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Circular thinking: Will Arup’s prototype change the way we design?

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Arup’s Circular Building puts the principles of the circular economy into practice, says Hattie Hartman

A circular approach will fundamentally change the way we design, say the Arup designers responsible for the Circular Building on display in Store Street in front of the Building Centre until Friday (7 October). Designed by Arup Associates with wider input from Arup, the Circular Building explores how to make the circular economy ‘real’. ‘Our brief was to showcase immediate takeaways for industry,’ says Arup’s Alistair Law.

An audience of over 200 gathered at the Building Centre recently to hear Arup chairman Gregory Hodkinson and others argue for wider take-up of circular economy principles and the necessity of stronger UK government incentives. A circular economy would result in ‘a vastly superior and more efficient built environment,’ said Hodkinson.

McDonough and Braungart’s globally translated Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way we Make Things (2002) clearly delineated circular economy principles almost 15 years ago. So why aren’t we already doing it?

A key message is that the buzzword ‘recycle’ must be replaced by ‘re-use’. This means unpicking the whole life cost of a building. All elements must be mechanically fixed so that they can be easily dismantled and retain their value. Products are also selected for low embodied energy and low toxicity, with material composition instantly available in QR codes.

Also critical is engaging the supply chain early in the design process. Designers of interior products, such as Dutch carpet tile manufacturer Desso, have been leading the way, with take-back schemes already well-established. According to Nitesh Magdani, director of sustainability at BAM Construct UK, The Netherlands is a ‘hot spot‘ for the circular economy. The UK lags way behind. According to Hodkinson, less than a third of what currently goes into UK buildings is recycled or re-used.

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The Circular Building has been designed for flexibility of use, with spaces that can be easily adapted. Although this is a common mantra for designers, in the Circular Building flexibility has been pushed beyond best practice. Shelving systems are ultimately flexible; lighting, controlled by one’s phone, responds as one moves to different parts of the building. 

Insulated glazed units, which typically have a 25-year life span, are a product area where circular thinking could have an immediately transformative impact. At the Circular Building, an innovative dessicant canister controls condensation. ‘Imagine the implications this approach could have for the recladding of a building like The Shard,’ notes Arup’s Law.

The Circular Building operates entirely on DC current and is directly integrated with another novel technology developed specifically for the project: a salt water battery storage system, which, unlike most batteries, is free of toxic materials.

But the circular economy is not just a story of individual components. It also involves a systems approach in which building elements, such as lighting, are leased, rather than purchased. To embed these principles in projects early, Arup is working with forward-thinking clients to incorporate circular economy principles into development briefs and masterplans.

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