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Straight talking on circular economy

Construction is a big, hungry and dirty beast. In the UK it consumes more than 400 million tonnes of materials a year and, including demolition and excavation, produces almost 80 million tonnes of waste.

Tidying up this mess is expensive. Managing and disposing of waste has been costing the industry around 1 per cent of turnover – 30 per cent or more of pre-tax profits. The sector is, however, getting cleaner.

Under recessionary pressures to realise cost savings and resource efficiencies, as well as operate within tightening regulatory and fiscal frameworks, construction has been making steady, necessary progress against waste reduction targets over the last five years.

Albeit including a short-sighted element of “downcycling” for the sake of tax avoidance, positive commercially motivated trends are in evidence, acknowledges Richard Buckingham, head of construction and refurbishment at WRAP, an organisation which advises industry on recycling more and wasting less.

“Waste management and minimisation, recycling and landfill reductions have clear financial benefits, and have gained ground. Among major contractors, strong performance is achieved regularly; it is not unusual for landfill diversion rates over 90 per cent.”

Such incremental advances are beneficial in terms of edging towards more sustainable business models, but do not add up to any overarching vision of strategic and systemic change.

Truth is the built-environment sector has been doing little more than paying lip service to actual engagement with the circular economy

Holding the sector back from making that imaginative leap into the brave new world of the so-called circular economy is a pervasive recovery-era tendency towards risk aversion, according to Mr Buckingham, with the result that inspirational project success stories are, as yet, in short supply.

“Examples of buildings or infrastructure addressing design for deconstruction, solutions to enable change of use, plus low embodied carbon are rare,” he says. “Where is the iPod building to revolutionise the Walkman building?”

The Amsterdam Park 20|20 office-led development offers one exemplar. Given that the primary architect is William McDonough – co-creator with Michael Braungart of the cradle-to-cradle design standards – this is perhaps not surprising. The exception proves the rule.

Truth is the built-environment sector as a joined-up whole has been doing little more than paying lip service thus far to actual engagement with the concept of the circular economy.

“I don’t believe the UK construction industry has really entertained the circular economy as a serious proposition,” says architect Nitesh Magdani, director of sustainability at BAM Construct UK. “The government needs to define the business case for UK plc, understand potential benefits and put some form of regulation in place, as they have done with the low-carbon agenda.”

Individual pieces of the jigsaw are in place though, argues Martin Clarke, director of the World Concrete Forum: “UK concrete gets it – recycling, reuse, zero harm, more from less are all mantras, we set targets, measure and report.”

However, the global problem is getting bigger, not smaller, he counsels, with a cultural shift needed to get us off the current death-by-growth trajectory.

“Concentration on change in Western Europe only, in our sector, will not change much. China and India must be put at the centre of our attention – they have one shot to get it right,” he says.

“Getting away from volume-related measurement of sales would help. We must strive for more from less right around the cycle of cradle-to-cradle. Globally, we shift an incredible 60 billion tonnes of raw materials and finished products, a volume that is growing rapidly. Getting the same job done on any given project with more profit but less volume is the key to circularity.”

A compelling commercial case for building buyers and users is the client-side catalyst for such a tectonic shift, according to Graham Hilton, director of the Alliance for Sustainable Building Products (ASBP). “Recognising cost and resource benefits of extending building life through adaptation and re-use of components is the best way to drive positive change, but requires a new commercial approach which looks at whole-life costs not just up-front build costs,” he says.

In terms of the immediate game plan, he suggests the biggest prize is to be found in the public sector, where infrastructure decisions are high risk, requiring long-term financial commitments, in danger of creating “stranded assets”.

“These assets become liabilities, requiring expensive adaptation or demolition to reclaim land, after relatively modest changes in circumstance or use. Flexible techniques for deconstruction and re-use would extend building life and open cheaper and lower-risk financing,” says Mr Hilton.

The ASBP is pioneering a circular-economy initiative called RE-Fab, conceived to create a framework for development of flexible-life buildings, underpinned by a series of design, build and operation principles that will facilitate design for deconstruction and re-use.

Looking down the track towards a sustainable future for construction, Mr Hilton imagines an industry very different from the one on view today. “In our RE-Fab world, in 2050, design for adaptation deconstruction and re-use would characterise mainstream construction, with a massive reduction in abandonment and demolition of unsuitable building stock,” he says.

“Buildings would consist of durable, re-usable components, with use and re-use part of a widespread ‘accounting’ system, based on BIM [building information modelling], and demonstrating the cost and environmental benefits.

“A building’s records would show its impact in build, use, refurbishment and at end-of-life, forming part of the ongoing value chain in all its forms.”

For Mr Buckingham, any such vision of the industry of tomorrow has to be founded on the twin premises that all new buildings are carbon positive and all refurbishments result in carbon neutrality, so yoking together the energy and waste agendas, and placing carbon centre-circle.

Construction in the age of the circular economy would bring potential benefits across the board, in the eyes of Mr Magdani, who lists the winners, in order of impact, as clients, manufacturers, enlightened developers, demolition contractors (the new brokers), designers and contractors.

He concludes: “Without exploring benefits and impacts to the whole value chain, we will probably be slow to see change in our complex industry.” For construction, closing the loop is a team game. “There are very few ‘experts’ in the field of circular economy at present, but for us to embrace opportunities to increase skills and employment, we need to work together.”