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What are we getting wrong about circularity?

In this Mix Roundtable with Impact Acoustic, we explore circular design models, tackling misconceptions and asking what we still have to learn about ‘closing the loop’.

Feature in partnership with

Impact Acoustic

05/03/2024

6 min read

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This article first appeared in Mix Interiors #230

We all know that durability, reusability and recyclability are central to the future of commercial interior design, but can these principles coexist with our appetite for the new? In this Mix Roundtable with Impact Acoustic, we explore circular design models, tackling misconceptions and asking what we still have to learn about ‘closing the loop’.

Words and moderated by: Harry McKinley

Circularity and sustainability are not the same thing.

For the particularly terminology-versed, this may seem a statement of blinding obviousness. Yet, for our assembled experts, sustainability and circularity are too often conflated; misconceptions rife. Though both concern environmental impact, they’re ultimately different models, representing a different set of challenges, a different set of opportunities and –our table agreed – often different outcomes.

“I think there’s a lot of greenwashing in the world, not just in our industry, so I think it’s incredibly important to define what we mean and what is meant by these terms,” stressed HLM Architects‘ Anna Lee. “Just on a theoretical level, circularity is all about closing the loop and sometimes we can fall into talking about ‘sustainability’ without recognising that important distinction. It’s a different conversation.”

For Spacelab’s Alice Wells, the blurring of the lines between what is sustainable and what is circular isn’t helpful. By lumping the two in together, it can sometimes become too easy to skew the objective. “Building a circular economy, a circular design model, isn’t just about recycling, for example. If anything, that’s the last resort. Circularity should, firstly, be about reuse and repurposing – about what stays in circulation. That’s part of how we examine the ways in which we can shift from being such a consumption-focused industry.”

“Because creating circularity is a particular responsibility,” continued Gensler’s Becky Spenceley. “Any of us can create a beautiful space, right? But it’s about responsible design, which has a huge impact on our cities and our communities. Circularity, not only sustainability, is at the core of that.”

We need a new way of thinking about the new.

We often talk of how designers create, but in a circular world it may be as important to consider how they adapt. As Wilmott Dixon’s Enrique Soler inferred, consideration needs to be given to what can be made new again, if starting from scratch is ever-more unviable in an increasingly resource-challenged world. “If we want to talk about genuine circularity, we have to get real: we can’t start with a blank page anymore,” he explained. “We have to change the way we think about things and recognise there are different, new accountabilities. We have to be able to look at something and say, ‘this might not be the idea I had in mind, but this is what I’m what I’m playing with’; to ask, what can I do with this and how can I respond to this?

Ella Smith, AHMM, agreed that reinvention should, initially at least, trump introduction. “The circular economy starts with working with what we currently have,” she suggested. “One of the greatest misconceptions that I see again and again, is the notion that circularity starts once a building has been created or a design devised. 85% of today’s buildings are still going to be in use in 2050, so we need a mindset change and to recognise that we have to work with the landscape that’s already with us.”

Cat A, understandably, came in for a particular drumming – seen as wasteful, indulgent to a degree we can no longer afford and fundamentally at odds with circular design principles. Wells proffered a solution: “We often talk about the negatives of technology, but here’s where it could be a tool to help us reduce waste. Couldn’t augmented reality be used to display specific sections or levels of a building, without it needing to be fitted-out with elements that will immediately be removed? That way, what’s not needed was never there, so we don’t even need to reuse.

Right on paper isn’t always right in practice.

The distance between what works in principle and what works in practice can perhaps be best surmised in the appropriated slogan ‘mind the gap’. At times said gap is narrow, at others, chasmic. Of course, the same can be said of what reads wells versus what works well, as seductive messaging butts up against the practical realities of design and the nature of live spaces. Lifespan is an obvious example, as designers and manufacturers tout the longevity of materials and products, while tacitly recognising that few, if any, commercial environments will exist in any static guise for decades.

It’s here that Impact Acoustic CEO and co-founder, Sven Erni, believes we need more honesty and more transparency; a personal proponent of circularity whose commitment to ethical and sustainable production carries through to Impact Acoustic’s practices.

“We need to start having a more honest conversation about designing to last and the reality of what that means in the design world,” he said. “Take back programmes look great on paper, but no one uses them, so we approach things differently because we’re honest about the reality of circularity, not just the ideal. That’s what’s important to designers specifying I believe, even if it would sometimes be simpler just to tick a box. So, we create products that can be very easily repurposed – without glue, without screws. But we also know, in practice, things will need to be recycled, and so we make sure we can do that in as circular a way as possible, without using a lot of energy, which is hugely important. That combination of reuse, recycling and consuming less is what gets us closer to closing the loop.”

“When it comes to right on paper versus right in practice, it’s also not that there are always problems, but there are a lot of gaps,” continued Modus Workspace’s Tom Shaw. “And right now I don’t know that there are the mechanisms to ensure circularity. There’s no one-stop-shop that helps weigh up and present the credentials of materials and products, while also considering aesthetics. We don’t have a platform for that. We still have to do most of the fundamental work ourselves and a lot of that is based on trust.”

Materiality is another sticking point, either confusion about what’s there already and its lifecycle, or in the reluctance from clients to adopt materials that are terrific on paper, but also untested. “Everyone thinks that glass in façades can be reused, that it’s somewhat circular, but you can’t. Most of it gets downcycled,” explained Smith, “so there are gaps in knowledge.”

“Yet, by the same token, it’s hard to introduce innovation,” said Spenceley. “There’s an amazing material made from coffee grinds, and it has all the credentials, but there’s risk attached to it because we haven’t specified it before. That can be a hard sell to a client, because the journey can be more complicated; it means explaining that while it isn’t as easy as picking a quartz countertop, if they want the circular story and the environmental contribution, they need to take a risk. But in commercial projects that isn’t always going to happen so, again, what’s right on paper comes up against the reality of what clients are willing to accept.”

Circularity sometimes means compromise, but not as much as we think.

When it comes to circular products and materials, do our experts feel there are ripe pickings? Well, no. And they all mostly agreed that, for now at least, taking the circular route across a project means acknowledging access to less choice. Then there’s cost, in terms of budget and time. Here, circularity means higher expenditure of both. But if that all sounds rather gloomy – the trade-offs painful – there are positives too. While products may, initially, be pricier, it’s a misconception that it spells the end of the story.

“For us, waste is not ‘waste’, it’s are source,” detailed Erni. “So for our latest product, we actually pay to take it back, and pick it up. That means, as opposed to pure cost, it can actually sit as an asset on the balance sheet.” This economic model demonstrates how, through innovation and thoughtful design, circularity can make a case for itself – one that balances commerce and environmental impact. 

Similarly, as in diplomacy, compromise isn’t necessarily a negative. Instead, our table agreed that parameters, a slightly curtailed level of choice and even budgetary restrictions all force designers to think more creatively; challenges breeding innovation and meaningful progress. “Ultimately, circularity is a system,” said Shaw. “It’s not down to a product, it’s not down to a designer and it’s not down toa client, it’s about all of the elements of creating something coming together and working in a loop, forcing us to rethink what great design looks like.”

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