Perspectives November 10, 2023

Designing for Disassembly with the EBRD

A new workplace transcends traditional construction methods in an embrace of circularity
London, United Kingdom

When it came time to move from the building they’d called home for nearly three decades, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) sought to create a new kind of workplace, one that would embrace the cutting edge of sustainability, well-being, and social responsibility. Vital to their new vision was an emphasis on resource circularity and an interior design ethos that embodied a narrative of cultural inclusion, ecological sensibility, and human flourishing.  

“The core design idea is about blending nature, culture, and the client’s mission,” says Maria Papadopoulou, a senior associate and interior designer who worked on the project. “The design utilizes natural materials, biophilic patterns, and geographical references to reflect the place’s identity and the bank’s stories.” 

As their new home, the EBRD would move into the top 13 floors of the recently constructed Five Bank Street tower in the Canary Wharf business district in East London. Beyond designing a contemporary workplace, Perkins&Will London and the EBRD committed to deliver a net-zero carbon fit-out, focusing largely on resource circularity. They would source rigorously selected materials and reduce emissions wherever possible. A circularity mindset resulted in the decision to design much of the fit-out for future disassembly, creating a gargantuan-scale kit-of-parts that would fit together like a three-dimensional puzzle, enabling EBRD to literally “disassemble” several components of the workplace and reuse them in other applications, recycle them, or return them back to the manufacturer.  

“The project is designed and crafted to be deconstructed,” Papadopoulou continues. “We treated the office as a warehouse of high-quality materials that can be efficiently disassembled, reused, and recycled during operation and at the end of life, realizing the client’s net-zero goals.” 

Designing for Disassembly (DfD) meant the design team, the contractor, and the ensemble of consultants would need to work closely with one another to reconsider long-held methods of project design and delivery. 

A renewed thinking for a renewed outcome 

Traditional means and methods of construction regularly call for nails, adhesives, and casting components in concrete to create joints and connections intended to maintain an indefinite level of permanence, theoretically never to be changed. If an element is to be removed or modified, it would be destroyed, thrown out, and rebuilt with new materials. With a fresh sense of circularity in mind, the EBRD team reconsidered traditional practices and meticulously worked to create systems and assemblies that could come apart like a complexly constructed Lego set.  

Crafting such systems requires a deeper level of design rigor and coordination, much deeper than projects intended to be built only once. The need to reverse engineer during the design phase means designers and engineers must consider how to deconstruct a building even as they create it.   

“Emphasis is on modularity, where various parts can be assembled and disassembled with ease,” says Simon Bone, an associate principal in our London studio, who worked on the project. “For instance, using prefabricated modules that can be swiftly put together and taken apart reduces waste and resource consumption.”  

The team utilized mechanical fastening methods to enable future disassembly, employing adhesive-free joinery, screws, clips, magnetic fixings, tracks, and knock-out fittings. Casework, booth seating, wall treatments, and ceiling panels employed the DfD approach in the project’s design and construction. 

To achieve such an outcome, the project team, beyond architects and designers, leveraged an interdisciplinary group of consultants early in the process, including structural engineers, manufacturers, sustainability specialists, contractors, and construction waste management experts. General contractors also had to be aligned with DfD methods and have experience working with modular and easily disassembled structures. Additionally, construction managers were crucial in overseeing the actual implementation of DfD designs during the construction phase, ensuring proper initial assembly and coordination across trades. Through weekly meetings, the project team worked through each material and detail to ensure adequate constructability and performance. 

“Early cross-disciplinary collaboration with engineers and contractors influenced our decisions about spatial layout, materiality, and building and system connections,” says Grant Spencer, an interior designer in the London studio. “This cross-pollination of perspectives informed decisions that led to new design and construction approaches.” 

On creating a how-to guide 

To achieve a deconstructable fit-out is one thing, but if the owners do not have a clear and accessible way to capitalize on their workplace’s new capabilities, all that the project team achieved would be wasted. To bridge this gap in knowledge, the contractor, Overbury PLC, facilitated the creation of a comprehensive Deconstruction Guide for the owners, delineating the way in which to disassemble each component, how to store it, and what to do with it once done.  

“Traditionally, the capital expenditure of a project is the primary focus,” explains Asif Din, sustainability director in our London studio. “The innovation in designing for disassembly is in thinking about projects as material banks where we maintain the material value of the parts that are put into the project.”  

The deconstruction guide addresses each product and system in the project to maximize material efficiency and reduce the waste often produced during maintenance and repair, modification and removal, and end-of-life, ultimately driving down the carbon impacts of the project over its lifetime. This guidance extends to all disciplines, including architectural, mechanical, electrical, and plumbing elements used in the project.   

“This will be essential in future projects,” Din adds, “to create low carbon fit-outs that minimize the use of new components and ensure that any new components can have additional lives. Projects are now seeing the value both monetarily and in carbon reduction from this approach and it will become the norm in the future. EBRD was important to prove the concept in a practical application.” 

Designing for Disassembly 

“When establishing the correct level of disassembly, consideration should be given based on the project’s scale, purpose, resources available, sustainability goals, regulatory environment, and complexity,” Simon Bone adds. “Evaluation will guide the decision on how far to effectively integrate disassembly principles into the design process.”   

In creating the new European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) workplace, the project team was able to transcend the boundaries of traditional construction and investigate emerging ideas in circularity, sustainability, and construction technology. Through this journey, the team created not just an office space but a symbol of human ingenuity and environmental stewardship—a testament to the power of holistic design thinking. As we look forward, we might allow the EBRD project to stand as a testament to what can be achieved when we design for disassembly—nurturing spaces that are not just inspiring in their inception but remarkable in their rebirth and reimagining.