"It's all just borrowed!"Interview with Thomas Rau

“Take, make and waste“ - the system of finiteness should be abolished, says Thomas Rau, architect and author of the book “Material Matters”. Since materials are valuable and limited, they should remain in the possession of the manufacturers. The consequence? Products become services.

The architect and book author Thomas Rau (© Daniel Koebe)

The idea of the circular economy is almost 40 years old, but we are still in the early stages of implementing it.

Our ancestors always acted in the spirit of the circular economy, simply because raw materials and materials had a value. After all, you don't throw away valuable things. We have lost sight of this idea in more recent times. Today, we still act according to the principle of “after us, the deluge“. Once manufacturers have sold their products, they are hardly interested in them anymore. But it makes no sense to throw away valuable, finite resources. These raw materials represent our “limited editions“. Our labour, on the other hand, is infinite.

What ways out do you see?

The real problem is that in today's system the producer hardly has to take responsibility for the consequences. Only the assumption of responsibility stimulates a “thinking ahead“ about how to deal with the material. We need manufacturers who think ahead and design their products in such a way that they can be dismantled and their individual components reused.

What is the difference between this and today's recycling?

Today's economy is based on the principle of value destruction when it comes to materials. Recycling does not change that. It is downstream, comes last in the product life cycle and is completely disconnected from manufacturing. This is because material destruction costs less than material preservation. If we change the rules of the game and give value to finite resources, companies will develop other products and solutions. The best recycler is the manufacturer itself.

What do you expect from this change?

A manufacturer should remain in possession of the products and the materials. Then he will make every effort to ensure that his products are as durable, repairable and easy to dismantle as possible. He will build them in such a way that they can be easily upgraded and do not have to be thrown away just because they are not compatible with updated products or functions. This requires a business model that offers products as a service.

Products as a service - does that work?

We have already tested the model several times with a number of companies, for example with Philips. Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam does not buy luminaires from Philips, as originally planned, but light. The entire lighting infrastructure remains the property of Philips. But the supplier also bears all the maintenance costs, including the electricity bill. It works perfectly, with a profit for both business partners.

Does it mean that a sanitary manufacturer provides the entire bathroom equipment?

For example. It could also mean that the water and electricity costs in the bathroom are the responsibility of the sanitary company. The company would therefore have a great interest in developing water- and electricity-efficient products.

What about sanitary building installations? Who owns the building if the piping remains the property of the sanitary company and the tiles the property of the tile-layer?

Of course, this service economy doesn't work the way buildings are planned and constructed today. But change is part of the business. The circular economy is a model for society as a whole. It opens up new and, above all, sustainable forms of production and consumption, but it also requires a different understanding of materials and thus new legal regulations.

That sounds like a lengthy process...

... and we don't have time. I don't advocate waiting. I have great faith in the economy and its innovative strength. But it has to see a value in the materials and in their possession and discover advantages for itself. Then it will develop new answers.


About Thomas Rau

About Thomas Rau

Thomas Rau is an architect, entrepreneur and book author. His architectural practice RAU Architects in Amsterdam (NL) has specialised in environmentally conscious building since 1992. Thomas Rau is now the undisputed authority in the Netherlands on sustainable building and circular value creation in architecture.

In 2016, Thomas Rau and Sabine Oberhuber published the book “Material Matters. Developing business for a circular economy.“