Sophie Thomas, co-director of design at the Royal Society of Arts, advocates a circular economy in her Great Recovery Project
Footprint recently attended a Desso event on circular design processes with keynote speaker Sophie Thomas of Thomas.Mathews. Sophie is co-director of design at the Royal Society of Arts and is currently running the Great Recovery Project which uses new design networks to reduce waste. Echoing Bill Mcdonough’s Cradle to Cradle message, she spoke about the need to fundamentally rethink the way we design.
Thomas showed the audience a standard toothbrush and explained how the plastics used are over-specified and the number and size of its components make it impossible for the materials to be recovered after use. A toothbrush needs 1.5kg of raw materials, a 5g gold ring requires the refinement of 2 tonnes of raw material, and the manufacture of one t-shirt needs 2,700 litres of water.
Thomas’ work explores how we should design products to eliminate waste. According to Thomas, 80 per cent of environmental costs are determined during a product’s conception and design stage. Thomas does not work with the Cradle to Cradle certification system citing a lack of transparency, complexity of and the lack of workshops for designers that limit its accessibility to designers. She has developed her own practical approach to the Cradle to Cradle premise, which she describes as a circular economy.
Creating products that work in a circular economy means avoiding product that use processes, composites or combine metals in ways that cannot be dissassembled. Thomas used Dell’s ‘eco-computer’ as an example of poor circular design. It is made of bamboo and recycled plastics – both sustainable materials in their own right, but when combined, negating any positive impact of using those materials.
Asked what architects can do to apply circular economy principles to buildings, Thomas commented:
‘The problem with architects is over-specification. Engineers also overspecify. Designers must understand materials and not just specify whatever a sales rep offers as a sustainable solution. You’ve got things like micro-coatings on glass and multi-material wall panelling which save money during manufacturing but multi-materials in deconstruction end up as aggregate in landfill. A closed loop building has to look at the future of materials with a view to what might be recovered at the end of a building’s life’.
Circular design may seem overly complex for architects to implement in specification but it is a good starting point for interrogating product selection.