Subscriptions are quickly becoming an integral part of everyday life. For example, streaming platforms have completely replaced the need to own video cassettes, while ride-sharing services partially cover the need to own a private car. Subscriptions have been largely understood as digital services, but a new trend suggests that the same concept could be transferred to physical objects in the near future. Instead of owning a fridge, a washing machine, or even light bulbs, one could acquire a subscription to ensure the freshness of produce, clean clothes, and a well-lit home.
The concept is known as the “subscription-based economy,” a variant of the “circular economy” notion. It postulates that instead of owning some of the objects used every day, one could subscribe to a service to gain access to the same benefits, but without the need to own, maintain or dispose of the object in question. Consumers no longer buy products; they buy access to services. Sometimes, it would mean simply leasing the object instead of purchasing it, but the model goes one step further. It inscribes a shift of responsibility and mentality. Because consumers no longer own the objects, the responsibility to reuse and recycle falls to the producers, who are now in charge of the entire life cycle of the objects they create.
As of this point, the concept has little connection to the fields of architecture and design. While it cannot be applied to every aspect of the building industry, a similar shift in mentality could result in an increase in the expected lifespan of the systems that make buildings functional and an increase in our ability to reuse resources and even the spaces we build.
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Could It Actually Work?
In Amsterdam, the Schiphol Airport has entered into an agreement with Philips Lighting and contractor Cofely. Under the name of “light as a service”, the airport pays for the light produced, while Philips remains the owner of the lighting equipment. The business model is no longer transactional but based on services provided continuously. The agreement allows the facility to install relatively-expensive lighting without incurring high upfront costs. It also implies that Philips and Cofely are responsible for collecting the lamps and recycling the materials at the end of their service life.
According to the European Circular Economy Stakeholder Platform, the project resulted in reduced maintenance costs, as the life of the fittings is extended by 75%. The initiative also limits raw material consumption because every component is reused or recycled at the end of its service life.
We believe that more and more forward-thinking businesses will move to a light-as-a-service model. After all, most of us are used to this kind of model - for example, I drink water, but I don’t have a reservoir in my basement. Many people are used to pay-as-you-go models. Add to this the considerable energy savings from LED technology and the sustainability of the overall system, and the proposition is compelling. - Frank van der Vloed, general manager of Philips Lighting Benelux for LEDs Magazine
Not all initiatives have shared the same degree of success. In the 1990s, Interface, a US-based commercial flooring company, tried to shift its business model from selling to leasing flooring systems. For a monthly fee, the company would install, maintain and remove the flooring in an attempt to keep the materials out of landfills and recycle the valuable raw materials available in the discarded carpets. After seven years, Interface was forced to abandon the model, as the majority of its customers preferred to buy rather than lease their carpets, as reported by the Harvard Business Review. Carpet maintenance fell under janitorial services, thus rendering the costs invisible to the clients, as opposed to the encumbering monthly fee.
The Strategies Behind Subscription Economy
One of the key principles of the subscription model is the fact that the producer retains product ownership. This makes the producer responsible for the product’s maintenance and disposal at the end of its life span. For the consumer, this relieves the burden of finding recycling facilities or responsible disposal alternatives. For the producer, this is an opportunity to extract the embedded value still contained within the product. This value depends on the complexity of the product and the infrastructure necessary for collecting and extracting it.
The subscription model also incentivizes the extension of product lifespan. The longer a product lasts, the less need for replacement. In a non-circular economic model, producers are inclined to create “planned obsolescence”; in other words, to create products that are quickly damaged and hard to repair, so the consumer is encouraged to re-purchase often. In a circular model, this is no longer to the advantage of either party. Products are also designed for disassembly and recycling to ease the process of re-integrating the materials into a new production line.
Connections to Architecture and Design
At an urban or architectural scale, the subscription model shares similarities with concepts such as modularity or adaptive reuse. At a smaller scale, the areas most prone to be developed through this model are probably installations, lighting, ventilation, and climate control. These integrated systems can easily be understood as services, with some of them containing consumable elements which still contain high-value materials. Interior finishes could have some potential, but they also face a few problems. In the previous example of Interface’s carpets, the product was difficult to collect and contained low embedded value, making it a difficult strategy to implement. Whether it would be a more viable model at an institutional or private level depends on the specific business type and service.
The subscription model addresses the principles of circular economy: upcycling, recycling, and extending the lifespan of objects. It charts a path towards these goals by dividing the responsibility, creating win-win situations, and substantiating the push toward a more sustainable future with a viable business model. The strategy does have its limitations. It cannot be applied to every aspect of architectural production, and, in some areas, it is expected to be met with a degree of resistance from the public. But overall, it should be understood as just one of the many versions of circularity that can be applied to the process of building our environments. Other models include innovating material production to re-incorporate waste, creating on-demand reusable and scalable building components, or designing for disassembly.
This article is part of the ArchDaily Topics: Circular Economy. Every month we explore a topic in-depth through articles, interviews, news, and architecture projects. We invite you to learn more about our ArchDaily Topics. And, as always, at ArchDaily we welcome the contributions of our readers; if you want to submit an article or project, contact us.