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Architects have declared, but what do we do next?

Duncan Baker-Brown

Avoid delving further into earth's resources – we need to use what we already have. Think the circular economy

On 1 May MPs returned from their Easter recess and passed a motion declaring an ‘environment and climate emergency’. Inspired by Greta Thunberg and then perhaps Extinction Rebellion occupying our streets, this has been followed up by numerous academic institutions, local authorities, NHS trusts, and many others, making not only similar declarations, but also hugely ambitious pledges to become net zero carbon emissions by 2030. How they aim to do this is a lot less clear.

We should mine the grey of the manmade layer of the anthropocene while nurturing natural resources.
We should mine the grey of the manmade layer of the anthropocene while nurturing natural resources. Credit: BBM Sustainable Design

Since this quick change of the political landscape, both practising and academic architects have made their own declarations and on 27 June the RIBA also declared an environment and climate emergency, stating that it would ‘urgently pursue a five-year action plan towards a net-zero built environment’. Outgoing RIBA president Ben Derbyshire noted that this was the ‘biggest ­challenge facing our planet and our profession’, but also that it was an opportunity for architects to regain some lost ground and become more relevant to society by applying our ‘unique skill set’ to the huge challenges the climate emergency presents to humankind.

Why should we care?

For a bit of context it’s worth remembering that the design, construction, occupation, maintenance and demolition of the world’s built environment consumes about 50% of the all raw materials annually. In the UK we consume over 600 million tonnes of new products every year, and generate over 200 tonnes of waste; 125 million tonnes of this is construction waste. Our industry creates 45% of UK CO2 emissions.  So there’s no avoiding it, we are part of the problem causing the global climate emergency and mass extinction of species due to loss of habitat.

What can we do?

Perhaps the biggest challenge humankind has is to learn how to responsibly manage Earth’s natural resources, and quickly. Architects and designers are in a brilliant position to make a significant impact towards this. During the design of a building we make hundreds, if not thousands, of decisions about what our buildings are made of and how they should be constructed. We are intrinsically connected to the supply chain. Architects are actually ‘resource managers’. In effect we decide which of our suppliers’ raw materials to work into the built environment. We know better than most how buildings are put together, so we should be good at de-constructing them – more of that later. So if you agree that drastically reducing the consumption of new stuff (specifically raw materials) is necessary to reduce our negative effect on the planet, then you can see the potential we have for doing this rather quickly.

We need new tools and a new sensibility

We live in a world where you will get more gold from a tonne of discarded smart phones than a tonne of the best gold ore. I’ve heard people say that there is more copper above ground now than below. So we need to become ‘urban miners’ and re-work/re-use previously made buildings, components, and material sources. We need to mine the anthropocene  (the human-made geological layer surrounding planet Earth) rather than send humans underground to dig up new material. With this new-found sensibility architects can apply emerging techniques such as resource mapping to understand the opportunities a place has for supplying materials for a new project.

Architects already have the ability and tools to design new buildings that will run as carbon neutral or carbon negative entities, but they can also be material banks for ­future buildings. This concept simply requires architects to design buildings that can be de-constructed in the future. The Madaster Foundation and others are looking into ‘material passports’ that will hold a record of all materials, components etc in a building.

Of course this could be part of a BIM model, and allows future owners of a building, say 40 years after it is constructed, to understand its potential to be deconstructed and re-built.

  • We need to look at buildings as material banks.
    We need to look at buildings as material banks. Credit: BBM Sustainable Design
  • Methods to incorporate the circular economy into RIBA Plan of Work stages.
    Methods to incorporate the circular economy into RIBA Plan of Work stages. Credit: BBM Sustainable Design

Opportunities and challenges

WRAP, the Waste and Resources Action Programme, estimates that the construction industry is already about 20% ‘circular. This refers to the concept of a circular economy, where there’s no such thing as waste, where one system’s waste is another’s food, just like the natural world. Over the last decade we have nearly halved the amount of waste generated by construction sites.

However, I believe it will be competing cities and regions with ambitious carbon cutting targets that will be the main driver for economic and system change, and which have the potential to power a successful circular economy. Cities, which house over 80% of the UK’s, and 50% of the world’s, populations, have a huge potential to turn neighbouring disconnected linear systems (food waste, water, energy and myriad other resource flows) into joined up circular ones. In 2017 the London Waste and Recycling Board (LWARB) published its Circular Economy Route Map for London which outlined ‘a vision of a capital city thriving through the adoption of principles of circular economy; an economy which keeps products, components and materials at their highest end value at all times’. The report predicted that by 2036 a circular economy could give London net benefits of up to £7 billion a year, with up to 12,000 new jobs in the areas of re-use, remanufacturing, and materials innovation.

To meet the numerous net carbon neutral targets that local authorities et al have declared, clients will need to initiate massive retrofit programmes, as most of our existing built environment will still be around in 50 years or so and most of our built environment is way off those targets. So architects must be creative with retrofit projects – perhaps more Lacaton & Vassal-style adaptation than lots of external wall insulation and overheated buildings. However there is a real need for UK VAT laws to change here as retrofit projects normally attract VAT at 20% while new builds often pay 0%. This could completely undermine the UK’s ability to meet its ambitious net zero carbon targets.

Much of this may sound like future practice, but there are already many examples of consultants being involved in the deconstruction of large commercial buildings to sell for new projects. Rotor DC (Rotor Deconstruction) is deconstructing large parts of the World Trade Centre in Brussels for resale. Bellastock is part of a group carefully removing the facade and interior fixtures of the rather large Montparnasse Tower in ­Paris. Along with the University of Brighton, Rotor and Bellastock are part of a North-West Europe Interreg FCRBE three year project, funded by the European Regional Development Fund, that will produce both a directory of 1,500 suppliers that contribute towards the de-construction re-construction industry, and a ‘toolkit’ for clients advising them on how to make this idea work.

I spoke recently to Petran van Heel of the Dutch national bank ABN AMRO as he showed me around the €18 million CIRCL Pavilion in Amsterdam he had just completed. Petran pointed out that, designed to strict circular economy principles, ABN AMRO is not only a financial bank but also a ‘materials bank’. Investing in the development of a building that is a material asset at the end of its life is far more attractive one that is a deficit requiring demolition and incineration.

I believe the door is now ajar for practising architects, students and educators to push open and take decisive action. We will have to change the way we practice, teach and learn, but perhaps not as much as you would think. However, we must learn to share the successes and failures of our future endeavours more openly. In addition, our competitions and awards must put the climate emergency at the top of their requirements for success. In the meantime, keep in mind that whatever situation you find yourself in, you need to consider reducing all new incoming resources and reusing existing ones. Position that attitude with a mission to detail your buildings as material banks for the future and your clients may not even notice a difference. But the natural world will. 

Duncan Baker-Brown is senior lecturer at the school of architecture and design, University of Brighton, and co-founder of BBM Sustainable Design, author of ‘The Re-Use Atlas: a designer’s guide towards a circular economy’ (RIBA Publishing) and curator of the annual ‘Waste Zone’ at FutureBuild. See his other  articles on waste: Mining the Anthropocene, Closed loop systems, and Re-use

Sign the petition demanding zero-rate VAT on retrofit/ eco-refurbishment building works on all homes here





BRE Buildings As Material Banks (BAMB)

Circular Economy Club

Ellen MacArthur Foundation

EU INTERREG FCRBE research project  link

Excess Materials Exchange urban miners

London Waste and Recycling Board (LWARB)

Lacaton & Vassal Transformation of Wood Tower Paris 17

Lendager Group – Resource Rows

The Madaster Foundation (Material Passports)

Metabolic urban miners

UK Green Building Council (UKGBC) 

Urban Mining Collective

Rotor Deconstruction Rotor DC

The Waste Zone at FutureBuild 2019 Circular City Speaker’s Presentations

Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP)


Baker-Brown, D, The Re-Use Atlas: a designer’s guide towards a circular economy, RIBA Publishing, London, 2017

Braungart, M, McDonough, W, Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the way we make things, North Point Press, 2002

Campbell, K, Making Massive Small Change: Building the urban society we want, Chelsea Green Publishing London 2018

Charter, M, (Ed), Designing for the Circular Economy, Routledge, Oxford, 2018, inc. chapter by Baker-Brown, D, Who is mining the Anthropocene?

Crocker, R, & Chiveralls & K, Subverting (Edited) Consumerism: Reuse in an accelerated World, Routledge, London & New York, 2018

CITIES Amsterdam, The wasted city: approaches to circular city making, Cities Foundation, Amsterdam, 2017, inc. The Waste House: a case study

Gorgolewski, M, Resource Salvation: The Architecture of Reuse. Wiley Blackwell, Toronto, 2017, inc. The Waste House: a case study

Lacy, P, Rutqvist, J, Waste to Wealth: The Circular Economy Advantage, Palgrave MacMillan, New York, 2015

Rawworth, K., Doughnut Economics: Seven ways to think like a 21st-Century Economist, Punguine Books, Oxford, 2017

Sturgis, S, Embodied and Whole Life Carbon Assessment for Architects RIBA 2018

Sturgis, S, Targeting Zero: Embodied and Whole Life Carbon Explained, RIBA Publishing 2017

Stahel, W R, The Circular Economy; a user’s guide, Routledge, 2019, London & New York

UK Green Building Council, Circular Economy Guidance for Construction Clients April 2019

UK Green Building Council, Net Zero Carbon Buildings: A Framework Definition April 2019

Webster, W, The Circular Economy: A Wealth of Flows, Ellen MacArthur Foundation, UK, 2015

Tree, I, Wilding: the return of nature to a British farm, Picador, UK, 2018



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