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  • Byron Chan

Circular Series: RIBA Stage 0

Launched this year, ACAN’s nine part Circular Series looks at how to apply circular economy principles at each RIBA Stage. The first session focusing on RIBA Stage 0 featured presentations by Duncan Baker-Brown, architect and director of BBM Sustainable Design, and Richard Boyd, senior engineer at ARUP.


Held on 14th January 2021, our virtual event Circular Series: RIBA Stage 0 explored in depth how key circular economy principles can be tackled at this early stage of the design process. Here in this blog post, we unpack how waste can be essentially 'designed out' by recognising opportunities to reuse existing buildings.

The need for a circular approach

During RIBA Stage 0, the built environment professional is tasked with finding “the best means of achieving the client requirements” (RIBA, 2020). To unlock the circular economy potential of a project, it is useful to get the client on board with why a circular approach is needed and establish a clear vision for applying circular economy principles.

At present, the construction industry operates under a ‘take, make and throw away’ system, consuming a vast amount of resources. In the UK, construction activities contributed around 136.2M tonnes of waste – 63% of its total waste in 2016 (DEFRA, 2020). With rapid growth in population and consumption rates, the current system poses the risk of accelerating resource scarcity, increasing price volatility and fuelling climate change. To meet these future global challenges, the circular economy is needed as a new framework to redesign buildings, eliminating waste altogether and keeping materials in constant use.

“If we’re looking at new buildings… “I think we [as the construction industry] are very well placed to design out waste” – Duncan Baker-Brown

Cities are material stores for the future

Applying key principles

Understanding the key principles of the circular economy is important to establishing a clear vision. The first principle is to design out all waste. As Baker-Brown stated: “In a circular economy, there is no such thing as waste”. So the built environment professional should be looking for opportunities for re-use at every RIBA Stage including Stage 0.

In the strategic brief, a key consideration should be whether building new development is necessary as an option and if developed sites and existing assets can be utilised instead. Baker-Brown introduced the concept of existing buildings as material banks or E-BAMB which focused on seeing cities and existing buildings as valuable resources. If re-use is appropriately applied to projects, this could offer potential carbon savings and financial savings for the client.

Case studies

A successful example of reusing buildings was Leach Court by BBM Sustainable Design. This involved the reuse of existing tower blocks in Brighton, doubling housing density while halving the carbon footprint. Following this example was Bordeaux Housing by Lacaton and Vassal which included the refurbishment and addition to an existing social housing block. Through reuse, this saved the client two-thirds of the cost compared with demolition and building anew, and it provided social benefits as the existing communities could continue to live in the blocks after the redevelopment.

In Boyd’s presentation, he touched upon the idea of re-use and improving use of existing buildings by applying circular economy principles to real estate business models. To design out waste, one of the strategies proposed the use of ‘flexible space’ operators to lease out underused spaces within existing buildings such as office space or co-working areas for the short term. This approach could maximise the capacity of existing buildings without further need for building new spaces and consuming resources, and find additional revenue for landlords and anchor tenants.

While acknowledging the barriers around achieving performance and liability when reusing existing buildings, the option of reuse should still be put on the table while considering all other options. As the case studies demonstrate, it is possible to achieve a range of environment, economic and social benefits when reusing existing resources as part of a circular approach.

Tools for applying

During the question time, an important point was raised about needing a standard to inform clients and developers about the benefits of a circular approach. A range of resources were mentioned during the talk providing guidance to clients and built environment professionals on the benefits of the circular economy and how to apply circular economy principles to projects. These have been included in the resources section at the bottom.

“Think of construction as a form of urban mining where we mine the Anthropocene, reusing the things that we as humans have already produced” – Duncan Baker-Brown


Speaker bios

Duncan Baker-Brown BSc. DipArch FRSA ARB RIBA

Founder of BakerBrown; Climate Literacy Champion at the School of Architecture & Design University of Brighton; Member of RIBA Council; ACAN; Architects Declare, Member of Brighton & Hove City Circular Economy Oversight Board

Duncan is a practicing architect, academic and environmental activist. Author of ‘The Re-Use Atlas: a designer’s guide towards a circular economy’, he has practised, researched, and taught around issues of sustainable development and closed-looped systems for more than 25 years. He recently founded BakerBrown, an architectural practice and consultancy created to address the huge demands presented by the climate and ecological emergency as well as the challenges of designing in a post-COVID world. Over the years Duncan’s practices have won numerous accolades including RIBA National Awards and a special award from The Stephen Lawrence Prize for the Brighton Waste House – the prize money has since been used to set up a student prize for circular, closed loop design at the University of Brighton where Duncan teaches.

Richard Boyd

Senior materials consultant and chartered engineer at ARUP

Richard joined Arup as a building structural engineer in multi-disciplinary design teams. After four years of building design and construction experience in the UK, Middle East and South Asia, his focus on embodied carbon led him to specialise in environmental impacts of construction products and supply chains.

This work includes completing GHG emission calculations for products, construction projects, cities and economic sectors; comparative sustainability studies for construction supply chain businesses; the design and implementation of carbon management processes; and the use of circular economy principles as a set of tools and an inspiration for reducing emissions impact of the sector. He manages Arup’s global partnership with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, and has led research projects on circular economy with the Foundation as well as with academic institutions including UCL and ETHZ.




Get involved

The ACAN Circular Economy Group is working to push for a radical shift in the construction industry so that all buildings in the UK are designed and built in line with circular economy principles. It is our mission to reimagine current building practices to enable regenerative design at all scales and stages of a project, and for the construction industry to have a positive impact on human and planetary health.

Interested in contributing to the ACAN Circular Economy Group?

Please contact us for details on how to join.

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