A positive spiral of circular re-use

By Dr Robert Hickson

4 min read

Tagged with:

  • Opinion
  • Transformation
  • Sustainability

Futures speculator Dr Robert Hickson imagines a Wellington where Parliament is being reconstructed using circular economy thinking, and construction companies operate under a new way of doing things.

As they are nearing completion, the buildings have developed a life of their own. Not just coming from the people and machines working on them, but the actual structures seem alive too.

The new Parliament buildings in Wellington are clothed with and made of many kinds of materials. The boundary between construction and deconstruction, as in the natural world, is dynamic and sometimes unclear.

Most early morning commuters pass by without a glance, long used to the activity. A few pause, trying to distinguish inorganic from organic. Some still grumble about the disruption, delays, cost and need – echoes from the original debates.

A decision was finally made though, as younger leaders’ voices overtook the old. Public and commercial needs, like the rising tides, at last eroded the less substantive plans.

Where would Wellington be with a vulnerable centre? And if it was no longer the capital city?

Living shores and structures

Eight years on there is now a well-established living shoreline for the city. Sea meadows, oyster beds, and rock pools protect the city from the seas but also retain the connection. 

Only a few former parliamentarians called with any conviction for the demolished Beehive to be re-used as a breakwater. Many know that hard barriers would be as effective as old politicians these days!

Above these grows the new Parliament. Smaller than the buildings they replace. A new type of pa. Welcoming of people, fortified with nature not against it. Old entwined with new.

Botanical and ceramic palisades manage heat and airflows. Wood, metals and stone. All combined into a Darwinian industrial tangled bank – “…elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent upon each other in so complex a manner.”

Fermenting revolution

Now that the build is nearly done, the anaerobic bio-refabricators have ceased their work. The last of the old concrete, masonry and tyres have been reconstituted into new blocks and seismic suppressors. These provide firm but supple foundations.

Excess blocks have been stored away for future projects. The hard won “Concrete Tax” has made recycling cheaper than excavating new raw materials.

The refabricators provided a breath of life as well, because the gases from the process were collected, filtered and piped to help power the construction site.

And it’s fertile too, because the refab’s other by-product – cellular and mineral-rich spoil – is used as nutrients in mulch for the green walls, city farms and sea meadows.

Out of sight, nestled like giant eggs on the southern coast and in Seatoun, sit larger permanent filtering and fermenting facilities. These digestive incubators treat and mine the city’s wastewater, extracting gas, heat, fertiliser and metals. Now there’s wealth not waste in water too.

Mutually assured construction

Those involved in the construction have adapted as well. Once an agitated territoriality reigned, reminiscent of bees defending their hives. Now there’s a competitive communality, like a mixed flock of seashore foragers following the tide.

Building trust takes time, but the rules and the complexities of the industry now mean that sharing resources and expertise are vital for prospering. Mutually assured construction is the norm. Companies, both large and small, collaborate rather than sub-contract to get the work done using new hierarchies.

There’s assurance in a second sense too. “Build and bye” was the old way. Nowadays, long-term building performance targets, with associated payments, make it “habitation as a service”; a binding commitment to monitor, repair and improve as time goes by.

Before the final fit-out the energy coordinators return. No longer just selling electrons, they are probing needs and projected uses. Working with the fit-out team and building managers ensuring they have optimised supply, demand and storage. Tagging along is the insurance broker, making sure the complex doesn’t fall into the riskier high-energy consumption bracket.

As this site starts its new life, the seeds for the next are being gathered. Virtual Cycle miners add what went in, and out, of here to the database. They also continue to burrow into other building and landfill databases and records to predict when other useful materials will become available again. Valuable resources to re-harvest another day.


Robert Hickson

By Dr Robert

Dr Robert Hickson is a futures speculator; that is, one who does not predict the future but examines trends, and history, to imagine what non-bleak futures may be possible. Author of the foresight blog Ariadne, he works with many New Zealand organisations to improve foresight thinking. He holds the view that in New Zealand, we don’t do enough looking forward.

The thoughts expressed here are the author’s alone and do not necessarily reflect those held by the Industry Transformation Agenda.