Building a Circular Economy and Eliminating Waste in the Construction Industry

It is estimated by the EPA that in the United States alone, over 500 million tons of construction waste is generated every year and ends up in landfills. A good portion of this material is not contaminated, but perfectly functional and deemed valueless by the industry. Much of this material could be recycled into new building materials, but what if this material could be repurposed instead? What if buildings and materials were designed to be more easily deconstructed and the materials within a building had a monetary value beyond first life? This is possible – all of the technology exists but the dots need to be connected. It starts with a digital twin of a building – a building information (BIM) model that is a virtual replica down to the smallest detail that is a tool for high level facilities management. This model is linked to a virtual reality app, allowing building owners, architects, designers, engineers or contractors to walk through a space and identify materials easily that will be demolished and post them on the marketplace. These materials can be searched by those designing and building new projects and plugged into their design. They can also be identified by the original manufacturer and refurbished, if necessary, to be used again. Effortlessly. This type of material swap happens at small scales in today’s salvage market but will be much more effective in reducing embodied carbon at a large scale. A new affordable housing project could potentially acquire doors from the REbuilt marketplace – the same exact doors as they would buy new – and not have to buy a single new door. Lowered embodied carbon, eliminated waste. The doors are delivered to a second life instead of being delivered to the landfill. Our firm is starting to design projects with a second life in mind for materials and embedding detailed product information into our models. We were successful in achieving net positive waste on our own office remodel using this method of salvaging materials and reconfiguring them. This is what sparked the idea for REbuilt. We see a future where all buildings have a digital twin on the cloud and the concept of construction waste has been transformed. This could transform the construction industry, add unrealized value to properties, and transform our relationship to waste.

According to Architecture 2030, the embodied carbon of construction materials will be half of all carbon emissions for buildings over the next 30 years. Our industry needs to make a fundamental shift in how we design and build. A massive transformation to material reuse is critical. The largest barrier to this change in thinking and market transformation is removing silos through a combination of several existing technologies into one platform. REbuilt will be the spark to bring added value to the global supply of existing buildings and transform the unsustainable concept of waste.


Written By: 

Ashley Mulhall, AIA NCARB, LEED-AP BD+C WELL AP, EDAC: with over 15 years of design experience, Ashley currently leads High-Performance Building and Sustainable Design at Orcutt | Winslow and coordinates the review and implementation of sustainable strategies and practices to ensure every project achieves a high level of WELL, sustainability and efficiency.