Home » BuildZero project explores circular economy in UK buildings

BuildZero project explores circular economy in UK buildings

by Mark Cantrell
circular buildings coalition

A new £6m project is underway to see if the principles of a circular economy – zero extraction of new materials, zero emissions, and zero waste – can meet the needs of the UK’s built environment.

BuildZero, funded by EPSRC, and led by researchers at the University of Sheffield, will develop a detailed vision of more sustainable building practices.

The five year project is operating in partnership with the universities of Bath, Manchester, Cardiff, and Cambridge, as well as policy and implementation partner, ReLondon, and industrial collaborators.

Buildings and infrastructure are responsible for over 40% of the UK’s carbon emissions, produce over 60% of the UK’s waste, and consume approximately 50% of all extracted materials globally; so in order to decarbonise construction, significant changes are required.

The circular economy is a widely-recognised opportunity to reduce both resource consumption and carbon emissions. In a circular economy, materials are kept at the highest value possible, for example retrofitting buildings and repurposing buildings to extend their lifespans.

In the past, circular economy examples for the building sector have mostly focused on case studies of individual buildings, or recycling of individual materials, which the project teams say misses the opportunity for making changes to the wider system.

BuildZero aims to present a larger-scale, systems-level approach to making changes in the construction sector.

Dr Danielle Densley Tingley, senior lecturer in the Department of Civil & Structural Engineering at the University of Sheffield, is leading the project.

She said: “This funding is an exciting opportunity to explore if, and under what time frames, a circular economy can be achieved for the UK’s building stock, whilst meeting essential societal needs. We will be working in close collaboration with industry partners to support changes in practice and help catalyse the shift to a widespread circular economy in the built environment.”

The BuildZero project will consider the options for developing methods for building without extracting new resources, eliminating waste, and reducing carbon emissions from material extraction and production.

The project will also assess the extent to which the vision for a circular economy is achievable at regional and national level, and will provide a platform for demonstrating these solutions at scale.

Multi-disciplined approach

The research will use methods from across several disciplines, including architecture, structural engineering, materials science, and social sciences to understand the existing building stock, resource and waste flows, social attitudes and economics surrounding potential circular economy business models for the construction sector.

Eventually, the research programme will culminate in a range of demonstrator projects, interactive tools, detailed strategies, and ultimately a series of pathways to achieve the BuildZero vision of a UK building stock with zero new raw material extraction, zero emissions and zero waste.

Dr Rick Lupton, a senior lecturer in Bath’s Department of Mechanical Engineering, and a member of the Institute for Sustainability, said: “We are really looking forward to working with BuildZero’s team of researchers and partners.

“Through this project, we are aiming to get a clearer view of how different approaches to a more circular economy fit together for the UK building stock as a whole, and therefore where the largest opportunities lie.

“At Bath, we will be mapping the availability of relevant resource flows in the UK, and applying Life Cycle Assessment methods to quantify environmental impacts of the circular economy strategies.”

Fundamental goals

Dr André Cabrera Serrenho, from the University of Cambridge, said: “We are excited to be part of BuildZero, and to contribute to revealing novel opportunities to enhance our building stock with minimal emissions and material inputs. At Cambridge, we will improve our understanding of the physical features of our current building stock and develop tools to assist decision-making for various stakeholders.”

Dr Kersty Hobson, from the School of Geography & Planning at Cardiff University, added: “It is very important that the issues of social inclusion, impact and acceptability are fundamental to the goals and outcomes of BuildZero. I am looking forward to leading key work in these areas, in particular co-developing visions of sustainable buildings futures with a wide range of stakeholders.”

Professor Maria Sharmina, from the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research at The University of Manchester said: “We are excited to embark on the BuildZero programme aiming to transform the UK’s built environment from a linear to a circular system.

“At Manchester, we will build on the engineering, material and social foundations of BuildZero, to evaluate the economic feasibility of a circular economy for construction. We will work with companies across the supply chain to co-design new circular business models and to conduct techno-economic modelling.”

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