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Why the Romans were better at circular economy building

Ever heard of term spolia? It’s a 2,000-plus-year-old process of repurposing building materials from existing building stock into new buildings – so rather than waste material assets or produce new, the practice was to view the existing stock of buildings as a materials bank which resources could be pulled from. So, if the Romans could do it, why can’t this circular model of material reuse be mainstream in the modern built environment today?

The benefits of the circular economy are plentiful – reduced cost, embodied carbon, transport emissions, waste charges and landfill tax, and increased flexibility to name a few. There’s a host of fantastic examples in the mainstream built environment of success stories in this area and we’ve compiled three of our favourites.

There’s a huge surplus of shipping containers globally and there are numerous examples of their repurposing into offices, homes, retail and more.

Tempohousing specialise in building prefabricated homes and hotel rooms and in 2005 built the Keetwonen project after successfully bidding to provide accommodation for the University of Amsterdam. The result was the world’s first mass student accommodation, consisting of 1,000 shipping container apartments, pictured above.

The approach offered the University flexibility in the layout and relocation of the accommodation, and after an extension to the original end date for the project, it has recently been announced that the project is for sale and will be decommissioned in two phases. There’s a trove of interesting technical information in the sales pack, which is available online here, and the project is a fantastic example of the flexibility provided by the use of modular design combined with the reuse of a surplus item from another industry.


loop the circular building arup royal bam group

The Circular Building – ARUP, Royal BAM Group

The Circular Building – ARUP, Royal BAM Group

The Circular Building by Arup is a project which demonstrates the utility of thinking about reuse and circularity right from the very start of a project. The building consists of an array of new products which have circularity designed into their physical properties, reused materials which have been designed into the new construction and also gives consideration to the commercial arrangements of the purchase of such products with return arrangements in place with the original manufacturer.

There’s lots of great examples here such as the structural steel from Arcerlomittal, and a host of innovative products in the skin, including insulation which can be composted at the end of its first use in the building.

The building has been on tour in several locations, having been built, deconstructed and rebuilt several times which takes the proposition of the Keetwonen shipping container examples a step further and begs the question:

Could all buildings be designed with deconstruction and reuse in mind to make the process of reuse of the parts and ideally the whole much easier as a mainstream concept?

ABN Amro’s Circular Pavilion incorporates reused materials into a brand new entrance to an existing building which includes meeting space for employees, visitors and neighbours and is a reflection of ABN’s desire to explore end experiment with the circular economy.

 “The value proposition for the ABN pavilion is that we want to experiment with the circular economy how it works in the built environment and learn from the challenges we run into. The real impact is created by sharing these lessons and inspiring our clients to start with the circular economy”

 Mark van Rijt, ABN AMRO

What’s next?

One thing which is clear in all of these examples is that a great deal is possible if circular thinking is brought to the forefront of a project, embedding the required thought processes right from the start. In the Keetwonen and ABN Amro examples in particular, the client had a desire for flexibility and to demonstrate thought leadership and explore a new area respectively, and this client desire is imperative to progress in any new area where things need to be done differently and branch outside the status quo.

Traditional contractual arrangements for developments and refurbishments do not generally lend themselves to the supply chain pushing to take risks on a new approach, so the involvement and commitment of the client is paramount in the early stages of this new (ish) way of thinking about how we design, build and reuse our buildings and their component parts.

Terry Clarke is co-founder of Loop


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