As our society increasingly embraces sustainability, a wave of technological innovation is transforming design possibilities. From 3D fabrication to Artificial Intelligence (AI) to Internet of Things (IoT), designers can prototype and manufacture environmentally-friendly buildings more efficiently than ever before. Further, these advancements allow designers to think about sustainable building design in new and more holistic ways. Consider the building, from start to finish. In recent decades, many designers have incorporated sustainability into various life cycle stages. Perhaps the raw materials necessary for construction were fabricated in eco-friendly ways or eco-friendly practices in place during the operation of the building.

However, designers now have the tools to consider every aspect of a building’s sustainability. They can design with current needs in mind and future-proof buildings by designing with an eye towards future operational needs or changing aesthetic preferences.  Moreover, they can design with consideration given to how the building may be reused or whether its parts are recycled in the future. Designing with a holistic eye on a facility’s sustainability is known as circular design.

What Distinguishes Circular Design From Traditional Design

Circular design looks beyond the conventional linear design model where a business/owner/developer reaches out to a design and construction firm to transform basic operational needs into a brick and mortar structure. Beyond the design of buildings, these structures are also filled with single-use components, many of which can’t be recycled. The traditional approach to design has short life cycles that ends in disposal.   

This approach, which still prevails in much of the world, is part of the linear economy. In the linear economy, we take, make, and dispose of resources, generating high amounts of waste in the process. We take, extracting raw materials in ways that harm the environment. We make, using finite energy sources and with eventual demolition in mind. We dispose of, inefficiently, mixing technical and biological waste products and increasing our impact on the environment.

With circular design, we look at buildings that can be transformed rather than demolished. We talk about building components that can last for decades and are designed to be reused or repurposed with minor modifications. With circular design, we’re looking at a design that ultimately improves the health of the environment because reuse is already inherent in the product. Some examples include:

  • Using wood and wood composites to reduce a facility’s carbon footprint and improve its energy efficiency and air quality
  • Utilizing light bulbs lacking mercury that can be safely melted and incorporated into more light bulbs
  • Installing wall panels that can be taken down and rewrapped to change the look of a space
  • Leveraging IoT, AI, and machine learning to develop smart buildings that automatically manage energy consumption, water usage, indoor air quality, and more based on building usage patterns.
  • Using a layered design approach such that different elements of a building can be adapted, repaired, or replaced according to each element’s life cycle, extending the overall life cycle of the facility
  • Incorporating biomaterial-based insulation systems, solar-power generating components, and wastewater recycling systems, among other sustainable elements.

In a circular economy, the use of biological materials follows a model of make, consume, and enrich, while for technical materials, the goal is to make, consume, and return. 

With biological materials, things eventually return to the earth where they enrich the soil and feed subsequent generations of plant life. 

With technology, we either plan to reuse products and design that into their lifecycle, or we are talking about supply chain efficiencies.

Supply-chain operations reference (SCOR) model is a process reference model developed and endorsed by the Supply Chain Council as the cross-industry, standard diagnostic tool for supply chain management. The SCOR model describes the business activities associated with satisfying a customer’s demand, which include the following:

  • Plan
  • Source
  • Make
  • Deliver 
  • Return
  • Enable 

Use of the SCOR model includes analyzing the current state of a company’s processes and goals, quantifying operational performance, and comparing company performance to benchmark data. 

By embracing circular design, architects, engineers, and developers can liberate buildings from the traditional facility waste cycle and, in part, by using renewable energy resources, and drastically reduce their carbon footprint at each stage of a building’s life cycle. As circular design principles and practices increasingly supplant those of linear design, technologies evolve and expand the realm of what’s possible. Designers play a critical role in the health of communities, towns, and cities they build.

Reuse and Circular Design

A key component of circular design, reuse requires designers to incorporate convertible materials from the outset, allowing owners to modify building elements as needs evolve. Reuse is especially important as ever-evolving technologies create new demands on facilities. Often, owners and property managers struggle with buildings that have not been future-proofed with convertible products that can be adapted to changing electrical or data needs, spacing requirements, or environmental standards.

However, designers can future-proof buildings by incorporating products like the Gridd® low-profile raised flooring system. Modular, easily reconfigurable product design allows facilities teams to quickly adapt to the solution to the evolving needs of end users. Patented 100% USA steel construction, this system is reusable, can help keep spaces clean, accessible, and organized, and can be reconfigured unlimited times without deterioration.

The Circular Design Approach

Effective circular design requires designers to reorient their approach in several ways. To take full advantage of this methodology, designers must:

Plan and Design Out Waste

Circularity requires just as much attention to be placed on the end of a building’s life as its beginning. In the design and construction phases, designers must plan to use the greatest possible amount of recycled, reclaimed, and salvaged materials, as well as materials that can be recovered after a building’s life cycle has ended.

Keep Products and Materials in Use

Designers should also focus on extending that life cycle as long as possible. One way to do so is by using convertible products that can be easily maintained and repaired and converted to other uses based on changing operational needs. By doing so, building owners can mitigate the risk of expensive, eco-friendly renovations or a prematurely shortened life cycle if the building no longer meets operational needs.

Regenerate Natural Systems

Incorporating sustainably harvested, renewable, and natural resources is another way to extend a building’s life cycle, decrease waste, and improve reuse and recycling efforts. And by avoiding toxic and harmful materials, designers can also create carbon-neutral buildings that are safe for tenants, visitors, and the local community.

The Future of Circular Design

Far from the latest buzzword, circular design is, in fact, the future of design. More and more corporations are making sustainability a strategic priority and are searching for ways to approach net-zero emissions status. Governments are taking action to combat climate change through both incentives and regulations. Consumers increasingly prefer doing business with eco-conscious companies.

But circular design is more than just a response to shifting winds. It’s an opportunity to positively impact local communities, utilize cutting-edge technologies, and think creatively. It’s an opportunity to see a building designed now still in use decades later. Designers who embrace this new paradigm and reusable and convertible materials are standing at the forefront.

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