Addressing the complexity of circular engineering

By Hasan Schwaish, University of Sheffield

The wide range of political, societal, and economic factors associated with circular engineering makes it a very complex topic to tackle. As an engineering student, I’m keen to learn more about the topic, and having attended the inaugural CIRCuIT Summer School, I came away with my eyes opened, having had the opportunity to learn about how these factors were being addressed through the school’s comprehensive programme and approach to circular engineering. Talks were on a varied range of circular construction topics, including how technology, politics, economics, and data science play into the realisation of a sustainable future for construction, whether enabling or hindering its progress.

Some key learnings

The value of interdisciplinary approaches

In a time when universities are highly departmentalised, students are rarely exposed to issues beyond what is dealt with by the ‘Faculty of Engineering’. CIRCuIT’s sessions spanned multiple disciplines, exposing us to the complexity of the issue at hand, whereas traditionally, academia ringfences different disciplines. But circular economy in construction transcends multiple specialisations and requires different stakeholders to work together; it cannot only be a collection of strategies related to circularity separated for each specialisation.

Opportunities and exploration

The sessions covered not only the best of what already exists in the UK, but also looked at what could exist (whether demonstrated by other countries or currently speculated by specialists in the field). The provocative nature of the talks encouraged us to explore data management, economics, and politics, and investigate how these influence the work of an engineer.

To exemplify this, the “Data as an enabler” presentation by Andrea Charlson from ReLondon included information on how data is currently captured (e.g. through pre-demolition audits) and recommendations on how the capture and use of data could be more efficient (e.g. through material passports). My group was able to use the wealth of information and diverse range of resources to devise a specific plan for using data to enable circularity. We used our engineering knowledge to inform this plan and enhance its practicality.

Data is a valuable tool to inform architectural, engineering, industrial and legislative decisions. For example, if architectural choices were informed by what materials are available in close proximity and their exact specifications, architects could more easily design buildings that integrate these materials. This can then shift demand from virgin materials that travel thousands of miles to the building site, to recycled materials from demolition schemes nearby, which reduces the carbon footprint of new buildings.

Locally sourced materials could also mean the design of more regionally inspired architecture that captures each city’s identity and heritage. When new buildings retain features, or even materials from previous buildings, they often feel familiar, evocative and grounded in their place. This type of architecture also elicits a sense of organic growth and transformation in the urban environment. Data can enable this “circular architecture” to prosper and shape the landscapes of cities, halting the march towards standardised materials in buildings (e.g. generic concrete and steel), and discouraging the design of buildings that seem removed from the history of the land they are built on.

The borders of an engineer’s role

An engineer is said to work ‘within constraints’ – that is, they are given parameters for their design. The approach introduced in CIRCuIT Summer School challenged that notion, putting greater responsibility on engineers, encouraging participants not to take political or legislative constraints as given, but to discuss them critically and examine how they came to be.

I translated that approach into a few points regarding an engineer’s role in a circular economy:

  • engineers should not only be influenced by other disciplines, they should also influence them;

  • the sharing of knowledge and expertise between stakeholders and professionals of different disciplines is key to achieving a circular future;

  • the presence of those interdisciplinary connections is essential to navigate the complexity of circular economy; and

  • although political and economic decisions should seek to be informed by technical knowledge, professionals with that knowledge should also work to actively influence such decisions.

For me, the school was a push towards taking part in conversations beyond the speciality of engineering and trying to use my knowledge to influence decision-making more broadly. Circularity is an essential part of any modern-day construction project, and I believe every professional should take it as their own responsibility to address circularity in their work.

As an engineering student interested in design, I think a designer should look at the bigger picture of the various factors that influence material flow and circulation. Social, political, legislative and economic factors make the context for buildings really complex, and this complexity ultimately determines the design constraints. A designer needs to understand and influence these factors holistically to take full control of their work.

Session highlight: Looking at a building (tying it all together)

My group worked on a case study of Moorfoot Building in Sheffield, evaluating its position within the city from a societal, economic, and political perspective. We explored a hypothetical scenario: if the building was to be demolished, how could this be addressed with circular engineering considerations?

It became clear to us that in order to achieve full circularity, efforts from more than one front are needed: legislators, politicians, the public, and professionals of every discipline should be invested in circularity for it to be realised. By working on this specific project, we were able to see exactly how the different areas of expertise explored in the summer school tie into how a project is implemented, making a clearer case for engineers to explore many disciplines and look at how they connect.

The study proposed linking the replacement scheme to this specific demolition scheme example. It was apparent that establishing a connection between new builds and older ones (that were not designed for circularity) is challenging. However, addressing this challenge is essential to realising circularity in the near future, especially considering the efforts to achieve net zero by 2050. Our group proposed:

  • An audit of the building before demolition to plan the best way of maximising the materials recovered, reused and recycled;

  • A copy of the detailed pre-demolition audit supplied to the architects and engineers working on the replacement scheme, which enables them to design a scheme that integrates a significant amount of material recovered from demolition;

  • Using these architectural plans to inform demolition plans, priority is given to the extraction of specific parts of the structure, or specific materials; and

  • After the materials are extracted, a detailed assessment is conducted of quality to confirm their architectural and structural suitability for the new builds. Some materials may not need to be transported at all and can be processed and reused on or near-site.

In addition to the benefit of reduced embodied carbon, this plan could potentially boost the local economy by providing work for the local industry and workforce. More detailed audits and demolition plans, combined with lower material costs, mean that a bigger fraction of the project’s budget would be allocated to workers and professionals rather than sourcing virgin materials, increasing the amount of money circulating in the local economy. These economic benefits would incentivise the local council and the public to support the scheme.

The case study addressed the requirements of various stakeholders in the project, and emphasised the need to use data well, in order to inform a circular integrated demolition-construction scheme that minimises the carbon footprint of the project. Rather than treating circularity as an afterthought (e.g. as a part of material procurement), the case study proposes an approach whereby circularity plays a critical and defining role in architectural design and construction.

I recommend CIRCuIT Summer School for any engineering student - it’s an opportunity to explore more about engineering and the disciplines connected to it, and how their connection plays a role in the realisation of a circular economy.

CIRCuIT will hold a second summer school in Hamburg, scheduled for 2022. If you’re interested in staying up to date with news about the summer schools, keep an eye on our website and social media channels or sign up to our newsletter to receive the latest updates.