Modular design, or modularity, refers to an object or system that is made up of smaller independent components, or modules, that may be separated, recombined, and used interchangeably across different units of the object or system it belongs to.
Modular design has been adopted by circular economy practitioners as a means by which to make refurbishment, repair, and upgrade far easier, thus extending product lifetimes and reducing the number of products and materials that are disposed of prematurely.
Designing for modularity means creating things out of a combination of individual parts that can be replaced, repaired, and upgraded independently of the other modules. These modules must have standardised interfaces so that one can be substituted for another and reused across multiple units.
Think of it like building a car out of LEGO. The car operates as a whole but is made up of individual LEGO blocks that have standardised interfaces and can thus be used independently and interchangeably. You can easily swap out one LEGO block for another of its type, which allows for easy repair – say, if your fender breaks off in a crash; customisation – if you want red instead black seats; and upgrade – if LEGO releases cool new frictionless tires.
Real cars are also built modularly. Individual modules – the doors, windows, seats, tires, engine – are pieced together to form the car as a whole and are designed to be compatible with any car of its model. When you have a flat tire, or when the window shield gets a crack, you don’t scrap the entire car and buy a new one. That would be far too costly and is an obvious waste of a near-perfectly good car. Instead, you replace that module of your car with a new one, and you’re good to go.
Circular economists believe that the same logic should be applied to many other products. For example, if the left speaker on your pair of headphones breaks, you shouldn’t have to replace the whole pair, you should be able to just buy a new speaker module and plug it in. If your office has gotten too small to house your expanding team, you should be able to create enough space by adding on a few more modules to the building.
Modular buildings and electronic appliances may sound like concepts that have been left on the drawing board because they are still too far-fetched to be realised, but they’re not. Present-day companies are already pioneering modularity of ordinary things. Gerrard St. offers high-quality modular headphones on a subscription basis, allowing customers to easily disassemble and upgrade or repair their headphones for no extra charge. Wikkelhouse is like building blocks for adults – you piece together as many of their 1.2-meter segments as you want to create any size house in any design you desire. Want a change of scenery? Take the segments apart and reattach them in your new spot. Want to remodel the kitchen? Swap out the kitchen modules without destroying the building’s basic structure. Need a bigger house? Add extra segments for extra meters.
What makes these modular designs circular?
The circular economy focuses on reducing energy and natural resource consumption, reducing the amount of materials that leave our system as waste, and prolonging products’ useful life.
By producing headphones that are easily upgraded and repaired on a modular basis, Gerrard St. reuses 85% of components and thus requires fewer virgin materials to create new headphones. Moreover, because customers repair and upgrade their headphones modularly rather than as a whole, the company is incentivised to produce more durable headphones so that their revenue period is maximised, which extends their product’s lifetime.
Modular buildings have similar circular advantages: as the modules are easily disassembled and relocated or refurbished for reuse, the demand for energy and raw materials to create a new building is reduced. Furthermore, as the modules are produced in a closed factory rather than at an open construction site prone to external disturbance, production waste is more easily reduced thanks to more control over material recycling and protection of building materials. Finally, modular construction contributes to fewer emissions as it typically involves less transport of materials and staff.
As can be seen from these two examples, modular design is an innovative and creative way for companies to become more circular in their practices by designing their products with lifetime extension and waste reduction in mind.
To sum it up, the key drivers of circularity that modular design brings are the easy upgrade, repair, and refurbishment of individual modules rather than replacement of the entire product, and the ability to reuse modules in other units. This leads to extended product lifetimes, minimised waste of still-usable products when one part breaks or needs upgrading, and reduced demand for raw materials and energy during the production of new units.