Miya Kitahara

Sponsored article: StopWaste's Miya Kitahara shares insights into circular design.

In this series, speakers from USGBC Northern California’s GreenerBuilder conference, held August 1, 2018, in San Francisco, share insights from their sessions.

Is your green building destined for landfill? Unless you’ve design it with its end of life in mind, the answer is likely yes. It will join the EPA-estimated 450 tons of demolition debris going to landfill in the U.S. each year. The good news is there is an alternative achievable through better design.

"Circularity" is the principle of keeping materials in use at their highest economic and societal value. In addition to keeping tonnage out of landfills, it promises to decouple economic growth and societal well-being from natural resource constraints and environmental degradation. Simply put, it is a design philosophy that allows you to do more with less, over time.

In a truly circular economy, buildings would serve as material banks, storing high value products and materials instead of “using them up.” Buildings As Material Banks proposes a path toward this reality that includes 1) circular design, 2) data accessibility and 3) financial valuation.

During a session on circular design at GreenerBuilder, four leaders in their respective fields shared new initiatives, case studies and resources at the forefront of the movement: Jean Hansen, Sustainable Principle at HDR; Eden Brukman, Senior Green Building Coordinator at San Francisco Department of the Environment; Lisa Conway, Vice President of Sustainability at Interface; and Lewis Perkins, former President of the Cradle to Cradle Product Innovation Institute.

Each expert suggested ways for all professionals in the field to explore circularity. (The discussion flowed between panelists, and the suggestions below do not necessarily represent a specific panelist’s views.)

If you are a design professional:

  1. Design for adaptability of the space over time, such as using movable interior walls, modular casework and disentangling the utilities in a utility raceway. Explore examples from the health care and education sectors. (LEED for Healthcare: Resource Use-Design for Flexibility credit, Design for Deconstruction, Chartwell School Case Study)

  2. Design for disassembly and reuse of products and materials. Strategies include selecting reusable materials—noncomposite, nontoxic and unfinished—and assembling them with mechanical connections instead of adhesives. See, for example, Seattle and King County’s guide, “Design for Disassembly” published in 2008, the Industrial Designers (IDSA) and EPA’s “Okala Practitioner,” Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s “ReSOLVE Framework” and the Chartwell School and EPA’s checklist, “Design for Deconstruction.”

  3. Develop a deconstruction plan. Engage the team in all phases as goals and plan are developed. Document details and specifications for Design for Disassembly (DfD) and how to realize the adaptability or reusability incorporated into the design. Use material passports and create manuals for owner and facility operator.

If you are a product manufacturer:

  1. Optimize products for avoidance of toxic ingredients/exposures, avoid composite materials difficult to disassemble and consider biological materials that are sustainably sourced.

  2. Use recycled content where appropriate to close the loop, such as through the Carpet America Recovery Effort (CARE) or use waste as feedstock such as the Glass in Concrete collaborative.

  3. Consider a take-back program, such as Armstrong Ceilings Recycling Program or the Closed-Loop Wallboard Collaborative led by Building Product Ecosystems.

If you work for government:

  1. Consider a deconstruction ordinance and support the development of a reuse market, such as the initiatives in Portland and Oregon. Follow or join the EPA Region 9-led collaboration across Bay Area counties.

  2. Wield procurement power through specifications for circular products. San Francisco recently passed a stringent regulation for carpet. Three manufacturers offered compliant products when the policy was adopted, but already another has been added within six months.

  3. Educate the building community and begin exploring policies that support BAMB. For example, provide the design guides described above. Consider introducing or incentivizing at trigger events like demolition or alteration permits. Explore other policy mechanisms for encouraging circular design, such as those described in StopWaste’s Circular Economy in the Built Environment primer for local governments.

If you are any or none of the above and want to advance the circular vision:

  1. Focus on positive attributes instead of red lists. Define the appropriate health, reusability and recyclability attributes for each product’s application, considering variable such as exposure to people and the environment, and the expected useful life and likely rate of turnover.

  2. Consider multiple criteria for materials to do good by combining circular design with green chemistry and lowered embodied carbon. In some cases, these multiple considerations conflict, such as with zero toxicity and recycled content (from current feedstocks) or embodied carbon. In many cases, these goals align, such as when reusing existing buildings. At a product level, for example, Interface’s goal to have a carbon-negative (climate-positive), bio-based product called the “Proof Positive” as part of their Climate Take Back commitment.

  3. Work across the industry to find alignment. Explore initiatives like Built Positive.

Together, we have the opportunity to recreate our relationship to materials. There are 120 billion tons of materials currently stored in the built environment in the U.S. As you work to add more to it, remember: What goes in must eventually come out.