A circular economy is within reach – if we listen to the right voices

Tim Danson is director of sustainability and energy at consultancy Pick Everard

Construction has a pivotal role to play in the circular economy. The industry remains heavily reliant on the use of materials, products and technologies, and is a significant contributor to the 100 billion tonnes of resources consumed globally each year. The take-make-use-dispose model – whereby natural resources are over-extracted and eventually disposed of in landfill – needs to be addressed. 

“Circular thinking pushes us towards new ways of doing business”

The Circular Buildings Coalition, which promotes sustainable practices, estimates that a circular building scenario could, between 2024 and 2050, reduce the volume of material used globally by 6.7 gigatonnes – nine times the estimated amount that the EU construction sector will use this year.

Such a step change in the way we deliver and manage buildings requires deep, systemic thinking. It also requires a comprehensive understanding of our value chains, delivery-partner neighbours and the wider range of stakeholders that are intertwined in our day-to-day work. 

Current UK legislation with the potential to influence the industry’s circular practices remains heavily focused on waste management. It does not offer the frameworks, levers, mechanisms or language to foster real circular and closed-loop action. And, worse, it often creates ambiguity in how we define – and are therefore able to manage – waste.

Across the UK, policies and practices vary significantly by region. London, Glasgow and the West Midlands have, for example, developed circular economy route maps and are increasingly specifying circular practices in planning requirements. For many reasons (lack of skills and resources, commercial crises), other UK regions are less advanced on this front, which dilutes the consistency with which positive and practical action can be taken.  

Starting point

Wherever practitioners seek to make positive moves towards whole-life value and futureproofed outcomes, circular thinking should be used to kickstart practical action. As a first step, it requires that we understand the key principles and application points, which will in turn help us focus on the whole lifecycle of development and the full potential of materials and assets, rather than capital cost or single-life use. 

The principles of the 9Rs are a good starting point here. They challenge the norm, and allow us to be more strategic and tactical in our initial business cases. Such an approach also moves us away from the now-tired waste-hierarchy model

Our focus needs to evolve from not only selecting lean and low-impact materials, to designing with consideration for the adaptation and recovery of built-environment resources across project lifecycles, especially at end of life. 

Circular thinking also pushes us towards new ways of doing business. Progress will be achieved where we can digitalise processes and services; adopt leasing, hiring, ‘pay as you go’ and ‘products as a service’ models instead of buying new; increase manufacturer and owner responsibility for products; and use regenerative materials. 

Small revolutions

Local production, management and reuse of materials has the potential to reduce our reliance on national and international supply chains, as well as the associated costs and risks.  

By thinking global but acting local (transposing the ethos of the 15-minute cities concept), we could create resource-management streams that revolutionise our urban and rural centres. Our employment and skills paradigms would also be dramatically changed, and there would be less reliance on the wider value chain. 

In application, all these approaches require us to balance cost, safety, durability and flexibility, as well as the needs and wants of different members of society.  But they still represent the point on the horizon that we must all aim for. 

Equally inherent to these concepts are the legal, commercial and logistical challenges that allow us to effectively transfer ownership, responsibility and benefits from sustainable resource consumption across project phases. 

While some organisations within construction are starting to adopt circular thinking, there is still plenty for us to do. 

Like any well-functioning machine, circularity cannot be realised where individuals and organisations advance in isolation. It requires different actors across the public, private and third-sector economies to come together. Outcomes will be enhanced by having the right voices involved from the outset, whether that materialises as early contractor involvement, tenant engagement, landlord buy-in and/or future site user surveys.

Policymakers, planners, designers, procurers, constructors, owner-operators, clients and their value chains need to collectively understand their respective roles in the circular economy. Only then can they make bold but steady steps to design and build healthier, lower impact, more efficient and user-focused environments.  

Source link

About The Author

Scroll to Top