Designing to last a lifetime… and beyond
A circular economy (or “circularity”) is a network of systems designed to work together to minimise waste and carbon emissions by utilising resources to their full potential.
Compared to the conventional “take, make, dispose” approach to production, a circular economy aims to limit our impact on an already depleted pool of resources. This is done through a combination of:
- Designing for the long-term
- Using sustainable materials
- Eco-friendly sourcing and manufacturing methods
- Repairing, recycling and reusing
Better for the planet, at no extra cost
Several studies have shown a circular economy approach to production can be achieved without loss of revenue or extra costs to manufacturers.
It can also offer greater advantages for the consumer in terms of maintenance, value and wellbeing over the lifetime of the product and beyond.
- Ellen MacArthur Foundation and McKinsey & Company (2014). Towards A Circular Economy. World Economic Forum.
- Geissdoerfer M, Savaget P, Bocken NMP, Hultink EJ (2017). The Circular Economy – A new sustainability paradigm? Journal of Cleaner Production, 143(1), 757-768.
- Heshmati A (2015). A Review of the Circular Economy and its Implementation. Institute of Labor Economics.
Whole-life carbon assessment
When talking about a building’s carbon emissions or carbon footprint, many people will be referring to the amount of carbon the building produces after its construction – in the form of fuel consumption, pollution and waste production. In terms of a circular economy, this is known as “operational carbon”.
However, there is another type of carbon emission that is often overlooked – “embodied carbon” (sometimes also referred to as “embodied energy”).
Operational carbon versus embodied carbon
Embodied carbon refers to the carbon footprint of the construction of the building, from the materials used to the impact of the processing, transport and energy consumption.
It also encompasses the maintenance of materials and should be accounted for in the “working life” of a building. The potential reuse, recycling and disposal methods of materials should also count towards embodied carbon as part of a building’s whole lifecycle.
Sourcing is one of the most crucial phases in a circular economy. Yet this initial phase has been largely neglected by targeted EU resource efficiency policies.
Worryingly, according to the World Wide Fund for Nature’s European Policy Office, Europe currently consumes the equivalent of 2.8 times more natural resources than is currently sustainable.
Utilising natural resources responsibly
Sustainable sourcing is about utilising our natural resources responsibly and with a view to the future. We can do this by:
- Ensuring resources are responsibly sourced, only using raw materials that are not endangered and can be replaced or regrown
- Reusing, recycling or repurposing already processed materials
- Supporting the businesses and communities taking care of these resources, by creating opportunities, fair trade and mutual benefit
- Utilising local materials to reduce transport use
Management and maintaining standards
Sustainable forest management also ensures more trees are planted than are chopped down, which in turn helps addresses deforestation, provides a protected habit for wildlife and creates a carbon sink.
Raw material processing
One of the most resource intensive and least eco-friendly stages of any production cycle is the processing of raw materials into usable parts and products. This often consumes a great deal of energy and resources and involves multiple processing stages, chemical additives and waste by-products.
Raw materials ideal for use as part of a circular economy production approach include those:
- Abundant in nature or can be regrown easily
- Requiring little processing
- Used to create multiple products
- Easily recovered, recycled or repurposed
More efficient manufacture
The challenge to manufacturers in a circular economy is to put systems and practises in place to help reduce energy usage and waste materials.
The adoption of renewable energy, system analysis, optimised production processes and waste reduction frameworks can make manufacturing eco-friendlier and more efficient. In addition, end-products designed to be recycled, repaired and utilised for multiple applications can play an invaluable role in making the entire lifecycle of a product more sustainable.
Constructing truly green buildings
A truly green building is one that takes both embodied and operational carbon into consideration throughout the entire process – from initial design, through to the completion of the construction lifespan of the building in use. Unfortunately, few do.
Barriers to building green
Perceived cost, lack of understanding, time constraints and a number of other barriers also stand in the way of creating truly green buildings.
The adoption and implementation of many eco-friendly and energy-efficient building strategies often require thorough initial planning and capital investment. However, the saving in terms of energy usage, sustainability and carbon emissions over the lifetime of the building can be significant.
Not only that, buildings that embrace natural resources – from materials such as wood and stone to the incorporation of plants and openings that help to bring the outside in – have been shown to perform better in terms of the productivity, health and wellbeing of occupants.
The impact of nature
One global study found employee wellbeing was 15% higher in office spaces where greenery and sunlight were incorporated. The presence of natural elements also had a significant impact on the productivity of workers, with 36% feeling more productive.
Recycling, maintenance and repair
The trend for many manufacturers has been to place greater focus on designing products that are easier to disassemble and recycle. This essentially “closes the loop” of material resources and diverts much of the waste from landfills.
Maintenance and repair on the other hand can help to make the loop bigger – extending the lifespan of the whole product, not just the materials, utilising fewer additional resources and ensuring there is far less waste.
Keeping the circle closed
Essentially, recycling, maintenance and repair are about keeping materials within a circular economy for as long as possible. However, the less processing, additional resources and waste required to do so, the better.
In the end, the most effective products are those that are built to last, can be easily maintained and require few resources to be refurbished.
What goes around, comes around
Every phase of a circular economy needs to be carefully planned and holistically designed to protect and enrich the framework of which it is a part.
From preserving natural resources to sustainable production practises and creating products that last well beyond their guaranteed lifespan – the circular economy is about taking what we already have and using it more wisely to build an economy that can regenerate itself over and over again.
Natural materials providing modern solutions
Thanks to modern manufacturing methods and treatments, natural materials are increasingly being re-evaluated as a renewable, eco-friendly alternative to PVCu, aluminium and steel.
Wood, especially, is proving to be the catalyst for architecture and construction professionals in creating spaces that promote lower carbon emissions, longevity, beauty and a real connection to nature.
A heritage of quality
Once only considered as part of a heritage planning requirement, wood windows and doors are increasingly being specified for their durability, performance and sustainability credentials.
Organisations like the Wood Window Alliance (WWA) are also helping to raise the standards and quality in the design and manufacture of both wood windows and doors – through independent verification and strict quality, performance and sustainability criteria.
Wood windows and doors are for life
Wood windows made to the Wood Window Alliance (WWA) standards have been shown to have negative Global Warming Potential over their estimated service life, according to independent research by Heriot Watt University.
Looking at wood casement windows made to WWA standards, they offer significant lifetime cost savings and longevity. The report found they had an expected average service life of 56 to 65 years depending on the level of exposure – double that of its PVCu equivalent, of between 26 to 35 years.
Carbon-negative wood windows
The findings of the report presents show that wood casement windows made to WWA standards offer significant lifetime cost savings and longevity of build for both the current and future building owner.
The report also asserted that each wood window frame made to WWA standards saved approximately 160kg CO2 over its estimated lifecycle when compared to its PVCu equivalent, as well as being recyclable at the end of their useful life.
Want to learn more?
We hope you’ve found this module useful. If you would like to keep learning, click on one of the suggested modules or visit the Wood Window Alliance website to see how one of our members can help you on your next project.