The new sustainable architecture: The circular economy
For years, in the academic and professional circles of architecture, we have been hearing frequently the words “sustainable architecture”, “sustainability”, “energy efficiency”, etc. At first, they sounded a bit empty, as construction has always been a very traditional world and quite reluctant to changes, which are usually established by building regulations.
Over time, architects and users have become accustomed to these terms that coexist with us on a daily basis. In some cases by obligation, in some others, by specific dedication to integrate them into our projects, even at the risk of increasing the budget or getting a little less elegant designs.
But society is progressing rapidly, and what was recently presented as a leading concept now is a term worn out by its (occasionally) wrong use. The new way of being sustainable is to apply the concept of circular economy, a concept that other sectors are already applying and that we should start considering to build our future.
The circular economy is a new vision oriented towards the development of truly sustainable products and services, so as to optimize the use of resources, facilitate dismantling and reuse and minimize waste. And what does really sustainable mean? It is no longer worth simply recycling or using recycled materials. The basis is to reuse components during all the creation processes, and to redesign with special attention to the dismantling at the end of the products’ life cycle.
For instance, there are examples of easily removable toasters with reusable parts in case of failure, as well as light bulbs. But it is not that simple when we talk about architecture, and that is where the problem lies.
We design the buildings based on our needs today, so that they last until an indefinite day, which can vary between 50 years to a century from now. We design them to be beautiful and efficient in our current context, but in general, we do not think about what will happen to them during their life cycle, nor do we consider if the user will really inhabit them during all that time. We use materials with different life cycles: concrete, steel, wood, etc. In addition, we think that in the future the building can be renovated, but we do not design it expressly to facilitate this process, nor do we know if it will be able to adapt to future needs. And in the event of a demolition, do we consider from the early design how that demolition will be? Will the materials be reused (not recycled)? The general answer is no, and from the point of view of the circular economy, the question is: why not?
Little by little, we reuse more construction materials and we keep to make progress in the modular and prefabricated architecture. But mostly, we continue to design without considering the entire life cycle of the building, nor its adaptability in the future.
The new sustainable architecture goes through design with these guidelines, and get flexible buildings that adapt easily to the needs of their future residents. If the user adapts to the changes, why does not the architecture?