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Circular Economy

In this article we explore the concept of the circular economy and how this applies to the built environment.
Concrete blocks that have been repurposed to grow plants from. Green leafy plants are growing out of the gaps between them.
© Getty Images

The issue of resource efficiency and construction is interrelated with major sustainability topics. The most important being:

  • Climate change: every process involved in material production and construction is energy intensive, and therefore produces greenhouse gas emissions.
  • Depletion of raw materials: metals and minerals are a finite resource and there is already a significant risk related to depletion. Clean water is also a prime resource to be considered.
  • Waste management: in a linear model (as opposed at the circular economy model), not enough waste is being re-introduced in the production chain.

The last bullet point in the above mentions the ‘circular economy’, which is what we are now going to focus on specifically:

“A circular economy is one that is restorative and regenerative by design, and which aims to keep products, components and materials at their highest utility and value at all times, distinguishing between technical and biological cycles” – Ellen McArthur Foundation

When we talk about creating a circular economy in relation to the development, use and demolition of buildings, we are really talking about a totally different way of viewing the building itself and the construction process.

Some key strategies relating to the circular economy in the built environment are:

  • Designing out waste from the start of the project;
  • Designing for resource efficiency by considering where you can reduce material use;
  • Designing for robustness and low maintenance;
  • Designing for deconstruction and disassembly e.g. improving the ease with which buildings can be deconstructed by considering bolted rather than welded connections, screws rather than glue and nails, and easily separable composites;
  • Utilising delivery and return logistics options with material suppliers
  • Putting in place take back schemes for furniture, carpeting and other interior design supplies.

The circular economy resources from the UKGBC [1] have been worked up in conjunction with players from across the built environment industry and form a kind of ‘how to’ for re-thinking your project. Why? In the UK, construction, demolition and excavation account for 60% of material use and waste generation. As with carbon emission figures, this number will be broadly applicable wherever the building typology is similar to the UK’s ‘western’ model of modern construction.

To deepen your understanding of the Circular Economy, here are a few things to listen to and watch. We hope they will not only grow your understanding, but also offer a little bit of inspiration.

The TED Talk podcast ‘Circular’ [2] showcases concepts of ‘Circular’ both in relation to the economy as a whole, how food is managed in our cities, waterways, plastic and clothing. While it won’t tell you how to design a circular building, it will help you to shift your lens and see the design process from a new angle.

The Ellen McArthur Foundation [3] provides a wealth of resources to help you get an overview, understand the building blocks and different schools of thought on the topic. If you want to find out more about what inspired a world record breaking sailor to become a circular economy advocate, you can hear Ellen McArthur explain herself in the TED talk ‘The Surprising Thing I Learned Sailing Solo Around the World’ [4], and for a case study of putting the concept into practice and further guidance relating to the built environment and cities, follow this link [5].

As mentioned above, when you get to the detail of how to implement these concepts in a building or community, you can refer to guides from the UKGBC [2] for a more practical approach.

Some case studies that can help you to see what this looks like on the ground can be found from the Netherlands, where a push from the Dutch government to implement a circular economy by 2050 is already achieving great results. Have a look at:

But we can also look to traditional technologies for circular materials. It is estimated that at least 30 percent of the world’s population, some 1.5 billion people, live in houses constructed of raw earth. These materials are local and circular – they come from the environment and go back in the same form when no longer required. Adapting these traditional methodologies to modern designs and uses is one of the creative challenges for architects and designers.

Traditional Zimbabwian huts from clay and hay. Matobo, Matabeleland province, Zimbabwe:

Local village with traditional Zimbabwian huts made from clay and hay.

Bamboo and timber are also materials that conform to this circular model and are increasingly being incorporated into modern construction:

Floating village at Inle Lake, Myanmar:

A view from a rowing boat on the water between two rows of houses in the floating village at Inle Lake.

Bungalow at the Tropical Resort, Bali:


  1. (page on the Internet), UKGBC: Circular Economy.
  2. (page on the Internet), NPR: Ted Radio Hour.
  3. (page on the Internet), Ellen MacArthur Foundation: Circular Economy.
  4. (page on the Internet), Dame Ellen MacArthur: The Surprising Thing I learnt Sailing Solo Around the World.
  5. (page on the Internet), Ellen MacArthur Foundation: City Hall: From Cradle to Cradle: Venlo.
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An Introduction to Sustainability in the Built Environment

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