Last edited 01 Oct 2021

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BSRIA Institute / association Website

Circular economy in the built environment



Circular economy’ can be explained as an approach toward an economy that closes the resource loop. In other words, a circular economy offers an alternative approach to economic growth by using 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:

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 used as the input into another system. In this article, the focus is narrowed down to the built environment with some key characteristics to be noted:

Current resource use by the engineering and construction industry

Figure 1 - Transitioning from a Linear to a Circular Economy.PNGThe 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.

Figure 2 - Structural Waste in the Built Environment.PNG

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

Applying ReSOLVE Framework in the Built Environment.PNG

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 above, 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:

BSRIA’s involvement in the circular economy

BSRIA is exploring the potential of current industry practices to transition toward a 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 lifecycle analysis are seen by BSRIA experts as methods that will support adoption of 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’.

About this article

This article was written by BSRIA and first appeared on its website; it is available here. BSRIA is an ISO 9001-registered test, instruments, research and consultancy organisation, providing specialist services in construction and building services.

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