Circular Economy and the Built Environment

With rising populations and accelerated urbanisation, the demand for resources is ever-increasing. Supply disruption, short-term economic uncertainty and price volatility are all facets of this increasing competition for resources. The lack of longevity in the current economic model has raised concern among governments, companies and consumers.

The built environment sector is one of the largest consumers of raw materials, accounting for 50% of global steel production and contributing 25-40% of global carbon emissions1. Accordingly, ensuring resource security and promoting sustainable development have become recognised priorities within the industry. Since the turn of the millennium, market volatility resulting from economic uncertainty and shocks, such as supply disruptions, have made companies more aware of their risk exposure and mitigation methods. The adoption of a circular approach could allow the sector to reduce its environmental impact, as well as avoiding the financially disruptive consequences of volatile commodity markets.  

Circular economy is a systematic, multidisciplinary approach that offers a chance to decouple economic growth from increased resource consumption. Circular economy is described by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation as – “Restorative and regenerative by design, and (which) aims to keep products, components and materials at their highest utility and value at all times”2. The model offers an alternative approach to the traditional linear mechanism of growth in economic output by reducing waste, supporting resource security, and creating a competitive economy whilst reducing environmental impact. Circular economy has the potential to create a net benefit of £1.6 trillion by 2030, or £0.8 trillion more than in the current linear development path3.

The World Economic Forum reported that currently less than a third of construction and demolition waste is recovered and reused4 even though opportunities for repurposing or recycling the discarded materials exist. Circular economy principles have the potential to become the lasting paradigm for a restorative industrial economy, inviting innovation in the design, construction and maintenance of cities, infrastructure and services.

So where should we be focusing our efforts? In light of current knowledge, the priorities should lie with maintaining materials and components at their highest value in order to maximise efficiency, eliminate waste, and promote reuse and repurposing.

Technological advances and other innovations are driving regeneration, recycling and new design approaches. Recovering and repurposing valuable materials minimises waste, reduces cost and decreases natural resource consumption. Reclaimed materials from waste streams, such as brick, concrete, timber, steel and many other materials can substitute for new building materials. A focus on disassembly at the design phase can increase the effectiveness of secondary material use pathways and can facilitate looping opportunities further down the line. For example, in 2018, Activist and artist Anna Hoover collaborated with architect Les Eerkes from Olson Kundig Architects to build a 693-square-foot compact cabin built using mostly reclaimed materials from homes and buildings scheduled for demolition6.

Technologies such as Building Information Modelling (BIM) incorporate material information to communicate any negative externalities, as well as opportunities for recycling and remanufacturing. This will in turn help to address inefficiencies in how assets are constructed and operated, as well as enhancing flexibility and resilience. This type of transparency and information-sharing platform provides “materials passports”, which detail each material’s reusability, toxicity content and ease of disassembly. With a linkage to the Internet of Things (IoT), the databases created by the passports can calculate the content of materials returned, reused or repurposed into other sectors and secondary markets7.   

Reforming design for future change via remodelling, expansion or disassembly could maximise efficiency and performance. Modules are not limited by structural solidity, as they are segments of a structure and thus allow for flexible reformation and reconfiguration. In 2017, the LHC launched a new modular buildings framework in the UK with a combined value of £1 billion. The framework applies to public sector organisations for non-residential buildings. The MB1 framework provides the users with the ability to purchase units or rent them in the long and short-term8.

Additionally, developers can integrate smart services within modules to support the maintenance of the structures’ longevity. Examples of these include concrete core cooling, system maximisation of natural light and ventilation, and power and data systems. These advancements allow for longer lifecycles, modular repairing, flexibility in change and active disassembly. Modular buildings also promote design for co-location and flexible working spaces, which are becoming increasingly popular in dense cities. Moreover, the occupation of less space reduces the use of resources needed to deliver the same function or service, resulting in less waste production.

The circular economy model offers an alternative approach to tackling the complex and multi-dimensional nature of the built environment. It is perhaps the greatest opportunity we have to shift toward sustainable economic growth, urban life and value creation.

If you would like to discuss opportunities for incorporating circular economy principles into the design and management of your properties, please contact us at 

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