Six Ways to Transform the Built Environment

circular building

The Ellen MacArthur Foundation shows how thinking circular could change the way we live for the better.

In a recent post, 5 steps to replace the private car with something better, we looked at the concept of structural waste, which I defined as “a system that almost consciously and purposefully is designed to consume as much of everything as inefficiently as possible.” But it’s not just cars; it was based on a report from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, titled Growth Within: A Circular Economy Vision for a Competitive Europe, which also looked at the built environment and food production.

In a circular economy, you keep people busy by rethinking how we make and use stuff without waste. But in the built environment, it is not just about recycling, but about looking at the bigger picture of how we build and use our buildings.

Getting rid of structural waste in the built environment is not nearly as dramatic as dealing with cars, because there are so few alternatives. However, the report suggests some very interesting alternatives to how we build, and more importantly, how we use our buildings.

We currently keep a lot of people working in the linear economy, digging up resources, turning them into products like cars or buildings that then take a lot more resources to operate, use them until they wear out or we are bored with them or our needs change, then throw them away and start over.

Treehugger writer Ilana Strauss recently noted that this is a problem:

So we end up with an endless supply of disposable plates, new iPhones and plastic packaging. And we keep using the earth to make more. Deforestation, air pollution, mass extinction ... You know what I'm talking about. You're on a site called "Treehugger." We're never going to dig up enough coal, cut down enough trees, catch enough fish or grow enough corn. To keep our economy plugging away, we need more than enough — we need enough, plus interest.

Six actions that could transform the built environment

Structural waste

Ellen Macarthur Foundation/CC BY 2.0

The report suggests six actions that could transform the built environment. Some make tremendous sense and can be applied easily, while others are not so easy. They also miss some big opportunities and solutions. The Report includes:

1. Industrial production and 3D printing

Bensonwood factory

Lloyd Alter/ Bensonwood/ Unity Homes factory/CC BY 2.0

Moving construction towards factory-based industrial processes is already helping companies cut costs as much as 30 percent and shorten delivery time by 50 percent or more.

The report mentions some TreeHugger regulars including Broad Sustainable Buildings, DIRTT, which builds office modules, and 3D printing from Winsun. It misses some of the other recent innovations, like we have seen from Lindbäcks in Sweden or Katerra in the USA that promise to change a lot more than 3D printing ever will. And of course TreeHugger would stress the need for a move away from materials with high embodied energy toward totally renewable materials like wood.

2. Energy generation and use

credit: Simple forms, basic materials, nice proportions in Munich/ Lloyd Alter

Simple forms, basic materials, nice proportions in Munich/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

This one is pretty obvious; we put a lot of resources into heating and cooling.

Two levers will likely drive that improvement – better energy efficiency and distributed production of renewable energy. Today’s alternative construction methods like passive houses show that building design can achieve heating and cooling energy savings of up to 90 percent, with an average upfront investment of only 10 percent more than traditional construction.

Put renewables on top and most buildings can be net energy positive, and “go from being consumers to producers of energy with distributed renewable energy.”

3. Shared residential space

roof deck is shared at Carmel Place

Shared roof terrace, Carmel Place, New York City/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 1.0

Bucky Fuller nailed this problem decades ago.

Our beds are empty two-thirds of the time.
Our living rooms are empty seven-eighths of the time.
Our office buildings are empty one-half of the time.
It's time we gave this some thought.

The Report gives this some thought, and concludes that we could share a lot more.

Common spaces are popping up in new development projects across Europe. Many new buildings offer guest rooms, lounge areas for working and socialising, terraces with outdoor kitchens, drying rooms for laundry – all shared by the owners of the flats. Such shared facilities could increase utility for households at an affordable cost and encourage a more community-based lifestyle.

The waste in the North American model of single family housing is extraordinary- the rooms that don’t get used, the individual ownership of stuff that could be shared. We have discussed the recent trend to multiple kitchens; one for show and one for actually using. If we weren’t all in single family houses we could share the show kitchen.

4. Shared and virtual office space

Washington Wework

© Mandel Ngan/ Getty Images/ inside Washington WeWork

Europe underutilises office space. Offices occupy some 1.4 billion square metres. These offices stand empty more than half of the time, even during business hours. But this picture is changing rapidly. Flexible seating, desk-sharing, office hoteling, tele-working, and audio and video conferencing are major trends in the real estate marketplace that are winning acceptance among European workers who appreciate the flexibility and adaptability.

Not to mention shared office space businesses like WeWork, where individuals and corporations rent as much space as they need for as long as they need it.

5. Modularity and durability

adaptable plans

© Futurology: the new home in 2050

A key barrier to better use of floor space is the lack of flexibility in building and room configurations. But new concepts and techniques are bringing much more flexibility into the housing market, as it copes with elderly people who want to downsize but cannot and homeowners who invest in retrofitting to change the organisation of their homes.

We have talked about this for years, showing “swing rooms” that can be detached from one apartment and attached to the one next door as needs change. We recently showed a British house of the future where you could change all the interior walls.

Even where this is possible, it doesn’t happen very much. I asked the architect of the co-housing project that had those swing rooms how often they changed, and he told me “never.”

wall display

Lloyd Alter/ open building electric wiring/CC BY 2.0
A far more important concept regarding modularity and durability is Open Building, as practiced by Tedd Benson at Unity Homes and Bensonwood. It recognizes that some components in buildings age more quickly than others, so everything is designed to be accessible, fixable and replaceable when its time comes. It almost eliminates the “end of life” issue- you don’t have to take down the whole building when you can continue upgrading the parts. It becomes like the famous grandfather’s axe paradox:

“This was my grandfather’s axe. Of course, it has occasionally required some repairs. My father replaced the handle and I replaced the head.”

6. Urban planning

barcelona from google

© Google Earth

This is actually the most important, but gets the least attention.

Changes like shifting land use patterns, taking advantage of inner-city vacant land, and promoting compact urban growth can reduce land use as much as 75 percent, compared with a sprawl scenario. Barcelona offers an example. Its compact growth shaped by smart urban planning makes its CO2 emissions 10 times lower and its land consumption 26 times lower than the city of Atlanta, which has a similar population of five million people.
©. Mike Eliason/ that doesn't look like social housing!

© Mike Eliason/ that doesn't look like social housing!

Vast amounts of land are wasted on sprawl, but more importantly, almost all of the other five levers depend on living in multifamily buildings. They should probably be relatively low, consistent and universal, as we have shown in Vienna. They should probably be “dumb boxes” as we showed recently. Designed around the new circular forms of mobility rather than private cars, cities would be very different:

Urban planners would seize this opportunity to address congestion, pollution, and lack of real estate in big cities. They would reclaim unlocked, valuable inner-city land to create high-quality spaces where people would live, work, and play. Roads and parking spots freed up by circular mobility systems would turn into green infrastructure – parks surrounding durable buildings designed in a modular way, built of looped and non-toxic materials. These buildings would generate, rather than consume, power and food, using closed water, nutrition, material, and energy loops.
circular building

Ellen MacArthur Foundation/CC BY 2.0

It all makes so much sense: design buildings to be flexible and adaptable to changing conditions. Use technology to get maximum utilization out of them. Build them so that they don’t need fossil fuels for heating and cooling, at a density so that occupants don’t need fossil fuels to move between them.

There is almost nothing in this scenario that could not be done right now, yet it could deliver a zero-waste, zero-carbon economy that still keeps people working without endless growth and consumption. As the report concludes,

Despite significant obstacles, a built environment founded on circular principles offers many important benefits- higher quality of life, positive impact on the environment, and economic growth.