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Circular economy in the built environmentMay 2019

BSRIA takes an enlightening account extolling the virtues of the circular economy and the need to move away from a linear structure.


The world engineering and construction industry consumes over 3 billion tonnes of raw materials each year
Circular economy can be explained as an approach towards an economy that closes the resource loop. In other words, a circular economy offers an alternative approach to economic growth by utilising fewer resources and minimising the impact on natural resources.

According to a report published by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation (Growth within: a circular economy Vision for a Competitive Europe 2015), this concept rests on three core principles as seen below:

  • preserve and enhance natural capital
  • optimise resource yields
  • minimise system risks and improve its effectiveness

In a circular economy, the aim is to maximise the utility of the existing infrastructure across the product value chain, hence the waste from one system can be utilised as the input in another system. In this article, the focus is narrowed down to the built environment with some key characteristics to be noted:

  • compared with other sectors, buildings don’t typically operate on a take-make-dispose system
  • modern buildings are typically constructed for an average lifecycle of 65-70 years while the average lifecycle of most other manufactured products is less than 9 years

Current resource use by the engineering and construction industry


From a linear to a circular economy- source: government.nl (click image to zoom)
The engineering and construction industry has been identified as the world’s largest consumer of raw materials, consuming over 3 billion tonnes of raw materials and accounting for nearly 50% of global steel production. In the UK alone, the construction industry consumes over 400 million tonnes of material each year. A circular approach can help minimise the environmental footprint of the built environment sector, potentially reduce the lifecycle costs, and avoid construction delays due to the volatility of commodity markets in procuring virgin materials.

Realising the potential of the circular economy requires a systems approach to all aspects of the value chain right from design, through technology, financing, procurement, construction, operation,
maintenance and to recycling. Consequently, scaling up cross-sector collaboration within the construction and infrastructure sector will be required to innovate and enable transition towards a
more holistic circular economy approach.

Becoming completely circular


The ReSOLVE Framework- source: The circular economy in the built environment by ARUP (click image to zoom)
The Ellen McArthur Foundation conceptualised the ReSOLVE framework, to explain the circular economy based on the fundamental notion that “material flows can be divided into two interacting loops: the technical and biological resource cycles”. Although most projects can exemplify certain elements of circularity, very few projects in the built environment can actually incorporate all the elements to become completely circular. The ReSOLVE framework offers businesses everywhere a methodology to incorporate circular strategies and growth initiatives. The six elements of the ReSOLVE framework, as listed in the table overleaf, can be applied to products, buildings, neighbourhoods, localities, councils, cities, regions, or even to national economies.

Policy action and incentives at national and regional level can drive investment to support the transition of integrating circularity into the whole lifecycle of the infrastructure asset and encourage stakeholder participation. For example, the EU Action Plan for the circular economy, launched in December 2015, outlined a set of specific actions, and generic obstacles to support the EU’s transition to a circular economy. The EU’s call for all new buildings to be nearly zero-energy by the end of 2020 implies complete enforcement of the EPBD as a policy drive to achieve circular economy in the built environment’s energy consumption. In the UK, the Part L of the Building Regulations and rental market policies such as MEES have resulted in actions to improve the energy performance of the current building stock.

The built environment sector is very complex with multiple stakeholders, long lead times, massive investments and capital risks. Some key challenges that can be foreseen in adopting a circular economy are: increase in capital costs, creation of stranded assets, occupant safety concerns on use of recycled materials, demolition waste potential contamination with toxic materials such as – paints, adhesives, insulation, and wall-covering materials, and gaps in continuity of ownership and control as there are multiple stakeholders and longer timescales.

BSRIA’s involvement in the circular economy

BSRIA is exploring the potential of current industry practices to transition towards circular economy approach. Modular and offsite construction, improvement in construction process using Soft Landings, better operation and maintenance of building technical systems through testing, thermographic surveys, failure assessment and whole life cycle analysis are seen by BSRIA experts as methods that will support adoption of the circular economy principles in building services.

While the circular economy paradigm offers a new alternative approach to economic growth, strong leadership with a coherent vision based on well-informed research is required to create a roadmap that can translate the high-level principles to sector-specific processes of the built environment. As a step forward in this direction, BSRIA has recently confirmed its bi-lateral engagement with the UKGBC and therefore with the wider industry on “circular economy in the Built Environment”.

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