Beyond recycling: design for disassembly, reuse, and circular economy in the built environment

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Today, we use resources faster than they can be replaced. Construction consumes more resources than any other industry and has one of the largest waste streams. Resource consumption and waste

Today, we use resources faster than they can be replaced. Construction consumes more resources than any other industry and has one of the largest waste streams. Resource consumption and waste generation are expected to grow as the global population increases. The circular economy (CE) is based on the concept of a closed-loop cycle (CLC) and proposes a solution that, in theory, can eliminate the environmental impacts caused by construction and demolition (C&D) waste and increase the efficiency of resources’ use. In a CLC, building materials are reused, remanufactured, recycled, and reintegrated into other buildings (or into other sectors) without creating any waste.

Designing out waste is the core principle of the CE. Design for disassembly or design for deconstruction (DfD) is the practice of planning the future deconstruction of a building and the reuse of its materials. Concepts like DfD, CE, and product-service systems (PSS) can work together to promote CLC in the built environment. PSS are business models based on stewardship instead of ownership. CE combines DfD, PSS, materials’ durability, and materials’ reuse in multiple life cycles to promote a low-carbon, regenerative economy. CE prioritizes reuse over recycling. Dealing with resource scarcity demands us to think beyond the incremental changes from recycling waste; it demands an urgent, systemic, and radical change in the way we design, build, and procure construction materials.

This dissertation aims to answer three research questions: 1) How can researchers estimate the environmental benefits of reusing building components, 2) What variables are susceptible to affect the environmental impact assessment of reuse, and 3) What are the barriers and opportunities for DfD and materials’ reuse in the current design practice in the United States.

The first part of this study investigated how different life cycle assessment (LCA) methods (i.e., hybrid LCA and process-based LCA), assumptions (e.g., reuse rates, transportation distances, number of reuses), and LCA timelines can affect the results of a closed-loop LCA. The second part of this study built on interviews with architects in the United States to understand why DfD is not part of the current design practice in the country.