Renting for eternity

Imagine a world where a manufacturer is happy to exchange a product after 10 years, and not because there’s anything wrong with it, simply because a better version has come on to the market. It may sound far-fetched but this is a serious idea proposed by some of construction’s soberest minds. It’s part of a concept known as the “circular economy”, which severs the link between economic prosperity and resource consumption and transforms the traditional linear process of “take-make-dispose” into a closed loop where no resource is wasted and everything is reused or recycled. As one of the world’s most resource-intensive industries, construction is an obvious place to start. Buildings would be designed to be more adaptable and durable, and eventually to be disassembled into components and used again. Rather than selling products, manufacturers might undertake to provide a guaranteed level of service, upgrading components as more efficient ones become available and taking back the old materials.

It’s a million miles away from today’s consumer society, but something about the circular economy seems to have captured the popular imagination and there are signs that it is making the leap from deep-green niche to the mainstream. But can construction products – and buildings – really be recycled as easily as cans of coke or cars? In this piece for Construction Manager, I found that it demands a radical shift in not only the way buildings are designed and constructed, but also how they are financed, insured and even owned. As Jane Thornback at the Construction Products Association pointed out, “If somebody’s designing something with a brick, who owns it? The people who made the brick, the people who made the brick into something else, or the people who demolish the bricks 300 years later?” How could a manufacturer guarantee they’d be around in 10 years to honour that service contract? And what happens if they go bust – would the receivers want to demolish your house to recover the assets…?