I wrote a blog in 2015 outlining challenges and opportunities facing the construction sector as we transition to a circular economy. Much has happened since then, as evidenced by the variety of interpretations presented by manufacturers, contractors, designers and researchers at the Green Construction Board’s conference in January1. Circular economy concepts are being developed and trialled so fast that the Construction Products Association has created a Knowledge Resource for Circular Economy Thinking in Construction just to keep pace with the subject2.
To date, many manufacturers have focused on the potential to reuse and/or recycle their existing products whilst pioneering companies have begun to consider how we would deconstruct buildings and reconstruct them someplace else. These interpretations are by no means incorrect, in fact in some circumstances deconstructing a building and then using refurbished or remanufactured components to rebuild in another location might be the most appropriate option. However, in doing this the industry risks creating a solution for a problem that is not the most important one we need to solve.
This is because the circular economy, as many of us know it, is best applied to products with a short lifespan and high turnover rate (e.g. small electronics). If we design buildings to last 30 years with the intention to replace them several times thereafter we could end up using more resources than if we had designed an adaptable building that will be in continuous service for 100 years or more. The real problem we need to solve is how to design, construct and maintain healthy buildings that will accommodate the changing needs of various occupants over a century, whilst using as few natural resources as possible.
Therefore an interpretation of the circular economy for the built environment needs a different approach to many of the existing models which have been designed for consumer goods. It needs to have the principles of longevity, quality and adaptability at its core, and encourage value chain collaboration so that buildings can morph from commercial to domestic or residential use (and back again) without having to deconstruct or demolish a site. If this approach were to be fully realised it is possible that asset managers could maximise rental income and natural resources could be conserved. The Brick Development Association’s sustainability committee have designed a model depicting ‘four fundamentals of design’ which will facilitate the transition to a circular economy in the built environment (see image below).