What Is Design for Disassembly?

As the green building industry continues to evolve, the ideas behind what constitutes resource efficiency are deepening beyond simply seeking products with recycled content. “Design for Disassembly,” one of the six core principles within the Built Positive movement, is a concept in which buildings and products are designed intentionally for material recovery, value retention, and meaningful next use. In other words, how can the building and all its parts and pieces be reused at the end of its first useful life?

Though the application of design for disassembly requires a shift in the way we approach building design, the basic principles are already in practice in some areas. For example, consider the entertainment industry, in which massive concert sets are erected and taken down at each tour stop; the systems are designed with continual reuse in mind from the start.

“In terms of translating them into more permanent buildings, it’s just a case of stretching that time frame out,” says Richard Boyd, materials consultant and Chartered Engineer for Arup in London. “We currently design buildings as if they’ll never be taken down. Design for disassembly is a fundamental principle that informs decisions and material choices, changing how materials are joined together and how they are layered in a way that is accessible, reversible, and robust.”

The goals for design for disassembly are to create enduring buildings and projects, create value for building owners, and eliminate waste with closed loops. The result are more flexible buildings that are easy to repair, refurbish, or reconfigure; buildings that function as material banks; and products and materials that retain value and return to productive use at end of life.

Designing whole buildings with an eye toward circularity and retaining value requires a shift in thinking as well as in process. “The challenge is more in making the value case for it, about ensuring what’s going to happen so far into the future that the value will be retained,” notes Frances Yang, structures and sustainability specialist in Arup’s San Francisco office.

From a design perspective, it necessitates looking at buildings as layers and examining the building process and the supply chain in reverse. “If you think about the way they’re disassembled, sometimes the way they’re assembled becomes easier,” says Alastair Reilly, director for McDonough & Partners, noting that such thinking helps with decisions on erection, labor costs, and then material recapture.

A key component is documentation, Yang says, with data outlining what products are in the building and what they’re made of—and how they can be safely re-integrated into a supply chain for reuse.

One way this might manifest itself is through leasing products instead of selling them, Boyd says, creating a contractual obligation that identifies material ingredients while ensuring those materials make their way back to the supply stream. “This will only work when clients and designers of new buildings are willing to accept second-hand materials from old buildings,” he notes. “If you have to design based on what’s available versus what can be made, it’s harder to design. … There needs to be a culture change around the idea that second hand doesn’t mean second best.”

The concepts of Design for Disassembly are already revealing themselves in a handful of products and projects.

One of the largest modern applications of design for disassembly is in Venlo City Hall (right) in the Netherlands, designed by Kraaijvanger Architects. The project design included a “green demolition” plan, which provides directives on how to disassemble the building to create continuous cycles. “We also described how the building should be disassembled to use the maximal potential of the building as a material bank,” says Bas van de Westerlo MSc., specialty advisor for built environment and Cradle to Cradle® consultant for C2C ExpoLAB, which consulted on the project. “By doing so, we hope to contribute to a circular economy by implementing the C2C principles. We see Cradle to Cradle® as an innovative economic principle to add value.” 

The principles are easier to achieve when you have products already designed to do that. One of the key ways to achieving value retention is through verified input, which Cradle to Cradle product certification provides through the very nature of its process of analysis and continual improvement. For example, Daas ClickBrick facades: The self-gripping bricks install with mechanical fasteners rather than chemical connections, allowing for easy disassembly and reuse in other structures. Shaw Ecoworx carpet tiles are free of harmful chemicals, so they can be seamlessly recycled back into the raw material stream; to ensure ease of takeback, each tile is labeled with a phone number and website for reclamation instructions. MechoSystems not only redesigned its flagship Mecho/5 shade system to eliminate PVC, the spline and the shadecloth are the same material, so the two parts can be recycled together. For many more examples, browse the Cradle to Cradle Certified Products Registry.

Slimline building systems (right), used at William McDonough + Partners-designed Park 20|20 office complex in Amsterdam, combine the ceiling, utility space, and subfloor into one prefabricated, panelized system that can be pulled apart and reconfigured as the building’s functionality changes, or disassembled for reuse in new projects.

All of the concepts come back to a deeper understanding about what’s in our materials, which is at the core of Cradle to Cradle product certification itself.

“To make circularity work, we have to know what things are made out of and have to purify those material streams,” says Yang. “To me, disassembly is more about the second—how do we get down to the materials that are pure enough in form to enter back into technical or biological streams?”

“The only way we can achieve the carbon reduction scenarios outlined in the Paris Agreement is if we fundamentally change how materials are used in the built environment,” Boyd says. “It’s an urgent call to action and can only be addressed through collaboration.”