Circular Economy Blog Series #1

by Surabhi Khanderia | Original article on the USGBC-LA blog

Through this blog series, we’ve learned about activating the circular economy in building operations and how the TRUE waste certification framework can help facilitate this transition.

Written by Surabhi Khanderia
Sustainability Design Manager, LEED GA.

What is a designer’s role in this transition to the Circular Economy?

Change itself is a design problem and creative design can shift the paradigm of waste from being perceived as unaesthetic to the treasure that it is. Designers can significantly minimize the number of resources used in creating a product or space and facilitate waste avoidance. We must source responsibly, use judiciously, and discard conservatively- very conservatively.

Closing the loops
When I was in architecture school, the creative challenge was usually around conceptualizing an idea, and deriving a form that is a manifestation of the idea. For the longest time in the industry, the form of the building was to express the essence of an idea and the material choices were subsidiary to the idea of the form, and merely a means to manifest aesthetics.

Today, as we chomp at the bit to reduce global emissions, and as more data and tools are available to measure the embodied impacts of building materials, this generation of architects faces the creative challenge that lies in the choice and selection of materials they specify, or better yet, salvage. The industry needs to gear towards the idea of urban mining to activate longer material loops for a circular economy and tackle two beasts of burden: embodied carbon and waste reduction. It’ll require thinking beyond the blueprint and incorporating the concept of embodied carbon into the designs, beginning with the basics- concrete, metal, drywall, glass, insulation, etc. on a project-to-project basis. Architects also play a central role in advocating for the business case of implementing sustainability practices such as preservation, adaptive reuse, and design for disassembly, as they seem appropriate for projects. The Park 20|20 development by William McDonough and Partners is designed on circularity principles and was chosen as a case study for a WBCSD publication called The Business Case for Circular Buildings.

Projects can leverage different circularity levers to loop water, energy, and materials used in the building. These levers are defined in the diagram below:

LEED and the Circular Economy

The transition to a circular economy lends itself to addressing the twin threat of resource depletion and climate change. The transition, however, is not possible with isolated interventions. This paradigm shift requires interventions through innovative programs & policies (eg. Buy Clean California Act), business models, infrastructure, and incentives for behavioral shifts.

Resources from Greenbuild 2022:

The Department of Environment in the City of San Francisco is developing an action plan for the city’s construction surplus products, which includes partnering with the virtual exchange platform Rheaply and planning infrastructure for the storage of these materials.

Building Ease’s BE Exchange is another great resource of salvaged materials for reuse.

When it comes to innovation, manufacturers, architects, and contractors need to collaborate efforts to achieve targets. The LEED rating system incentivizes the use of recycled/ recyclable or closed-loop manufacturing materials through its Building Product Disclosure and Optimization (BPDO) credits MRc3 and MRc4, as well as its MRpc131 innovation pilot credit called Circular Products. Through these MR credits, LEED incentivizes the use of Green circle, Closed-loop, or cradle-to-cradle certified products and the use of reused/ recycled materials and materials with extended producer responsibility. Circular products are those that are designed to easily separate the technical and biological nutrients of the product for easy end-of-life processing.

Into the future

What if there was an open-sourced database, simplifying sourcing for manufacturers to establish maintenance and end-of-life programs, even for appliances and equipment? Or the adoption of Material passports -an electronic inventory that includes, among other features, details on the manufacturer, notes on installation or disassembly, and end-of-life contracts- would help track and reduce the embodied carbon in buildings and increase material transparency for building owners. Material passports are increasingly becoming a plausible solution to numerate, track, and simulate the life cycle of materials as an additional layer of data within the digital twin of buildings.

So, let’s think of our buildings not just as structures to live and work in, but as material banks that can be reused and repurposed for generations to come. Who knew going in circles could lead to such a positive outcome? Stay tuned for our next blog where we delve deeper into the world of preservation and material banks.