International trends and the circular economy

Following on from the last edition of the Business Bulletin when I discussed international building trends and energy efficiency, one major trend that is gaining traction and deserves a closer look is the circular economy.

My observation is that the subject of circular economy is increasingly reported in the news and has long had a compelling case to be on the international agenda due to the urgency to respond to climate change and reduce carbon emissions. There are many cases of active programmes but to give a few examples:

  • The K’s Industrial Strategy Whitepaper1 came out on 27th November 2017, and outlined the U.K’s commitment to a circular economy as part of its clean growth strategy.
  • The E.U.’s 2018 Circular Economy Package2 comprises of an ambitious agenda to reduce plastic waste and has also devised a programme of introducing circular economy projects overseas to countries such as India, Japan and Indonesia.
  • On an international level, the World Economic Forum in conjunction with the renowned Ellen MacArthur Foundation3 has developed an international acceleration programme for businesses to embrace circular economy concepts.

So what is the relevance of the circular economy for us in the construction industry?  Well, it is not such a new subject: the earlier work of William McDonough and Michael Braungart and their Cradle to Cradle Design Framework4 was a forerunner along with Dame Ellen MacArthur’s original concept of ‘designing out waste’3.

David Chesire, in his very interesting book “Building Revolutions Applying the Circular Economy To The Built Environment5 discusses the rationale for their ideas.  Essentially, both concepts espouse philosophies of total sustainability but the former promotes a “reduce, reuse and recycle” philosophy adopting the ‘cradle to grave” manufacturing model from the Industrial Revolution. Whilst the latter advocates purposely designing projects from the outset to minimise waste or choosing processes and materials that obviate waste in the first place.   I feel both these visions are neatly encapsulated in the analogy Mr Chesire quotes of the cherry blossom tree that ‘makes copious amounts of blossoms and fruit without depleting the environment. It nourishes the soil, provides oxygen, absorbs carbon dioxide and provides habitats for many other organisms.’

infografica-circular-economy

So for us, how can we make ideas such as these more relevant to the international construction community?  How do we nurture the environment at the same time capitalise on this trend? BSRIA has been looking closely at this question and co-hosted an event in 23rd May 2018 to explore ideas.

I’d like to share some of the key messages from BSRIA / ECA event “Engaging the Circular Economy”6:

  • The circular economy has a simple mantra: make – use – return – make, and will impact every element of the built environment
  • Organisations need to have an holistic approach and be agile to change. Industry is not linear, we need to ‘make do’ with less resources.
  • The future of architecture and construction will need to play a key role in the transition to a circular economy: we will need to think of buildings as resource generators (energy, materials services) in their own right.
  • Our attitude to waste needs to change with zero waste to landfill an imperative for all, involving one hundred percent reuse and recycling.
  • Organisations should ensure they are optimising the efficiency of their building services by making the best use of materials, water and energy for the duration of the installed equipment’s lifetime.
  • We need to embrace more resource sharing schemes such as ‘swap shop’ office furniture and make the office ‘circular’ using remanufactured furniture; reusable containers; circular procurement and data.
  • We should capitalise on battery energy storage and other renewable energy resources such as solar PV and wind turbines
  • Organisations should improve understanding of design approaches, especially passive design to help reduce the demand for building services. Also challenging design briefs and materials to be used on projects, selecting best practice design calculations and reusing equipment are advisable.
  • We need to help overcome contractual, logistical, personnel and financial barriers by making better use of newer building methods and tools such as BIM, BREEAM new construction scheme and off-site construction.
  • The construction industry needs to make changes happen through:
    • Legislation on resources
    • Standards
    • Economic incentives
    • Clear national and international strategies
    • Compelling business cases
    • Client demand

So in conclusion: is the circular economy a glorified term for recycling or is this a whole new tool, the next step as it were, for organisations to gain competitive advantage? One interesting observation a colleague made recently is that there are plenty of ideas for creating value through energy efficiency and sustainability initiatives but arguably the real issue is how do you change a culture in an organisation, how do you really make an organisation change the way they do things? And I think that is the key question for all of us to think about and is reflected in Dame Ellen MacArthur’s philosophy of the need for fundamental change in the way we think about building design.

 

References

  1. Industrial Strategy Whitepaper: Building a Britain fit for the future

The U.K. Government, 27th November 2017
https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/664563/industrial-strategy-white-paper-web-ready-version.pdf

  1. European Commission: 2018 Circular Economy Package
    http://ec.europa.eu/environment/circular-economy/index_en.htm
  2. Ellen MacArthur Foundation
    https://www.ellenmacarthurfoundation.org/publications
  3. Cradle to Cradle. Remaking the Way We Make Things
    Braungart M, McDonough W
    North Point Press, 2002
  4. Building revolutions applying the circular economy to the built environment
    Chesire D
    Royal Institute of British Architects, 2016
  5. Material resource efficiency in construction. Supporting a circular economy

Adams K, Hobbs G

British Research Establishment, IHS Technology, 2017

  1. Staging engaging the circular economy event – inventiveness mother of necessity

Prosser C

Electrical Contractors Association, BSRIA, May 2018

http://www.bsria.co.uk/news/

  1. TM56 Resource efficiency of building services

Chartered Institution of Building Services Engineers, August 2014

  1. The re-use atlas. A designer’s guide towards a circular economy
    Baker-Brown D
    Royal Institute of British Architects, 2017
  2. Planning for circular economy

Environmental Services Association, April 2017

  1. Circle of light

A discussion about lighting technology and sustainability.

Harvey N

Lighting Journal, March 2017, Vol.82(3), 24-25

  1. Whole-life carbon circular economy

This technical article explores approaches for achieving zero energy buildings.

Building (magazine), 2 December 2016, No.48, 44-49, 10 figs

  1. The energy in waste – its place in a circular economy

Cummings A

Energy World, February 2014, No. 423, 14-15

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