Circular economy is in the public eye. Quiz the average person in the street and they might mention the latte levy, Sadiq Khan’s new water fountains or Stella McCartney’s drive for circular fashion. Consumer products have certainly been the first under the spotlight as the drive to be circular attracts attention.
But who thinks about buildings? The reality is that the construction and property industry is a large slice of the pie when it comes to resource use. In the UK, construction, demolition and excavation account for 60 per cent of both material use and waste generation.
Partly, it’s a communications challenge. The timelines are less tangible. The public can relate to the useful lifespan of a disposable coffee cup being astonishingly short, but buildings last for decades.
And then we knock them down or blow them up.
We know there is a better way. And many of the answers required to shift to a restorative and regenerative system already exist, now the industry needs to start asking the right questions.
To help the industry do this, the UK Green Building Council (UKGBC) launched a comprehensive guidance document to promote the practical application of circular economy principles on construction projects. The guidance is a result of a collaborative project that included a working group made up of 23 companies with many more taking part in consultations. It was made possible by funding from programme partner The Crown Estate and sponsors Cleveland Steel and Tubes Limited, Clarion Housing Group, ISG, HS2, Telford Homes and TFT.
Its aim is to encourage construction and property professionals to think circular in project briefs.
How can we design buildings so that they can be deconstructed, with the materials recovered without avoidable performance loss?
How can we take material extracted from one site and use it on another?
How can we embrace new models of servitisation and leasing to extend the useful life of an asset?
We know many of the products and systems required for a significantly more circular built environment do already exist. Indeed, 80 per cent of attendees at our circular economy launch event have applied at least one circular principle on a project and the same percentage believe there is a clear business case for their organisation to move to a circular model. What is missing is a culture that is willing to take a new holistic approach to construction projects, from the strategic brief onwards. New objectives and measures of success are required, which will lead to the right questions being asked.
It is becoming increasingly apparent that some of these questions will soon be asked by local and national government. The UK government’s 2017 Industrial Strategy included a commitment to move towards a more circular economy and the Scottish Government has a Circular Economy Strategy. But it is at a city level that change is happening quickest, with the Draft London Plan, for example, including an ambition for major developments to produce circular economy statements.
It’s no secret that the construction and property industry has historically been highly conservative and slow to adapt. But with the need for action becoming ever more urgent, policy being put in place and the business case for change crystallising, it’s clear that embracing circular principles will be vital not just to staying ahead of the competition, but to survival.
Click here to find out more about UKGBC’s Circular Economy programme.