Rheaply redefines circular economy in architecture
On Earth Day 2022, we speak to Rheaply founder Garry Cooper Jr about his innovative business that tackles reuse and upcycling in architecture and construction
When a building gets demolished, or refurbished, what happens to its parts? They might get destroyed, or just thrown away to the back of a junkyard, never to be seen again – or, they will get reused. And it’s that last option that Garry Cooper Jr, founder of Rheaply, decided to tackle when he launched his enterprise asset management venture in 2016. Rheaply is a digital platform that serves the circular economy, essentially enabling the rehoming of parts of buildings and equipment just before a structure is torn down, placing them in new, local buildings in construction, in a bid to enhance upcycling, sustainable architecture and local enterprise.
Ohio-born Cooper is now based in Chicago and the idea to found Rheaply was born there, thanks to his keen observation skills and entrepreneurial mind (while now he operates in the construction and architecture world, his background is in science). ‘It was super organic,’ he says. ‘I came to Chicago in 2008, and studied at Northwestern University, trying to find a cure for Parkinson’s Disease. I noticed in our lab we had lots of material that we were not using, from chairs, to plastics, chemicals, and I kept hearing people saying, oh if only I had this or that, and I knew we had whatever they needed somewhere in our closet. So I started a resource sharing platform – it was basically a cart!’
The humble cart soon grew into a business, as demand increased. The concept caught on as it offered the opportunity for landlords to swiftly, easily and sustainably get rid of parts of their building that would otherwise be scrapped; this expanded from smaller-scale equipment and furniture to larger elements, such as doors, window frames, façade panels and anything in between. At the same time, new owners could acquire all these features to incorporate into their properties in an eco-friendly and cost-efficient way.
‘I thought, all this is reusable and has embodied energy,’ says Cooper, who emphasises that timing is key in making everything run in the most efficient way in this business, which is all about wasting less and lowering carbon emissions in the building industry – which currently accounts for a significant part of the world’s emissions, up to 40 per cent in some countries, such as the UK. ‘I have buildings I scope out and inventory everything in them, even before they become available. So, things get rehomed before the building is in fact deconstructed – it means there’s even less transport carbon involved.’
Rheaply can now manage the reuse of everything from artwork and interiors to large steel elements and infrastructure through a dedicated digital platform. The team works with contacts and the local community to create inventories of buildings to be demolished, which clients then have access to through a website and app, making securing reusable parts for new projects smooth and fuss-free. It’s all quite local – as the company doesn’t operate by storing the elements or shipping far. They just transport them directly to a new construction site to be used immediately. Keeping things local is important in managing the company’s (and associated projects’) carbon footprint.
Impact is measured in various ways – in a financial sense, in how much money is saved or how much economic opportunity is granted through this scheme; in terms of waste diversion and how much waste is diverted from landfill; and through carbon emissions savings, thanks to reuse. A special carbon emission calculator tool, to be launched through the platform soon, is set to provide further clarity and visibility for the operation and its users.
What started off as a Chicago business is now expanding substantially due to high demand, with Rheaply operations aiming to launch in up to 50 US cities in the next few years, while Cooper’s some 50-strong team is expected to grow more than two-fold in the next year alone. A San Francisco wing is throwing open its door this month. As Rheaply’s mission spreads through word-of-mouth among industry specialists – Cooper has a network that includes several Fortune 100 level companies in the US, as well as a range of contractor and architecture studios – expansion seems assured.
‘The circular economy is a behavioural change. And once you’ve done something, you always look for something more, it makes you more aware. Even in a small way, it makes a big difference. [If people don’t recycle more in this way, it] isn’t because we don’t want to, it’s just visibility,’ Cooper stresses enthusiastically – and Rheaply seems perfectly positioned to amend this. §