While the last 20 years were a time of hyper disposability, that time is quickly ending. Land once ideal for construction waste is rapidly increasing in value, leading to development opportunities. Meanwhile, a disposable building model is less than sustainable, with environmentally aware authorities, organizations, and businesses continually looking for improvements in the building life cycle.
Within that environment, more responsible and even conservative approaches to end-of-life building management have begun to rise. Among them: the holistic idea of the circular economy.
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What Is The Circular Economy?
The circular economy is an approach to economic development designed to benefit businesses, society, and the environment. It focuses on a regenerative design and seeks to separate the idea that economic growth requires the consumption of finite resources.
The circular economy is MORE than just producing “green” buildings. It removes the linear “take-make-use-dispose” approach and replaces it with three basic principles: design out waste and pollution; keep buildings and materials in use; and regenerate natural systems. The shift focuses more toward the life cycle and re-use.
Recycling converts waste materials into those that are reusable in order to prevent waste of potentially useful materials. Recycling is the reprocessing of an item into a new raw material for use in a new product.
It seeks to reduce the consumption of:
fresh raw materials
reduce air pollution (from incineration)
reduce water pollution (from landfill)
decrease the need for “conventional” waste disposal
lower greenhouse gas emissions
Is the continued use of items without the need to recycle.
Reuse lengthens the life of an item. It is accomplished through many different methods, a perfect example of this is developing products that are reusable and long-lived. It is the manufacturers responsibility to design products that are reusable and long-lived.
Adoption is growing rapidly, and for good reason. New research from Arup₁, in collaboration with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation₂, finds that real estate developers who base their models on circular economy principles can significantly improve their ROI, and at the same time reduce their carbon and overall resource footprint. These concepts can be compatible and jointly achievable.
Developers and manufacturers who embrace the circular economy have, in turn, found significant goodwill among investors. Delivering buildings that are more flexible, with a prolonged and even deconstructable footprint, means delivering assets that provide great promise for returns and lower risks. Residual value increases greatly, turning an embrace of the circular economy into a strong business proposition.
The Solution to a Core Challenge
The concept of circular development aptly describes the value it brings to the challenge. The circular visualization—no beginning, no end—offers a solution model to developers, who had perhaps previously approached building product life cycles in a linear way.
According to a 2020 MDPI study₃, construction and demolition waste (CDW) accounts for 30% of the total solid waste produced worldwide. The impact of that number is so significant that the authors of the study looked to quantify it:
In 2016, the European Union produced 924 million tons of CDW.
In 2018, China produced 2.36 billion tons of CDW.
Extrapolated to multiple years and other regions throughout the world, the numbers of global waste produced through construction each year is staggering. In fact, it has become unsustainable for the global environment, economy, and society. Embracing alternative methods to prolong the life cycle of construction materials and the built economy as a whole, has become necessary to stem and reverse that trend.
The Nature and Origins of Construction and Demolition Waste
There are many challenges₄ posed by CDW, which will require a holistic approach to a solution. The first step is to identify the contributing events towards waste. To further explain the challenges posed by construction and demolition waste (CDW), it is worth digging into both its natures and typical points of origin.
Solid waste from construction sites consists of materials from both buildings and infrastructure. It typically results from a full or partial demolition of these buildings, but can also have different points of origin:
Excessive ordering of supplies can result in overages. Logistics teams order more than enough to eliminate any headaches of having to re-order materials mid-project. These overages are typically discarded at the end of the construction project.
Mishandling of materials by unskilled laborers can lead to damaged materials, which may need to be discarded as a result.
The removal of old structural materials, due to the fact that they’re out of style or deteriorated and desired to be replaced with new materials, leads to the discard of the old materials.
Even natural disasters can result in CDW as buildings and infrastructure receive damage or involuntary demolition. Though not man-made, the environmental impact tends to be the same.
Building materials, by definition, tend to be bulky and difficult to dispose of. That problem is intensified by a general lack of knowledge about the potential reuse or recycling of these materials, which is why CDW tends to be simply disposed of at the end of its product life.
Circular Thinking as a Path for End-of-Life Materials
The solution for improving the end of life of products and materials in the built environment begins in their earliest moment. The ways in which designers, chemists, and other manufacturers envision the end of their products’ lifecycle will better inform its development.
This full-cycle concept in manufacturing, of course, is not new. We’ve seen reusable grocery bags used for decades in developed countries, and they have flooded the U.S. market over the last ten years as well. The same ideas and concepts, thinking about end-of-life products in their earliest conception and manufacturing stages, can expand to other, more complex processes as well.
Industries from architecture to engineering and construction can all benefit from it. It’s not just an environmental problem, either. The economic harm of increased waste can become a core motivator for increased cost efficiency once alternative options emerge.
Or, as one research analysis puts it₅, circular business models “replace the ‘end of life’ concept with reducing, alternatively reusing, recycling and recovering materials in production/distribution and consumption processes.”
The Urgency of Circular Economy Principles in the Built Environment
The year 2020 saw a dramatic shift in both the style in which we work, and the use of in-person workspaces around the globe. Almost regardless of industry, organizations began to rethink, renovate, and even move their workplaces to better accommodate their workers and get work done in the midst of a global pandemic.
That break, challenging as it may have been, also brought about significant opportunities. Now is the time to rethink priorities and change established business practices. Architects, engineers, construction companies, and even commercial real estate companies have gone back to the drawing board, re-envisioning how to market their properties and to whom to market them.
At the same time, we’re at a breaking point in CDW, further adding urgency to a shift towards increasing circularity in building. Combined, the perfect underlying conditions for a shift to the circular economy begin to emerge.
Defining the Circular Economy
Within that environment, the circular economy has gained significant momentum over the past few years. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation, credited with developing and promoting the idea, has defined the circular economy concept₆ as follows:
Looking beyond the current take-make-waste extractive industrial model, a circular economy aims to redefine growth, focusing on positive society-wide benefits. It entails gradually decoupling economic activity from the consumption of finite resources and designing waste out of the system. Underpinned by a transition to renewable energy sources, the circular model builds economic, natural, and social capital.
Three principles underlay this definition, driving towards its success in building industries:
Designing out waste and pollution from the beginning of the product and materials development cycle.
Keeping products and materials in use for longer, including planning for potential reuse at the end of the building’s life.
Regenerate natural systems, such as soil, which become renewable resources that can be sustainably used in the future.
Within these principles, the MacArthur Foundation lists four R pillars:
Each of these pillars is designed to both reduce societal burdens traditionally imposed by the built economy, while also enhancing the lifespan of any resources used in the building process.
Take steel as an example. Once it achieves its maximum value within the original purpose, it can be recovered and reused or recycled and remanufactured to bring further value. The circle closes and begins anew, realizing the core goals of the circular economy.
With that example in mind, let’s break down the four pillars of the circular economy in more detail:
The basic reduction of necessary resources lies at the core of the circular economy. Raw steel and the energy needed to produce it are preserved when steel is able to be recovered. Waste from demolition and junkyards is managed, rather than ending up in landfills.
2. Use and Reuse
Steel from building demolition and infrastructure repair is often usable and reusable in its current form. Rather than needing to undergo production for replacement materials, the reuse of materials (such as the reconfiguration of Gridd® flooring for a new use or office layout) minimizes waste and replacement needs.
Through recycling processes, building construction materials can be reused without needing to undergo a full remanufacturing process. Steel from automobiles, packaging, construction, and even bridges may offer recycling opportunities for other purposes. Especially when recycling processes adhere to ASTM standards, these products can be both reliable and cost-effective.
Not all materials, of course, can be reused in their current form. They may, however, be able to undergo a full or partial rebuild. Engines, turbines, office equipment, and heavy machinery are all examples of resources that can be remanufactured to minimize waste and maximize resource efficiencies.
How Gridd Raised Flooring by FreeAxez Promotes Sustainable Built Environments
With a basic understanding of the circular economy and its application in the building industry in mind, let’s dig further into how FreeAxez fits into the larger equation and concept.
FreeAxez brought its revolutionary Gridd Adaptive Cabling Distribution® System to the marketplace over two decades ago, looking to increase efficiencies for cable management and flexible office environments. Also known as Gridd raised flooring, the product is a whole building solution made of 100% steel construction and manufactured in the U.S. It was designed to function within the circular economy long before the concept of “circular economy” existed.
The Gridd system is a direct effort to address inefficiencies traditionally found within the construction and remodeling process. It can be best explained through the personal history of FreeAxez founder Earl Geertgens, who worked as a carpenter and general contractor after school and redeveloped and restored over 150 units of historic real estate in his twenties and early thirties.
Geertgens founded FreeAxez when he noticed the lack of communication between electricians, carpenters, architects, and facilities managers in his daily work. When occupants would take possession of the space after project completion, they would frequently request changes, requiring an electrician to bring his cart, often after hours and on weekends. This process created substantial waste, along with inefficient labor and energy usage. The fault was not on the side of any contractor, laborer, or electrician. Each was a victim of the way things had always been done in the industry.
Inefficient practices like this connect to the core challenge that the circular economy is designed to solve. Minimizing material, labor, and energy waste is key. Gridd was invented to accomplish that feat, and its current products reflect that movement.
The Inherent Sustainability of Gridd Raised Flooring Systems
Reusability, as established above, is a core tenet of the circular economy. The Gridd flooring system has an advantage over all-access flooring that is attached to the building structure. No sealed airspace exists and, as a result, clients don’t need to use plenum-rated cable that would create toxins in the built environment.
The uniqueness of Gridd is exemplified in the fact that it has its own MasterFormat number (09-69-33). It is constructed out of 100% steel, whose benefits in circular principles have been well-established. Installation requires no glue, screws, or fasteners. This free-standing nature allows architects and clients alike to reuse the system in different configurations as needed. In essence, the Gridd system is made up of standard components that can be reconfigured to suit any layout. Because it is not attached to the building, it can even list as part of the furniture, fixtures and equipment (FF&E) package, rather than core construction planning, allowing it to depreciate more quickly.
Gridd’s Value: Custom Designs with Standard Parts
Among other issues, the circular economy seeks to solve a central challenge: the custom/standard waste production. Custom designs tend to be wasteful because production cannot be standardized. Standard designs, on the other hand, are neither desirable nor necessarily optimized for the flexibility necessary to reuse and reduce waste.
Gridd solves that challenge by allowing you to build custom designs, using standard parts. Its four distinct product lines showcase how.
GriddPower and Power Management
Gridd.40 and 70 are standard modules, 40mm and 70mm high respectively. This system can be rearranged and reconfigured depending on room layout and blueprint changes as needed. Gridd Power includes a 50 amp electrical bus track, pre-engineered to allow for custom configurations and projects.
Gridd Mobile, is a mobile app that supports these changes.
Gridd Mobile, an augmented reality app, is a solution for supporting the life of the facility and empowering the facility team to easily manage change. It provides as-builts and technical data at your fingertips from mobile devices or desktops. The app gives end-users to access and scan QR codes, which allows product ordering and reuse.
The system works to extend usability and information between tradespeople, technicians, facility managers, architects, and owners. This product solves it. Gridd Mobile lets every member of the facility ecosystem be informed in real-time.
Gridd Mobile promotes infinite reuse. The electrician, technology team, and client alike can quite literally see through the carpet into the floor to see the cable runs without having to tear the facility apart, saving time and energy.
The 3 Basic Components of Any Gridd Raised Floor
Regardless of the individual product chosen, all floor plans within a Gridd system consists of three primary, basic components:
A base unit, which is the structural element that raises the floor.
The channel plate connects the base unit
The corner plate brings the pieces together without the need for screws, glue, or fasteners.
These are the standard parts that can make up an infinite amount of custom floor plans and projects. Together, they make up a system tailor-made for the circular economy that benefits organizations who implement it in multiple ways.
Easy accessibility for convenient cable grids that are both organized and segregated, leading to high-volume energy capacity.
Superior acoustics, having been used in broadcast recording studios across the country including CBS, ABC, NPR, and more.
Occupancy time and cost savings, making it easier for the organization to adapt to drivers of change ranging from technology to design, workplace trends, and environmental considerations.
Building cost savings, especially intangible costs such as reducing building waste, reducing transportation waste for electricians needed, and carbon savings that ultimately improve the lifecycle of the building.
Put it all together, and you have a solution that’s far more than a niche product for computer rooms or data centers. Gridd can be used in virtually every building type, a whole building solution to outdated methods of permanent cabling.
Connecting Gridd to the Circular Economy
Ultimately, the circular economy demands a move to less waste, more reuse, and a greater ROI within the building industry. Moreover, these initiatives can be implemented while driving transparency to satisfy investors, clients, and end users alike.
Getting there takes a complete shift in mindset. This is not an optional shift, but one that is necessary to sustain in an economy focused less on disposable materials and more on a circular approach to resources and materials.
Fortunately, Gridd has made that jump. Through sustainable manufacturing in the United States, recycled and regionally-sourced steel from manufacturing scrap, and easy installation along with infinite reuse, the Gridd raised floor technology and ecosystem presents a product that not only embraces the circular economy, but moves it forward.
So let’s work together. Request a FREE product sample to better understand our cable management solution, or call us at 856-393-4675. Let’s move together into an environment where sustainability and profitability meet, driving each other to greater business success.
Sources 1. ARUP and Ellen MacArthur Foundation Partnership: The world’s leading circular economy network. https://www.ellenmacarthurfoundation.org/our-story/our-network/partners 2. What Is The Circular Economy? https://www.ellenmacarthurfoundation.org/circular-economy/what-is-the-circular-economy 3. 2020 MDPI Study. PDF Download: https://www.mdpi.com/1996-1944/13/13/2970/pdf 4. Construction and demolition waste generation and properties of recycled aggregate concrete: A global perspective. J. Clean; Akhtar, A.; Sarmah, A.K.; Prod. 2018, 186, 262–281. 5. Conceptualizing the circular economy: An analysis of 114 definitions. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0921344917302835 6. Circular Economy Concept. https://www.ellenmacarthurfoundation.org/circular-economy/concept