Built environment

This article is based on Guglielmo Carra’s speech during “Re-Think Forum”.

Guglielmo Carra’s speech opened with the comparison of two pictures that portray the city of Shangai, one of them was taken in the mid-1990s and the other one only a few years ago.

The difference is clear: the development of the city in the past 20 years was impressive and this trend is common in all urban contexts in Asia, Africa, South, Centre America and also in Europe.

It is estimated that by 2050, about 70% of the global population will live inside these cities. It means that every week, a city of 1,6 million people is built.

Cities are a place for people, but also a place where resources, coming from outside, are transported to be consumed with a linear approach.

This change will impact the construction sector – that, at the current state, consumes 60% of resources and emit 40% of CO2.

Improvements are possible since the constructions sector is the least automated ever, so it is also the least efficient, whose productivity of one hour is still equivalent to the one in 1946.

Circular Economy can be the solution, in order to enhance the processes and the resources used, not only in the design of the utilization of the building but also by defining what will happen in the future to those materials and resources used for the construction.

The 4 areas by Arup

Carra presents some projects by Arup that revolve around 4 thematic areas:

  1. The regeneration of natural capital, which consists of transforming the city from a place that consumes resources, to a place where resources are produced and regenerated;
  2. The creation of open and shared processes by developing and implementing collaborative processes in addition to the promotion of actions and production chain processes.
  3. The flexible design, the ability to anticipate future needs both in the design phase and execution phase.
  4. Implementation of digital technologies, in order to increase the efficiency in processes, products, and facilities.

Starting from the first thematic area, the regeneration of natural capital, Carra highlights the need to move towards the creation of “alive cities”, by replacing the concept of citiy, from a place where resources are consumed, to a place of production for its livelihood.

An example could be the “Bosco Verticale”, realized in Milan, in which Arup was involved as a designer.

This change leads us to define buildings, not only as a technological system but also as natural elements.

By following this perspective, Arup is pursuing the activity of understanding how to design the building and the urban spaces in order to promote and develop the “urban bio-loop”, a closed cycle made of technological and natural resources produced and consumed in the city.

In this approach, it is necessary to define specific areas inside the cities where it is possible to develop and process natural resources, in order to obtain different products used in the construction sector.

Photo by Arup

Buildings can become little factories that produce resources, BIQ building in Hamburg is an example, the facade is made of bioreactors that make seaweed grow in them. 

After collecting seaweed, they become biomass, when they are dried and burnt can produce energy for the needs of the same building.

Another important issue is how to use materials by using open, shared and circular processes.

The “Circular House” in London, made by Arup, shows how a building can be a place where resources are temporarily aggregated, then, they can be decomposed through the technological system and they can head back to the producer to be reused. This is a reverse logistics system; decommissioning can be the origin for the construction of a new building.

Circular House’s goal is to prove that the used materials keep value over time, this value could be converted into money by the owner of the building instead of paying a firm to collect and dispose of the materials.

Another example can be found in Amsterdam, the temporary structure developed by ARUP, called People’s Pavvillon was built exclusively with waste material, the façade is made of ceramic tile fully recycled held together by structural elements arising from recycled materials.

The whole structure, also, in this case, was built with a modular approach that allows disassembly and the reallocation of materials for other functions.

For these reasons is essential to remind the flexibility in the design phase. 

According to Carra, the digital comes into play here.

In particular, ARUP is moving towards site robotics, for example, at Salone del Mobile 2018 was presented a modular house fully 3D printed by a fast robot which has taken 48 hours to build a house of 100 meters square.

In addition to the advantage in terms of time, the robot is very careful about the materials, they are used only if necessary.

After the event, the house was dismantled and brought to Bergamo.

Another example is the 3D printed MX3D Bridge in Amsterdam, the materials used is steel, and not concrete as in the case of the Circular House in Milan.

In this way, it was possible to develop the bridge directly in the factory optimizing time and the displacement of materials: the bridge will be transported at a destination only when it will be completed.


The last point in Carra’s discussion is about digital.

Digital is used in infrastructure design, by using images coming from Google Street View or by collecting data provided by local authorities.

New tools can be exploited, for example, virtual reality and augmented reality used for monitoring in real time how data are used and aggregated.

How all this stuff can be put into practice and how to implement the circular model? 

It is not only about technologic implementation, but about the common vision by all the main characters in the supply chain in order to obtain a change in the most important areas, by changing business models, the way to design and to build our buildings and materials.

That means that it is important to change our logistic models, by redesign the mobility and the models of our buildings, by implementing sharing models to optimize asset utilization.

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