It is often observed that the pace of innovation within the construction and building industry appears to be slow. Comparably, most buildings having a longer lifespan than furniture, phones, and cars, so constant iteration and improvement is likely to be more difficult. However, recent years have seen some impressive technologies implemented in both homes and offices around the world. Recent advances have seen heating and cooling systems inspired by termite mounds, the salvage and reuse of generic materials, and structures that can be easily dissembled. All these headways are driven by the progress of standards set by initiatives such as Passivhaus and BREEAM.
Despite this, it seems that the idea of circular buildings remains elusive. Designing for a circular economy requires a systemic approach and goes beyond simply considering the building and its contents.
This does not mean that we shouldn’t try. At the London Design Festival, leading design and engineering firm Arup unveiled their own ‘Circular Building’. The team behind the project say that it’s the most advanced reusable building yet, and Circulate spoke to project director Stuart Smith to learn more.
How is this building different to a normal building?
When we started the process, the inspiration was what could we do with the waste we see not just in the construction industry, but also generally.
It’s part of Arup’s ongoing conversation around the circular economy, and how we can apply these principles to the built environment. We always have a project at the Building Centre – two years ago we worked on the Wiki House. Last year it was A New House for London, and the Circular Building feels like a continuation of that work.
So, we broke the design of the building down into a whole series of components and asked ourselves whether we could work with our suppliers in a way that we could build the house using the components and materials, and then give them back after use.
Our chairman Greg Hodkinson has been extremely supportive of the initiative, as have the long list of partners and collaborators who came on board to make it happen. We think we’ve got as close to circularity as we can, in time for the London Design Festival.
How have designers responded to the circular economy framework? Do they see it as a constraint or an opportunity?
The team that worked on the Circular Building haven’t seen this as a constraint – or at least, no more than usual. We’ve had to re-think a lot of things that we’ve had to do, but that’s something we encounter in our work. Clients and sites always come with their own constraints, and as designers we’re used to embracing those – it’s just a mind set.
How do exemplar projects like Circular Building influence Arup and others in the construction industry?
We have to deal with business and Arup is of course a business itself. When we’re talking to clients about the circular economy, it’s great to have a proof of concept that shows our thinking, and a real example that we can refer to. We’ve broken down the project into more manageable parts, such as energy, fit out, component take back and so on. This creates the potential to scale up to crack some of the bigger problems.
I’m a structural engineer. We have ideas about how to design to meet the circular economy framework, but if a building is going to be in place for 100 years, it’s challenging to predict how the economy and technology will change. It’s much easier to have conversations around fit out and some of the shorter term, faster moving elements. Clients could move more quickly, for example, from buying outright to looking at products as a service like Philips’ Pay per Lux lighting model.
This thinking could expand to consider how a building impacts on the wider infrastructure at the city scale. We didn’t want to just build a standalone ‘eco house’, but something that had relevance to the challenges faced in urban environments today. For instance, we could have used timber for the structure, but we’ve persisted in using steel in that it can be re-used rather than recycled. Unless we tackle issues around other large-scale flows of construction materials like steel and concrete, then we’ll be playing around at the fringes.
Readers might immediately think that all these techniques and technologies will be prohibitively expensive when translated to the ‘real world’. Is that the case?
For some of the different components, the economics show fairly quickly. A take back scheme for office furniture is one case: it just doesn’t make business sense for an organisation to buy furniture, and five years later for it to be in a skip due to an upgrade or office move.
Elsewhere, even if the result isn’t directly cheaper, many clients are prepared to pay a bit more, as the price isn’t the whole story. Quality and value increasingly come into the equation, and design and materials choices like Cradle to Cradle are really enhancing the environments for building occupants. Overall, we’re trying to make these innovations happen on sound economics so the circular economy is attainable and cheaper than the alternative.
Where did you look to find inspiration during the conception and design phase?
Everyone’s got their own story, but at Arup there’s a very strong push towards a circular economy, with loads of support from the team and chairman. For me personally, in the early stages of my career as a structural engineer, I looked at materials use and resource flows and couldn’t see how it worked in the long term in terms of the environmental concerns at the time. Sustainability then became more of the conversation, but focused around energy and carbon. Now we’re seeing the opportunity for circular economy to be more centre stage in building projects, enabling us as designers and engineers to tackle issues on a bigger scale.
One piece of inspiration was Stuart Brand’s work, How Buildings Learn, in which he sees a building in terms of six different layers. This served as a starting point and we’ve worked on something of a literal response in the Circular Building.
A typical approach when designing a building is to integrate as many things as possible. But by separating out the various components, we’ve approached them in different ways, bringing modularity into the design.
It works at many scales, from the macro to the micro; from the big picture for the structure to the individual fittings and brackets. Let me give you one example. For our mechanical ventilation heat recovery unit, we 3D printed the parts using recycled plastic. Traditionally this would be a manufactured component that we couldn’t open and repair, but by using the principles of a circular economy, we’ve designed and built it in a way that means it can be taken apart, repaired, upgraded and so on.
There’s a perception that the pace of innovation in construction is slow. Do you agree? Why do you think this is?
It’s not entirely true, as there have been some interesting developments in recent years around modular building design and off-site construction. Innovations like these could be game changing and have the potential to solve the house crisis in London for example, but government support is required for it to really take off.
Construction is highly optimised. It might look slow and backwards, but it’s actually easy to start up – you can turn up to a site and start building with relatively little investment. On the other hand, newer high-tech and off-site techniques require more setup costs and new expertise. This means greater upfront investment and we underestimate it if we think otherwise. So the alternatives to traditional methods are out there, but implementation has been slow.
Circular building seems to cover everything: leasing materials, energy systems, materials selection and fixtures and fittings. Which areas are you most proud of or excited about?
I have to say, the most exciting thing is working on a project that could deal with all the resource and materials issues under one framework. So I’m most excited about the change of approach, working towards circularity by taking a holistic, systems view. When we presented the house at London Design Festival there was a real buzz, with lots of people very excited about how this type of thinking could help change the construction industry.
But in terms of specific aspects of the building, it’s one thing after another really; from the way we’ve used the digital technology to track materials through a QR code, to new business opportunities arising from the way we’ve worked with materials suppliers.
Using the internet and big data will be key in harnessing materials flows and optimising the supply and design of re-used materials. This side of things is interesting, as you don’t need to change the design too much, but instead understand feedback and establish a system in which materials don’t go to waste. Some of these developments aren’t yet in place, but the house is ready for that.
I’m also a fan of the Accoya timber we’ve used. It’s a fast-growing softwood that’s been treated to give the durability of hardwood, keeping it in use for longer. We’ve also got one of the world’s first C2C storage batteries, which contains no heavy metals and no toxic chemicals. With last year’s construction, we used a lithium ion battery, so it’s promising to see manufacturers working hard to come up with new alternatives.
The battery illustrates the most important feature of the building. On its own it’s pretty cool, but when you link it with the house, the lighting, heating, ventilation and connect it together via the internet, so that you can control the house closely to suit users, then you’re matching supply and demand, opening up new possibilities to power the building with off-grid or distributed renewable networks. This starts to feel like a real breakthrough!
What will happen to the Circular Building – and the ideas that it represents – after the London Design Festival?
The plan from the start has been to give materials and components back to the manufacturers, to feed them back into supply chain. Some suppliers want their materials back, and others are still experimenting with the logistics. It highlights a problem with the linear economy today, as if a company isn’t set up for the reverse cycle, it actually disrupts their processes. But we’ve designed the building as much as possible so pieces aren’t destroyed or altered.
We picked up the pen to start designing this in April, and there was some stunned silence at first while we were thinking about it. We had to adapt, and it’s testament to the team that we delivered such a ‘circular’ structure for September. There’s definitely been an enthusiasm for the project, and when we look down our long list of collaborators, it’s clear that the circular economy is a compelling idea for a large number of people in the construction industry.