How can circular design help eliminate “waste”?

Terri Peters
Terri Peters
May 7, 2019
Circular house prototype seen from the inside

“Circular design is an experience, an aesthetic choice, and now people can make an active choice to consume in this way”, says Kasper Guldager Jensen from Danish architect, 3XN. “It is not just a concept any longer, it is in the marketplace now”, he says  

As low energy building strategies are becoming more accepted and commonly used, the next big concept driving sustainable design innovation is resource use and disrupting the current linear approach to materials and waste. 

Principles of a circular economy

The Circular Economy is an approach that requires gradually decoupling economic activity from the consumption of finite resources and aims to design “waste” out of the system. The current construction process is a linear progression of design, build, use, and disposal and it is not economically or environmentally feasible.  According to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, the circular economy is based on three principles 1

  1. Design out waste and pollution; 
  2. Keep products and materials in use; 
  3. Regenerate natural systems 

The benefits of a new system, graphic courtesy of the Ellen McArthur Foundation

There are numerous benefits of rethinking the concept of waste and focusing on cradle-to-cradle, closed-loop, circular thinking. Construction waste ends in landfills2, contributes to pollution, and the World Bank estimates a dramatic global increase 3.40 billion tons of waste annually by 20503.  Buildings have various components, materials, and layers that have different life spans and can be reused or changed at different times. 

It makes good economic and environmental sense to design buildings that can be flexibly reconfigured as needs change, and that can be maintained, renovated, and reused over time.  Rather than materials and components being thrown ‘away’ when a building needs renovating, joint efforts within the building industry need to be established to make sure valuable resources can be given a new life in the same or a different project. To do this, designers and clients need to know a lot more about exactly what materials and products are in their buildings.


Designing for disassembly is a major challenge in architecture as it requires integrated collaboration and significant effort at a design’s early stages from multiple stakeholders.  Much deeper collaboration and partnerships between manufacturers and designers are required, but there is the potential to positively address major sustainability challenges, and create better, more robust, design-based solutions that are better for people and the environment.

Examples of circular designs

There are only a handful of built examples globally of buildings designed to high aesthetic, functional and social standards that are designed to be reused. A promising new project is The Circle House designed by Danish companies 3XN Architects,  GXN Innovation, Lendager Group, and Vandkunsten Architects. Guided by circular design principles, the team first constructed a 1:1 prototype to experiment with materials, flexibility, and modular construction strategies (interior shown here). 

Circle House Prototype, image courtesy of 3XN

Based on learning from this prototype, the team has designed 60 social housing dwellings in a neighbourhood near Aarhus in Denmark based on circular principles4. Set to be completed next year, the housing incorporates a range of building systems that can be built, disassembled, and rebuilt and adapted into other buildings.  GXN’s Kasper Guldager Jensen states “our goal is that 90% of the project materials can be reused without loss of value”. This required engaging with forward thinking industry partners and manufacturers, for example GXN worked with ROCKWOOL to use their insulation products which can be recycled again and again.

The project demonstrated that not only is it possible to design in this way, but given that the program is social housing, the design needed to be economically competitive as well.  “We set out to do a proof of concept – this is not just an expensive choice, it has health, quality and aesthetic benefits and we showed we can do it even on a social housing budget” says Guldager.

So, when will circular thinking become mainstream in buildings? 

The concept is permeating other industries, such as investment banking, fashion, manufacturing, and even the food industry5. Designers need to expand the conversation and draw inspiration from other disciplines and collaborators. We must start by redefining what we mean by ‘value’ and ‘benefits’ in our projects to more explicitly consider future uses. Only then will we begin to see buildings as material ‘banks’ or mines of valuable resources, and creatively develop new processes and models for reuse.



1. Ellen McArthur Foundation: "What is The Circular Economy?"

2. National Institute of Building Sciences USA. “Whole Building Design Guide” ‘Construction Waste Management’

3. World Bank: “What a Waste 2.0: A Global Snapshot of Waste Management to 2050”  Washington DC. 

4. GXN “Building a Circular Future”

5. Ellen McArthur Foundation: "Business cases for circular economy"

Hungry for more?