Bringing the circular economy into construction projects requires changing our ways

By Kimmo Nekkula

The reused bricks of the Tikkurila pavilion school's storage building please the eye of CIRCuIT project coordinator Kimmo Nekkula. Photo: Capital Region Recycling Centre.


The old bricks of The Finnish National Theatre have been given a new life in a warehouse built in the yard of a school in the Tikkurila district of Vantaa, Finland. Reusing bricks and other building materials is an example of the circular economy in construction, which the city of Vantaa is keen to promote.


The city of Vantaa aims to be carbon neutral by 2030. Applying circular economy principles in construction – for instance, reusing demolition materials to reduce use of virgin materials – offers considerable opportunities to lower the built environment’s carbon footprint. Construction directly or indirectly causes approximately 30–40 percent of the world's carbon dioxide emissions.


Cities can be leading pioneers of the circular economy. Ideally, Vantaa would have a closed material cycle in accordance with the principles of the circular economy, where demolition materials are fully reused within the city. And when the materials are reused at a nearby location, the emissions associated with the materials’ transportation are also reduced. Transporting the bricks from the theatre to the warehouse

Vantaa is one of four cities involved in the CIRCuIT project, which includes trialling new circular construction techniques, tools and approaches across Europe, in order to find effective approaches to apply the circular economy across the city's future construction projects.


One of the project’s experimental sites is a warehouse built in the yard of the Tikkurila pavilion school, which was completed in autumn 2021. About two thousand bricks were removed from the partitions of the small stage of the National Theatre and laid on the façade of the building. The construction contract was carried out by Parmaco Ltd.


Obtaining the bricks for reuse involved several challenges. Originally, the bricks were to be taken from the city's own school, which was being demolished, but the timetables for the demolition and new projects did not coincide. In the end, the bricks were obtained from the Finnish National Theatre, part of which was being dismantled. The demolition work was handled by Umacon Ltd, a CIRCuIT project partner.


The project began with the selection of suitable materials. There were three types of bricks in the part of the theatre to be demolished, whose suitability for the new site was tested. The quality of the different bricks was tested in the Tampere University laboratory, and their frost resistance in the Oulu laboratory of Koestus T&T Oy. The tests showed that closed red bricks are best suited for a new building. After this, the required number of suitable bricks were removed intact, cleaned and transported to the intermediate warehouse before final use in the construction of the new warehouse.



Tikkurila Pavilion School's warehouse. Photo: Jenni Särmä/Helsinki Metropolitan Area Reuse Centre Ltd.


The built environment’s current operating models do not support the circular economy.

Reusing materials from demolition sites, especially structural components, in new buildings requires rethinking the city's operating model. Operating methods must be designed to enable a circular economy, and the entire construction industry must be involved in the change.


So, what needs to change for low-carbon circular construction to be mainstream in the future?


Firstly, a market for dismantled construction parts and materials must be created. This opens the door to a new type of circular economy business involving electronic marketplaces, physical storage and further processing locations, and "circular economy operators" helping operators.


Secondly, cities and other developers need to change their processes to support the circular economy. For example, circular economy criteria are needed in addition to low-carbon criteria for public procurement. The criteria should not be too limiting for actors, but should leave room for creation of innovative solutions. Setting unambiguous requirements that are easy enough to evaluate is currently a hot potato for the circular economy. No actor can solve this challenge alone.


The city of Vantaa is involved in the Green Deal agreement between the Ministry of the Environment and RAKLI ry, which promotes the reuse and recycling of demolition materials. The agreement obligates the systematic making of demolition surveys and the transmission of information within the industry, so that owners and users of used building parts can find each other.


Creating a functioning circular economy system requires new learning, unlearning the old, and creating an atmosphere that supports the circular economy. Let's make the circular economy “the new black” together!


Kimmo Nekkula is the CIRCuIT project coordinator in the city of Vantaa. This blog was first published here in Finnish on Vantaa.fi

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