by James Goodfellow
‘The circular economy’ is a phrase that’s thankfully becoming increasingly well known within the built environment industry, but sadly one that seems to be taking much longer to action in a meaningful way. The concept of course is about reducing our reliance on raw materials, minimising waste, and maximising the longevity of the final product to get as long a life from it as possible before recycling the materials for use again. Essentially, it looks to replace the ‘Take, Make, Dispose’ linear economy that has dominated our culture for so long with a ‘Maintain, Reuse and Recycle’ circular one.
For us it’s quite simple. We try look at it as a ‘Long Life, Loose Fit’ approach. We see it as trying to get as much from a building and the process of constructing it as possible. This applies not only to the lifetime of the building itself but also to the materials used to construct it.
We as architects approach the circular economy at four levels, asking ourselves key questions at the start of the design process:
Firstly, at the very centre is the building. Can we maintain or repair an existing structure? Small changes to the way we design buildings now will help enormously later when buildings are broken down and recycled.
Take our 55 Baker Street project, in which the 1950s building was considered to be at the end of its life. We proposed retaining the existing structure, and we were able to keep over 70% of the concrete frame and 50% of the existing fabric. Internally, the soffits of the concrete slabs were exposed to provide thermal mass, and bespoke chilled beams were hung from the concrete ceilings to provide cooling. Externally, the cladding was upgraded to meet the highest standards through improved thermal and solar performance.
This brought the existing building up to modern-day standards and provided renewed life to a building that would have otherwise been demolished.
Next we assess the components. Could we reuse or redistribute parts of the current fabric, or can we introduce modular or prefabricated construction? Like Meccano, a much-loved childhood toy, what can be reused or changed? How can we make the most of different pieces of kit? At our Pure Hammersmith site, we used prefabricated units manufactured off-site and inserted a finished product into the building structure.
We can now design in a way that allows components to be removed or deconstructed in the future and reconditioned for use again.
Thirdly, we analyse the elements. Can we use reclaimed or refurbished elements? And how can we optimise materials or bring repetition to our design to enhance what we have? With 5 Broadgate we optimised the size of the cladding panels to work within standard stainless steel coil widths, which minimised waste through offcuts.
Finally, we consider the materials we use. This is really interesting for Make and something we embrace passionately. What is the recycled content of the materials we specify? What could it be? And what is their durability? The Copper Box was one of the few legacy buildings at the 2012 London Olympics, and we are now enormously proud to see this world-class sporting facility open to the community. The cladding has 70% recycled content, and you can see how it’s changing naturally over time, adding further intrigue to the building.
One day, all this copper will be rolled up and reused somewhere else. And that gives us enormous pride too.
So that’s four layers, each of which gives us the opportunity to maintain, reuse and recycle, and ensure a ‘Long Life, Loose Fit’ approach. The ultimate aim of course is to create a new generation of flexible buildings that extends the life of its constituents and that one day will be completely recyclable – something we believe is becoming increasingly plausible if we all embrace a circular economy.