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4 ways architects are using circular economy principles to future-proof homes

As concern for the environment grows, architects are exploring a more holistic approach to sustainable design, building homes with the future firmly in mind

carbon neutral architecture home lark rise
Peter Cook

When it comes to architecture, it can be hard to navigate between truly sustainable buildings and greenwashing, especially when terms such as ‘zero carbon’ and ‘recycled’ sound positive but don’t always tell the full story. In a bid to find an authentic sustainable method of construction, some architects are looking to the circular economy.

Although it sounds complex, it’s actually a simple concept. While most buildings and products are produced on a very linear timeline of ‘take, make, use, dispose’, the circular economy calls for a more cyclical approach. It suggests that all things should be eco-friendly when they’re produced, while they are used, but also when they’re disposed of. It’s no good sourcing recycled materials if you use them in a way that means they can’t be recycled again, or building a low-energy house using materials that already have a high carbon footprint. The idea is to think about the future of a building, not just the present.

The Ellen MacArthur Foundation, a charity that promotes this ideology, has developed three circular design principles: design out waste and pollution; keep products and materials in use as long as possible; and regenerate natural systems, which means avoiding extractive processes like quarrying. ‘Construction is often energy intensive and wasteful, so a priority should be keeping buildings in use for as long as possible,’ says Joe Iles, the foundation’s circular design programme lead. ‘This could mean thinking about how you’ll use the space in the future, and building in flexibility, positioning internal walls so they can be added or removed, or roofs designed to make extensions easier.’ What is important, explains Iles, is to try and preserve the integrity and value of everything you use when building a home. ‘Think of your house as a bank of materials that can be deconstructed, separated, and reused, and design this in from the outset,’ he says. Here follow four rules for those seeking to bring the principles of the circular economy to their building projects...


      Swapping steel and concrete for renewable materials is a good place to start. Wood and brick can offer plenty of potential, but there are also more imaginative options available, such as cork or straw. London studio Practice Architecture used natural hemp to create the walls of Flat House, a three-bedroom family home in Cambridgeshire. This material is not only sustainable to source, its insulating properties ensure the house requires very little energy to heat. There are even designers exploring whether mycelium, the vegetative section of a fungus, could be used in the same way.

      sustainable home flat house with natural hemp walls
      The kitchen/dining space in Flat House, with walls made from natural hemp
      Oskar Proctor


      It’s no longer just about carbon neutral. Some architects are proving it’s possible to build houses that produce more energy than they consume. Lark Rise, a new-build house in Buckinghamshire, is one of the most extreme examples. Designed by sustainability specialist Bere Architects, it produces double the power it needs, meaning it draws 97 per cent less energy from the national grid than the average UK home. Architect Justin Bere describes it as a mini power station that could pave the way for a ‘smart energy revolution’.

      living room of carbon neutral architecture project lark rise
      The living room of carbon-positive project Lark Rise
      Tim Crocker


      Repurposing used materials is essential, particularly if you’re working on a renovation project. When creating Reuse Flat in east London, architecture studio Arboreal tried to repurpose all the materials collected in the ‘deconstruction’ of the old building. ‘We don’t say demolition,’ explains architect Tom Raymont. ‘It is about careful deconstruction of a building, separating its parts so they can be assessed for reuse, and recycled, sold or donated if not used. Smashing things up just destroys their value.’ There are also opportunities to find used materials for new-builds. Copenhagen-based Lendager Group sources waste materials from manufacturers such as flooring brand Dinesen, yet there is nothing second-rate about the results, which include cabin-like woodland retreat Sommerhus.

      recycled kitchen of architecture project reuse flat
      Reuse Flat, created with repurposed materials from the original build
      Agnese Sanvito


      Designing out waste possible, but also making sure components can be reused in the event it does have to be demolished. Some building products, plasterboard for instance, are difficult to recycle and potentially toxic to dispose of. Beech Architects had to consider this when designing a pair of holiday homes on a fast-eroding cliff top. With minimal foundations, they can be easily craned to a new location if needed. But as the structures are plaster-free, they can also be disassembled and their components reused. Many prefabricated homes offer similar benefits. Koto’s range of Scandinavian-style cabins are made of FSC-certified timber modules, meaning they are easy dismantled and repurposed.

      beech architects’ prefabricated holiday homes
      Beech Architects’ holiday units are plaster-free and easy to disassemble
      Ben Quinton


      Planning your own eco build and want to implement some of these future-proofing ideas yourself? Here are just a few of the innovative brands to know…

      Honext: An eco-friendly alternative to MDF made from recycled cellulosic waste. honextmaterial.com

      Really: An acoustic board made from recycled textiles. reallycph.dk

      IndiBreathe: Plant-based insulation system. indinature.co

      Biomason: Offers a cement made using biomaterials. biomason.com

      Ecovative Design: Has developed a range of products using mycelium, including a vegan ‘leather’. ecovativedesign.com

      Hydraloop: A system for recycling waste water. hydraloop.com

      Leap MicroAD: Creates systems to turn waste food into power. madleap.co.uk

      Kenoteq: Makes unfired bricks composed of 90 per cent construction waste. kenoteq.com

      This article first appeared in ELLE Decoration June 2020

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