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A Framework for Circularity in the Built Environment

Throughout history, human societies have strived to design and build architectural marvels that outlive their creators and continue to bear testimony to the technological and engineering prowess of the age they were built in. Our mastery over the Built Environment has allowed us to decouple human societies from the natural environment and survive and flourish regardless of nature’s fury, a privilege no other species on earth enjoys.

The Taj Mahal - an architectural marvel from the Mughal Empire

However, in polar contrast to how buildings have allowed us to function independent of nature, their dependence on resources provided by nature has only increased exponentially. Between 1900 and 2010, the volume of natural resources used in buildings and transport have increased 23 times! Over 800 billion MT of materials are currently banked in building stock globally.

Yet, this number fades into insignificance when compared with the 3.2 trillion MT of resources that will be required for infrastructure in the next 100 years or so. In Australia alone, 70% of all buildings that will exist in 2050 are yet to be built!

It is highly likely that this new demand for natural resources will push our societies beyond the planetary boundaries, creating distress and making buildings unaffordable and inaccessible. There is an urgent need to design the Built Environment differently to moderate this imminent upsurge in resource demand.

In addition, buildings are bulk sources of organic and inorganic waste. Given that buildings are an enabling environment for humans to consume and use products, solutions and services in ever evolving complex ways, they are hotbeds of waste generation around the world. These waste streams create extreme pressure on urban waste management systems and cause pollution, toxicity and contribute to global warming.

It is imperative to design buildings to reduce waste volumes, facilitate better segregation of waste streams and allow for recovery of valuable resources.

In this context, we would like to present an overarching framework for making Asian built environments more circular, zero-waste and allow for human societies to thrive without pushing the planet beyond ecological tipping points.

The Framework

We present a four-pillar design framework, called DMOC, to define and promote circularity in the Built Environment in Asian cities.

  • Design for Dis-Assembly (or Re-Assembly)

  • Design for Mixed-use

  • Design for Operational Zero Waste

  • Design for Cost Management

More recently, a fifth attribute, Designing for Farming/Food Production is also being considered as being important for circularity.

Each pillar of the DMOC framework represents a fully independent field of study with exciting new thought and innovation happening in different parts of the world.

Designing for Disassembly

What if our buildings were like LEGO? Imagine if buildings could be disassembled - at their end-of-life, they can be taken apart like lego bricks, taken elsewhere and constructed all over again. Some of these trends are already being seen in the industry through pre-cast designs that are assembled onsite.

The material passport is another evolving tool that captures and records every material that goes into a building project, to make it easier to recover those materials at the end-of-life of the building. These kinds of tools help create traceability and secondary usage for the building components.

Designing for Mix-Use

An empty office space

A lot of buildings are barely used. Look up all the big office blocks in most cities. In Singapore, think about all the buildings in Raffles Place. From Friday til Monday, and sometimes even more because of WFH, those buildings are barely used. Imagine how much material and investment has gone into it, and if you see the percentage of time they are actually used, it's not worth it at all.

A week has 24x7 hours, but the buildings are only used for a maximum of 40-50h - less than 50%.

New startups are promoting flexible use of built environments by aggregating demand for unused spaces (such as office spaces over weekends).

If we can design buildings for mixed use, the need to construct new buildings decreases because the existing building stock is now being used much more optimally.

Designing for Operational Zero-Waste

Material passports and designing for disassembly are circular interventions for buildings during the construction phase. In Singapore, we talk about demolition waste which is when a building reaches the end of its useful life. But a bulk of the waste that the building generates is during operations. That needs to be diverted away from landfills. Thought leaders like Clare Miflin at the Center for Zero Waste Design, NY are creating new knowledge and tools to address this issue. Clare says - you can design buildings better, such that we get better waste outcomes.

Designing for Cost Management

There are new technologies like digital twins etc that are coming up that allow buildings to be managed really well - this includes water, energy, so on. Nilesh Jadhav of Qi Square for example, his solutions help optimise energy consumption in buildings, that in itself is a linearity in the building.

The future of the built environment can become circular if we follow these 4 simple principles when designing, running, and dealing with our buildings at their end-of-life. We have all the solutions for a better world, the question that remains now is - when will we start building a better world instead of just envisioning one?

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