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Squaring the circularity of sustainable construction

by Tim Clark
Circularity 'enormous opportunity' for the industry, says UKGBC chief

The concept of the circular economy remains a niche solution, for now, but as the construction industry wrestles with the demands of carbon reduction, it’s set to become more mainstream, so what is it, and why does it matter? Tim Clark finds out

It aims to solve some of the carbon emission conundrums facing the built environment; namely to reduce waste and improve efficiency. The circular economy is a method of reusing, and replacing what people need with what is already available to hand.

UK contractor Mace called for the construction industry to adopt circular economy principles and, in particular, make London the circular construction capital of the world.

But just what is a circular economy?

In essence the aim of a circular economy is to reuse and reconfigure the materials that are already in existence, instead of relying on manufacturing new materials, such as digging out new iron ore to smelt into steel, or cutting down more trees for timber, for instance.

Many developers have begun to scale back the amount they take out of offices before refurbishing them. Stripping back all features to the bare shell is known as Cat A office space. This is, in essence, a blank canvas for new occupiers to mould to their own designs. It can however be wasteful

The circular economy approach is backed by the chief executive of the British Council of Offices, Richard Kauntze, who has strived over the past year to convince firms to embed such principles into their schemes.

“I would like to see more circular principles embedded within the office sector, because the sector has a huge opportunity to reduce waste,” he says. “Offices account for 15% of the total commercial property sector’s waste, and 44% of the construction sector’s waste.

“In particular, the sector has a responsibility to address the shockingly wasteful practice of Cat A fit-outs.”

According to BCO research, the take-up of shorter commercial leases means that there is a greater turnover of occupiers in offices and retail schemes since Covid – leading to more “churn” when it comes to fitting out their space.

“To avoid creating unnecessary waste, Cat A should be eliminated from office fit-out unless specified by the incoming occupier,” Kauntze adds. “Everyone involved in creating, acquiring or occupying office space should be embracing, and advocating, circular economy principles to meet both urgent and longer-term sustainability goals.”



What can the construction industry do?

According to Mace, the built environment generates almost two-thirds of the UK’s total waste. Global cities such as London have a unique opportunity to reduce such waste.

“The culture of the industry is that buildings are built, are used for a period of time, and are often demolished at the end of their life,” says James Low, global head of responsible business at Mace.

“That is why we are committed to delivering 10m tonnes of carbon savings for our clients by 2026.

“We believe that the transition to a circular economy is among the most important innovations for the built environment to deliver on embodied carbon targets, and that now is the time for the industry to agree on a roadmap to a circular future.”

Retrofit comes to the fore

One of the areas where circular economy ideals converge with current development consensus is the retrofit area.

The furore over the redevelopment of Marks & Spencer’s flagship Oxford Street store in part revolves around the waste of materials in the current building that should be reused.

In his decision to refuse, the secretary of state (SoS) for levelling up, housing and communities, Michael Gove stated that weighting had been given to the impact on the environment.

In particular, Gove’s view was that the application to demolish the building had “failed to demonstrate that the products and materials of the current building had been kept at their highest use for as long as possible, and to grant permission would therefore be contrary to planning policy”.

Hayley Cole, senior associate at Macfarlanes said that this is a key issue for developers going forward. She said: “It appears developers must now be able to demonstrate that the building can no longer be used in its current form, with the only option being demolition […]

“Following the SoS’s finding that the development is ‘clearly not net-zero carbon’ because of the substantial amount of embodied carbon that would go into construction, in the future, developers must not only set out alternative schemes (including why they are not appropriate or would use more carbon), but also consider the circular economy of whole life carbon, and explore why the current building is not suitable for retrofit.”

M&S is appealing the government’s decision, however whatever the outcome of a judicial review, Gove’s reasoning is likely to have ramifications for the development world.

A key issue for developers is tackling the embodied carbon of any new development – which means the total carbon cost to construct the building, rather than emissions generated from the building’s everyday use.

Institutions and funders are increasingly paying attention to the carbon cost of their activities, with non-direct carbon emissions (such as those from the supply chain) being counted as much as day-to-day emissions from operations. By 2030 it is expected that embodied carbon will be a major factor in new developments as gaining solar power is today.

London calling

How well are cities such as London faring? On the face of it, quite well. Mace research found that over 90% of waste from demolition and construction from both the City of London, and London more broadly is recovered for some form of reuse or recycling.

However, that didn’t mean that the materials were reused within construction. Instead the recycled materials end up in different sectors, or even shipped overseas. By adopting what it calls a “closed materials loop” approach, Mace believes that in the City of London alone up to 900,000 tonnes of material could stay within the construction supply chain.

Across greater London that figure would balloon to over 13.8m tonnes, saving an estimated 11m tonnes of CO2.

Digitisation can also help firms increase the amount of material they recycle.

In October, Build in Digital heard from a panel of experts regarding implementing best-practice within the sector, including Ciaran Garrick, associate director and head of design technology at architecture practice Allies and Morrison, who said it was essential to keep materials within a building project.

The architecture practice is working with British Land and looking at digital sensors to feedback on how well spaces are performing.

There are other aspects to consider apart from the material impacts of a circular economy; Joanna Wilson, sustainability lead at Fletcher Priest Architects, states that the social benefits of the circular economy are, to a certain extent, side-lined.

“I often find that when trying to implement circular economy aspects into construction and design, people often forget to focus on the social challenges, as well as the technical ones,” Wilson adds.

“Many circular design strategies are technically possible, the challenge is not in the technical innovation but in innovating our social, contractual and regulatory working practices. Charismatic individuals who can understand the concerns and interests of the various parties are often instrumental in aligning ambitions towards circular outcomes.”

Barriers to progress

At present the construction industry continues to be dominated by non-circular working practices. Educating contractors and other people in the industry on how to embrace the circular economy is key.

“In order to implement circular strategies, we need to educate a broad range of stakeholders in their potential to add value,” said Wilson. “Current assessments of capital cost and project risk need to integrate greater understanding of the long-term value of an asset and its components, and how this can be increased in the circular economy.”

A lack of environmental awareness overall, not only within the construction trade but wider society may also be holding back the growth of circular principles.

A study published in late January found that three-quarters of the British public do not understand many common climate phrases, and indeed do not understand government policy aimed at reducing waste.

Just over half of those surveyed said they understood what the term “recycling” means. Only just over one in 10 people understood the term “carbon offsetting”, and when it came to the circular economy, only 4% of the 1,000 adults surveyed were able to define the term.

Mace acknowledges that at present circular economy principles remain a “niche” endeavour. Over the course of the next decade, it is fair to assume that the subject of circular economy will make its way into the boardroom agenda packs sooner rather than later.


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