Building for the future: embracing a circular economy

Posted by Derek Mason

23rd May 2023

Picture credit: CHUTTERSNAP on Unsplash

At the design stage of a project, how much do we think about what will happen when the building we’re designing is eventually demolished? Historically, it probably hasn’t been part of our thinking. And yet, anyone following the “net zero carbon by 2050” narrative knows that this needs to change.

Right now, many of us work in a traditional linear model, based on a take-make-consume-waste approach. Most of the projects we work on use raw materials which have been turned into a product such as bricks, RSJs or windows. While we might hope our work stands the test of time, we know that if it does reach the end of its life, it’s likely to be demolished, with all the materials used to build it becoming waste.

Clearly, this is not sustainable. I’d encourage you to take a look at the UK Green Building Council’s (UKGBC) toolkit, published earlier this year, which aims to speed up the shift from a linear economy to a circular one. Change is difficult, so UKGBC has outlined some foundational principles. The aim of these is to help us move towards a circular economy becoming the default way of working.

Taken directly from the UKGBC, these are the eight foundations they believe will help facilitate a circular economy in the built environment:

  1. Greater collaboration and early engagement between industry stakeholders,
  2. Establishing a marketplace for secondary construction materials,
  3. Architecture practices characterised by circular economy design principles,
  4. Expanding the use of green contracts and leases,
  5. Tax, legislation and policy systems that direct industry and markets towards circularity,
  6. Scaling up green finance to stimulate business support for a circular economy,
  7. Enabling the industry to measure progress by having a set of consistent metrics, benchmarks and indicators,
  8. Educating practitioners and decision-makers with the necessary knowledge to be able to implement circular economy more widely.

What is important to note is that it’s going to take legislation to make the circular economy happen on any meaningful scale.

We can encourage and educate our clients and prospects in the possibilities. And we could potentially opt to work with more clients who are keen to engage with these principles. But in an economy already characterised by rising costs, many will see this shift as being too expensive, unless they’re forced or encouraged to make the shift through legislation or tax breaks and other incentives.

Yetunde Abdul, Head of Climate Action at UKGBC puts it like this, “Industry can either keep trying to tweak business-as-usual and make minor improvements to a failing system, or we can make fundamental, systems level changes and create a resilient, collaborative, and thriving construction sector fit for the future.”

In other words, this is about much more than making simple changes, like adding a green roof to a building. It’s a full mindset shift. And it’s not only about the built environment. As a society, we have a desire for new materials above all else – not only in buildings but across our lives. We need to shift our thinking and become proud to reuse products and materials across the board.

During the early days of the pandemic, we saw that it’s possible for people to change behaviour quickly, if needed. A similar rapid change may be required when it comes to circularity, although it seems doubtful this is imminent in the UK.

Scandinavian countries and the Netherlands are already on this path. Amsterdam is a global leader in the circular city movement, with a vision of becoming a city without waste. What this means is that we do not need to start from scratch – we can learn from the cities who are ahead of us.

One simple change that could be implemented on projects is to undertake pre-demolition audits, so we identify any materials which can be reused, rather than sent to landfill. But this would also increase costs. From my point of view, I’m considering taking a course to understand the principles of reusing steelwork. With reuse, you need to have the steel tested and verified to be sure it’s strong enough. Somewhat ironically, this may mean that reuse starts out being more expensive than using new materials, but as more people get comfortable with this and it becomes widespread, the costs should start to come down.

You have to start somewhere, or you’ll never reduce waste, and we’ll have no hope of getting close to our zero carbon targets. I’m curious about your thoughts on this. How interested are you and your clients in starting to reuse materials? Is this on your radar, or is it too expensive to consider?

Meanwhile, if you need assistance with the structural elements of an upcoming project, please do get in touch.

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