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· Colin Rice

The future is circular

Adapting to a circular economy

When will we – and our leaders - wake up and see that, on our finite planet, the basis of economics must change from consumption to regeneration?

An alarming indicator is the accelerating rate at which humankind is consuming the world’s resources. The Global Footprint Network publishes an annual assessment of the date at which consumption exceeds the capacity of nature to regenerate.  To be living sustainably the date needs to be no earlier than 31st December. In fact, it is creeping forward – 1st August in 2018, 29th July in 2019. It brings into focus that we are living beyond our means and are at a fork in the road: carry on as we are and burn out, or radically adapt how we behave in order to inhabit our planet for a sustainable future.

Does it really matter? ‘We have twelve years to save the Earth!’ the Extinction Rebellion banners say. That’s misleading: it underestimates the capacity of our extraordinary planet to recover from the onslaught of human activity. No, what should concern us is the closing window of time available to adapt if we want to our species - our children and grandchildren - to survive.  Life on earth will surely continue to evolve regardless.

Circular economic principles go hand in hand with reducing embodied carbon.

The shift to the circular economy is a central part of that adaptation. It means de-coupling economic activity from consumption of finite resources to reuse, renewal and regeneration. That’s uncomfortable for business as usual, but a great opportunity to do things differently, ultimately an opportunity too, I believe, to rediscover happiness from living in better balance with nature.

Circular economic principles go hand in hand with reducing embodied carbon.  The embodied carbon costs of extraction and manufacture are incurred for first use but these emissions are avoided if stuff, whether buildings, their frames or their components and materials, can be reused. Hence the drive to design for disassembly and reuse. Hence the new thinking being given to ‘products as a service’.

Construction accounts for a large proportion of global carbon emissions – 39% in 2017 (28% operational, 11% embodied carbon according to WorldGBC 23/9/19). This puts architects in a key position of responsibility to drive change, calling on our skills of advocacy as much as design. Working alone we may have responsibility but little power. To be effective we have to work collectively with all the other actors in the industry.

The familiar linear model of extract, use and throw away will have to change.  At the top of the decision tree is ‘do we actually need a building?’, followed quickly by ‘do we need a new building?’. At the Architects Declare workshop on 4/3/20, Christian Dimbleby of Architype showed studies which demonstrate that, when operational and embodied carbon are considered together, far and away the most effective solution is to carry out top quality refurbishment of existing buildings. Demolishing and rebuilding to a good standard makes little difference to the carbon account; doing so to current regulations costs more in overall carbon emissions than doing nothing. 

As the grid decarbonizes, and operational carbon reduces, the relative significance of embodied carbon (emissions caused by creating new building fabric) increases, putting more pressure on us to work with what we already have.

Waste is just a resource in the wrong location

As architects we are trained to focus on designing new buildings. The whole structure of regulation and compliance is geared to using certified new products. ‘Virgin’ is virtuous, second hand is of questionable quality.  In the circular, a more flexible attitude to risk is required, with different ways of working to standards.

Like most serious DIYers, I never throw stuff out on the basis that I can never predict when oddments of material might come in handy. I delight in finding new uses for things – making a bike mudguard out of a milk flagon, using an old microwave plate to glaze a bathroom door, turning an old fridge door into a built-in table. This stands in the tradition of timber-framed cottages made of old ships’ timbers, church towers peppered with roman bricks from a ruined villa. But I take on more risk than I would currently expect a client to take, and that is an issue that needs addressing.

Markets for second hand materials and components (as opposed to buildings) will grow and they will use the power of digital to connect supply and demand, to record stock and to make it available. There are many research projects exploring the complex issues involved, such as FCRBE, BAMB – there are many barriers but the tide will have to turn. Look at the way supermarkets are starting to roll out unpackaged products.

The tax regime must be changed to incentivize and reward high quality low-carbon upgrade of the existing housing stock.

Government has a major role to play. Currently VAT being charged on refurbishment is a massive disincentive when new houses are zero-rated. The tax regime must be changed to incentivize and reward high quality low-carbon upgrade of the existing housing stock.

When emergency really bites, the design process will adapt. There are many examples from the past. For instance, the post-war Hertfordshire Schools programme was driven by the need to manage with limited resources. Its modular design principles supported the replaceability of parts.

Green Tiles annexe in Norfolk, made from second-hand components as far as possible.

A working example

Last year I completed a freestanding extension to a holiday house on the Norfolk coast that used second-hand components as far as possible.

The result: a beautiful, comfortable place to stay all year round, with embodied carbon way below benchmark (190kgCO2e/m2), reflected in the remarkably low cost of £25K, and recognized by an ASBP Award in February 2020. It incorporates:

  • foundations of railway sleepers sitting on shallow trenches filled with compacted aggregate
  • Plywood paneling, wash basin and an old cubicle door from the old Cullinan office bathrooms – stored since 2012
  • Kitchen worktops and school chairs pulled out of skips
  • Rubber tile samples used to floor the kitchen area and make a matching splashback
  • No skips were required because most offcuts were turned into furniture. A fitted bench seat uses left-over ply from the roof, from old library shelves and an old bath panel. The kitchen drawers are made of left-over wall lining FR MDF; deck furniture out of a spare joist, half a sheet of OSB and some tiling battens

It’s a small example but it demonstrates it can be done.


Colin Rice


Colin Rice will be talking about his Green Tiles Annexe project as part of the ASBP's #CEweekLDN Build Circular webinar on Tuesday 2nd June.

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