removal of specific materials or items for recycling and reuse. Demolition refers to leveling a building. In many demolition projects, most of the materials end up in the landfill.

Disposal of construction and demolition materials can be a waste of otherwise good material resources and take up space in landfills. When new materials are used instead, additional waste and pollution are created.

Deconstruction can be applied on a number of levels to salvage usable materials and significantly cut waste and reduce disposal. When deconstruction occurs, materials can often be sent back to the manufacturer for recycling. Construction waste management and planning is vital to the success of a demolition. During design, construction, and the planning phases of demolition, it is important to keep track of what materials are used and where, the specifications of the materials, and whether or not those manufacturers have “take back” programs that allow for materials to be returned for reuse or recycling. Manufacturer requirements for recycling programs vary so it is important to plan ahead.

Design and Planning for Sustainable Futures

Sustainable buildings begin with high-quality materials and products that are built to last. Oftentimes, these sustainable materials can be deconstructed, reused, or recycled for other projects.

In renovation or removal projects, complete deconstruction is the preferred and most sustainable method. However, it is not always possible. This depends on the type of building and/or its components.

The following list includes materials that are highly deconstructible in buildings:

  • All wood-framed buildings, especially those that use heavy timbers or beams.
  • Unique woods such as Douglas firs, American chestnut, and other wood materials that allow for “stick-by-stick” construction. The individual logs or timbers can be easily removed during the reconstruction process and often be reused in other products.
  • Specialty materials that have a high resale value, such as hardwood flooring, multi-paned windows, architectural moldings, and unique doors or plumbing/electrical material fixtures.
  • High-quality brick-laid construction with low-quality mortar, which allows for relatively easy breakup and cleaning.
  • Interior finishes, such as carpet and acoustical ceilings.

In addition to having materials that are highly deconstructible and reusable, materials that can easily be recycled or composted and materials that are biodegradable can also help move the circular economy toward a sustainable future. A material such as bamboo is a natural, biodegradable material that is sustainable, with new plants maturing in just a few short years. The material is also incredibly durable and resilient. Bamboo panels can also be deconstructed and removed from a project for reuse or disposal.

Ceiling tiles from renovation projects can also be easily removed from projects, recycled and repurposed for new building materials.

Photo courtesy of Armstrong Ceiling Solutions

Pallets of old, discarded ceiling tiles await pickup so they can be manufactured into new acoustical ceilings.

Tools to Aid in Deconstruction Planning

To ensure the best possible scenario with regard to waste reduction during deconstruction, the EPA has created a free Deconstruction Rapid Assessment Tool that enables organizations to triage building stock slated for demolition. The tool uses data to help prioritize structures for deconstruction and salvage.

When information about the project is entered, the assessment tool examines information about the building’s condition and uses factors like age, structural integrity, environmental hazards, valuable materials and architectural features, etc. to identify candidates for deconstruction by examining information on the building’s condition and salvageable material inventory. This rapid assessment tool can help managers make critical decisions on allocating time and resources by providing guidance on the best response.

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Originally published in Architectural Record
Originally published in June 2020