Climate change is an urgent problem, and the circular economy can play a critical role in addressing it, according to a panel at IFMA’s World Workplace 2022. Facilities managers and building owners can play a key role with these five circular economy strategies.
Circular Economy Basics
According to the Global Status Report 2018 by the UN’s Global Alliance for Buildings and Construction, 28% of annual global carbon emissions are attributable to building operations and another 11% can be attributed to building materials and construction. But those numbers don’t represent every source of carbon in office buildings.
“We have commutes, business travel, office furniture and technology, and office tools,” said Celeste Tell, cofounder and co-CEO of Epicycled and senior associate with AWA. “Those things contribute more and raise the level of emissions from the workplace much higher than just looking at building operations and construction.”
There are two kinds of carbon that are important to the discussion around the circular economy and decarbonization. Operational carbon is what’s generated by operating the building. Embodied carbon includes all the emissions produced to build the building, as well as all of the carbon involved in replacing things and the carbon involved in the end of the building’s life. Tenant improvements, for example, generate a huge amount of embodied carbon because materials and furnishings are replaced over and over again, even if they haven’t lived out their useful life.
The circular economy is a different way of thinking about consumption. In today’s linear economy, raw materials are taken from the Earth and transformed into products, which are eventually thrown away. In a circular economy, waste is not produced because products and materials are maintained, refurbished and reused. It’s based on three principles, according to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation:
- Eliminate waste and pollution
- Circulate products and materials
- Regenerate nature
Facilities professionals can embrace circular economy principles and reduce waste with these five strategies.
1. Building Design, Construction and Materials
The journey to the circular economy for facilities professionals starts with rethinking how we design and build our facilities, said Nina Broadhurst, principal and executive director—work studio for Cuningham Architects. Embracing prefabricated and modular design is crucial.
“The work is planned ahead of time, and we can optimize the materials we use,” Broadhurst said of prefab buildings. “It’s done in a controlled environment and, therefore, there’s less waste on the job site.”
Modular building requires you to plan ahead and think about how the modular components can be used and reused, further reducing waste.
2. Reduce and Reuse
Reducing the materials we use and reusing our old materials is a critical piece of the puzzle. We can reuse everything from packaging to partitions to whole buildings, the latter through adaptive reuse strategies that bring older structures up to par.
“Keep the shell of the building,” Broadhurst urged. “Stop demoing buildings to start new. Look at how we can reuse them.”
Demountable partitions are a great (and reusable) solution for interiors, Broadhurst added. Spaces are constantly reconfigured, and demountable partitions offer a solution for being able to quickly rearrange space on the fly without having to tear down interior walls.
3. Procurement and New Business Models
The growing idea of products as a service contributes to the circular economy by making manufacturers responsible for the entire lifecycle of a product, Broadhurst said.
One example is Signify’s lighting as a service; customers like Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport pay for the lights they use, but don’t own the lighting systems in their building. Signify is responsible for servicing the lighting system and replacing whatever stops working. This incentivizes manufacturers to make better, longer-lasting products that they can keep in service longer.
Furniture and material takeback programs, such as Shaw Contract’s takeback offer for its EcoWorx carpet, are another prime example. Manufacturers can refurbish products or recycle components into new products.
4. Operational Circularity
Reducing our reliance on energy that’s generated from combustion is part of creating a circular economy. Combustion-generated energy parallels the linear economy, in which natural resources are extracted and used to create a product that’s immediately consumed completely, said Alexa Stone, founder and president of ecoPreserve LLC.
Using renewable energy and vehicles that don’t have internal combustion engines contributes to the circular economy by relying on sources of energy that don’t have to be combusted, Stone added.
5. Flexible Space Utilization
Instead of moving to larger and larger buildings as workforces grow, consider embracing the hybrid work modes that workers today seem to want, said Lisa Whited, author of Work Better, Save the Planet, chief transformation officer for WTF and senior associate for AWA.
Institute desk-sharing so you don’t have to buy desks for each person. Instead of assigning spaces, let people check out where they want to work. And make sure to embrace the key to making flexible workspace work—providing enough quiet spaces for focused tasks.
“The people who normally get the private offices are C-suite or executives, and those spaces were vacant 77% of the time before the pandemic,” Whited said. “You need plenty of spaces. These are not big—they’re 48 square feet, but they’re for everybody. We also need a working together agreement that all employees are a part of that says, ‘What are our norms, how are we going to interact and what’s our etiquette?’ Don’t send it down from on high; engage employees in that conversation about how we’re going to be and how we’re going to respect each other,” she urged attendees.