circular design

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What is it?

A circular economy rethinks the way we use our resources, turning our backs on the linear model of “take, make, waste”. This new direction sees retailers and manufacturers as service providers and waste as a resource. It takes sustainability a large step further by looking at how we can reshape our future and support our global economy through an entirely different approach, one that is socially and environmentally responsible.

circular economy sustainable interior design
A circular economy works by keeping products and rsources in circulation, making retailers service providers and avoiding planned obsolescence.

Our current linear economy relies on consumerism which by default, creates waste, much of which ends up in landfill. The concept of a circular economy requires a cradle to cradle approach and designs out waste. Our current model will become unsustainable in a population that is forecast to reach 9 billion by 2050, a circular economy decouples growth from the use of scarce and often harmful resources. Historically sustainability has been linked to sacrifice, the new business model would allow consumerism and economic growth, but avoid harmful practices such as planned obsolescence. 

Why do we need it?

Circular design has been defined as “a radical, restorative, regenerative approach to business”, (DforDesign) in the circular economy the disposable nature of the linear economy is replaced with sustainable options such as reuse, refurbishing and recycling. Manufacturers need to completely rethink their business model if we are to achieve a more environmentally and socially responsible future. They currently rely on consumerism, where products are often discarded once old or broken, this provides little incentive for manufacturing products with longevity. Much of what we consume today, is tomorrow’s landfill.

By contrast a circular economy is a holistic approach to life and to business where everything has a value and nothing is wasted, a cradle to cradle approach. The approach will allow businesses to grow and diversify as our current resources are exhausted, keeping materials in circulation for as long as possible and making products to last.

How is it achieved?

Every product has been designed, therefore design plays has a central role in shaping the world and economy of the future, one that will be more respectful of the environment and its resources. A circular economy can be achieved through various means:

Designing out waste through the use of regenerative materials and modular design allows products to be longer lasting and easier to repair or disassemble for recycling.

The reuse and repair of products needs to be facilitated, our current economy relies on planned obsolescence, a few forward thinking manufacturers and retailers are becoming service providers rather than retailers, retaining ownership of their products encouraging them to remain in use through upgrading and repair.

Responsible manufacturing allows for recycling, remanufacturing and reuse, through designing products with easily separable components. This allows materials to be sorted, reused or upgraded.

By using natural materials we can use any waste that is created to regenerate natural systems, because they can be composted the waste becomes a resource.

Given that ‘the construction industry accounts for approximately 60% of UK materials used and one third of all waste arisings’ (Julie Hirogoyen, Green Building Council) it is crucial that we replace the current linear model with an approach that uses less resources, keeps them in use for longer and allows reuse at the end of the building’s life. Around 40% of the worlds extracted materials are used in construction and the waste resulting is the largest single stream in many countries.

The idea of a circular economy is not entirely new, cradle to cradle, biomimicry and industrial symbiosis are the foundations of this school of thought, inspiration is taken from biological cycles where nothing is wasted and waste becomes food. In sustainable thinking it is easy to settle for being less bad, whereas a cradle to cradle approach aims to be entirely good. Around half of the embodied energy of a building is in the foundations and the structure, if demolition is the only option disassembly can result in usable components, one example is steel, where reusing sections from the demolished building can reduce the environmental impact by 96%.

Buildimg layers Stewart brand sustainability interior designe
Stewart Brand set out the building layers to demonstrate a sustainable approach to construction. The site is permanent, the structure has a lifespan of 30-300 years, the skin 20+ years, services 7-20 years, the space plan 3 years and finally 'stuff', up to 3 years. This shows that what interior designers do really matters in terms of sustainability. If we design for deconstruction and adaptability we can increase the lifespan of the project and allow for reuse of recycling when it reaches the end of its life.

The principles of building in a circular economy are to design out waste, this means prioritising the refit and refurbishment of existing buildings as the structure is the most resource intensive elements of any building. By designing for adaptability it is possible to keep the building in use for longer, designing for disassembly ultimately allows reuse, particularly if the building has been constructed in layers. The layers of the building were set out by Stewart Brand, the first layer is the site, the second is the structure, third, the skin, fourth are the services, fifth the space plan and finally, stuff. By designing in this manner the differing lifespans of each ‘layer’ are taken into account allowing easier refurbishment without causing additional waste.

Material choices are complex in the circular economy, but having most impact, is clearly to reduce, a material such as plasterboard often results in 10 to 35% on-site wastage, it was found that in building the Tate modern, the architects’ use of fair-faced or rendered finishes reduced the dry lining, potentially avoiding four tons of waste and costs by £43,240. Reducing waste is of course not the only circular approach, reclaimed materials could be used or the materials could be designed out completely. 

The Tate Modern. Designing out waste is crucial for sustainability.

Material choices are either biological or technical, the first means that they are non-toxic and ultimately biodegradable, the second allows for recycling or remanufacturing. Unlike sustainability, embodied carbon is not the only criteria, the crucial point for a circular strategy is that biological and technical materials remain separate, composites make separation impossible and results in landfill waste.

For a building to remain adaptable and flexible, services must be easily accessible without causing damage to finishes, this is key to the idea behind the layers of the building. Flexibility and adaptability will ensure longevity, where dealing with an existing building, flexibility will be more achievable as adaptability requires the shell of the building to be amended.

For an interior designer to work in a circular economy we need to carefully choose our materials, there are some incredible new materials available, one of my favourites is Honext Material, a board made from cellulose waste, it has a wide range of construction applications requiring no additional finishes (though these can be applied if desired) and is entirely recyclable. 

honext material
Honext material, 100% recyclable fibreboards with no added emissionsof VOC's such as formaldehyde, made using waste from paper mills.

Waste is a big consideration for the circular designer, not just in our designs but in the removal of the previous fixtures and fittings. Consideration needs to be given to standard board sizes and retaining separable components to allow for reuse of recycling. A kitchen refit regularly involves 4 or 5 white goods going to landfill, these collectively “make up around half of the electronic waste generated globally” (Regenerate-Renew-Revitalize-Whitepaper). The lifespan of these machines is on average 10 years and “while a repair is almost the same price as a trade-up” (Regenerate-Renew-Revitalize-Whitepaper) it is unlikely that this waste will reduce. Waste needs to be separated on site if we are to reduce the quantity going to landfill, some of this ‘waste’ has a financial value. 

New designers are emerging who are working in an entirely circular way so it is possible to specify high end furnishings without compromising ethics. There is also a gradual move by companies to become service providers rather than retailers, but this needs to increase to avoid the planned obsolescence of products where retailers have little interest in the product when it reaches the end of its life cycle.

A new interior design does not necessarily mean discarding previous furnishings, upholstery can be refreshed with a fabric which is entirely of recycled content and a redesign may be more about reconfiguration than replacing all fixtures and fittings. My love of mid century modern furniture fits comfortably in a circular economy, keeping products and materials in circulation, whilst creating a unique and interesting interior where furnishings are often works of art.  

Unlike sustainability which addresses carbon emissions with the intention of being ‘less bad’, a circular economy aims to be ‘all good’. Our future economy is economically viable and environmentally responsible by designing flexible interiors with longevity in mind we can radically reduce waste, by choosing these materials and fixtures wisely with a cradle to cradle approach, any eventual waste will become a resource. 


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