We shouldn’t be deterred by the wonky start to the circular economy

The development of the circular economy is not quite so simple as we would like, but we have to persist, writes Becky GordonWe’re all familiar with the circular economy in some shape or form. We know the principles of recycling materials back into the original product to create a perfectly circular model of sustainability. But in practice, as architects and designers are finding, the development of the circular economy not quite so simple. Circular design is possible now, but we have to start with circles that are slightly wonkier than we might like.

The large-scale, future-gazing discourse typical of discussions on the circular economy can be off-putting, framing circularity as something for sustainability pioneers, and incompatible with the realities that architects and designers face on projects day-in, day-out. In reality, it’s more complex than the perfectly circular supply chains that grab the headlines, and that’s where a more holistic approach can help. In commercial design, we’ve got an opportunity to make a real impact by taking up the tools of the circular economy that are within reach now and putting them to work to create projects that, while not a perfect closed loop, represent sizeable steps in the right direction.


Cradle to grave and back again   

A holistic approach to circular design means taking a deeper dive into end-of-life options that extend beyond recycling the product into something completely new. It’s in this context that reuse can be the natural entry point into circularity on many commercial and office design projects. More and more sustainably minded clients are reusing old furniture, often by refurbishing or freshening it up for the new space. Know it or not, this is circular design in action; preventing the use of virgin materials, as well as ensuring that the emissions produced by eventual disposal come at the end of a productive life.

Architects and designers that dig a little deeper for more reuse options will likely find themselves pleasantly surprised, and able to make a positive impact not limited to a project’s carbon footprint. Becoming fluent in reuse options, both when considering how to reuse products in new designs and where new products will end up at the other end, means architects can be better advocates for circular design with their clients. ‘We can reuse this – here’s how’ is a far more attractive proposition than ‘We should think about how to reuse this’. Likewise, understanding how reusing materials contributes to sustainability accreditations such as LEED helps clients understand that circular design adds value to their space.


A job done right

A common misconception is that circular design involves compromise, either on quality, aesthetics, or a client or designer’s vision for a project. However, if we take a wide, pragmatic view of environmental impact, designing a space that performs as well as possible for as long as possible is good practice. A product that has to be replaced every five years isn’t as sustainable as one which lasts fifteen, no matter how recyclable it is. If they can design for the long term, architects and designers not only reduce the likelihood of carbon and resource-intensive refits, but also unlock the potential of reuse for durable products.

This is where a constant eye on how the space will be used is crucial. Avoiding a product that appears to have a better environmental impact on paper for one that will last longer could be the sustainable choice. This is what the circular economy looks like in practice. It doesn’t involve everything else coming in second best behind sustainability; instead, it’s about creating the not-quite-perfect circles that make sense in the real world.

The long view should inform a design from both an aesthetic and functional point of view. By avoiding the latest trends, which will soon look outdated, architects and designers can keep future occupants from redesigning and making waste out of their work. In this context, biophilic- and organic-inspired patterns draw on colours that won’t go out of fashion and deliver a lasting wellbeing boost to users.


Supply chain sleuths

When there’s no choice but to use a new product, there are plenty of suppliers who are working towards, or have achieved, circular operations, but it could take a little investigative work to identity them. First, designers should look for manufacturers that are transparent with their environmental data, then make sure they know what they’re measuring – 50% recycled content could be impressive, but not if the industry standard for that product is 75%. The same is true for durability, where a long warranty offered by the manufacturer is a good indicator that they expect it to last a long time.

There’s nothing wrong with digging into a manufacturer’s supply chain to understand where the materials that go into its products come from, and whether it’s working to reduce the amount of virgin materials included. Architects and designers should also look for signs that manufacturers are engaging with the end-of-life process, either by highlighting how and where they can be recycled, or by taking them back themselves.


Drivers of change

The best thing the design community can do for the circular economy is to make a habit out of circular design. By embracing the elements of circularity that are available to them now, architects and designers can help drive a shift in circular design from a one-off, sustainably focused project, to a guiding principle on every job. It’s an opportunity to demand more data and action from manufacturers and show clients that there are easy ways to ensure their spaces have the right impact.

Yes, our budding circular economy will be a little rough around the edges, but it’s worth stepping backwards, taking off our glasses and squinting a bit, if it means we can start building it now.

Image: Mosaic from ancient Sentinum depicting Aion holding a Möbius strip. Public domain