Author: Nichlas Moos Heunicke
Circularity in the built environment
The concept of circularity in the built environment has garnered increased interest in recent years particularly because circular approaches have rightly been identified as being key to the future of construction. Its evident that the industry can’t keep consuming resources at the current rate - Earth Overshoot Day 2020 will be on August 22nd*. This means that just over halfway through the year we will already have consumed our resource budget for the entire year.
The building industry is responsible for one third of the global CO2 emissions, a figure which is represented by two main contributors: energy consumption and building construction. In the future building construction is predicted to become increasingly important due to two main trends, firstly energy consumption in buildings is decreasing, and the energy used in the future is expected to be more sustainable – resulting in lower CO2 emissions from energy usage. On the other hand, the global population is steadily increasing, causing a steady increase in construction.
Currently we are constructing at a rate equivalent to building a city the size of Paris every week. Bearing in mind that we are facing a climate crisis and a growing global population, it is critical that we develop fundamentally different ways of building.
Designing buildings which can easily be deconstructed or transformed must become a necessary practice now if we are to mitigate the building industry’s negative environmental impacts. Most key actors in the construction industry are aware of the impact that the industry has on the planet, but there is still a lack of examples and experience of building flexible constructions on a larger scale.
Accelerating the transition from linear to circular construction In recent years there has been an increasing effort to construct buildings that can be easily reconfigured or transformed. This represents a shift in the industry away from construction that is more likely to be torn down if buildings are no longer fit for their original purpose. This is a welcomed and crucial approach which ensures that materials do not leave the construction loop before we have truly made the most of their value.
However, more examples as well as guidelines and business cases are needed. For this to happen, the construction sector needs to begin to move from a linear to a circular approach which offers more resource efficiency, economic benefits as well as positive environmental impacts.
Construction for deconstruction To face the climate crisis and meet the goals of the Paris agreement the construction industry must be able to demonstrate that it is already possible to build circular buildings today. That is why CIRCuIT has a focus area dedicated to ‘Design for disassembly and flexible construction’, which aims to develop circular solutions based on existing products and services.
Demonstrating viability is a key measure that needs to be considered when constructing buildings to be as circular as possible. This is one of CIRCuIT’s key aims and doing so will also add to the growing body of evidence and proof of concept that will help drive circular initiatives forward.
Many of the products and materials which buildings consist of today are not unsustainable by nature but become so when they are treated or assembled in ways that do not allow for reuse. Consequently, one key solution that has frequently been put forward is a requirement for all constructions to also be deconstructable. It’s a matter of maintaining both the economic and environmental value of materials by designing for disassembly and flexible construction. Through its work on design for disassembly and flexible construction CIRCuIT aims to demonstrate how an increased focus on disassembly and re-assembly will increase value in the built environment.
It goes without saying that it is a complex challenge, which is why collaboration across the whole value chain is so important. In CIRCuIT, 29 partners across the building industry from four European regions have teamed up, allowing for the potential to demonstrate that such solutions can be widely implemented.
CIRCuIT partners are poised to drive decision making and implementation There are multiple examples of initiatives pushing for greater circularity in the construction industry such as; the GLA’s Circularity Statement, Platform CB´23, Danish Voluntary Sustainability Class. The fact that many of these initiatives have come about voluntarily illustrates an increase in demand for circular building schemes that have the potential to enable circular construction to happen on a wider scale.
One of CIRCuIT’s key aims is to facilitate the exchange of ideas across the built environment value chain. And engaging its partners to ensure that the project will not be locked in a top-down or bottom-up approach but will rather act as an interchange between the two.
So through CIRCuIT, stakeholders with decision-making power e.g. developers, legislators, etc. have a huge opportunity to push forward circular initiatives by demonstrating demand.
Local forums in each of CIRCuIT’s four key regions, comprised of key stakeholders will engage in translating findings from demonstration projects into strategies for achieving circular construction.
This is a great opportunity for the building industry’s developers, contractors, and other stakeholders to be part of physical demonstration projects that will drive decision making and implementation of circular construction in Europe.
* This is a considerable improvement of 23 days compared to last year, primarily due to the global COVID-19 lockdown why is doesn’t represent a permanent solution – but rather shows that governments and politicians globally have the power to initiate effective measures.
 Global Alliance for Buildings and Construction, International Energy Agency and the United Nations Environment Programme (2019): 2019 global status report for buildings and construction: Towards a zero-emission, efficient and resilient buildings and construction sector. p. 12  Global Alliance for Buildings and Construction, International Energy Agency and the United Nations Environment Programme (2019): 2019 global status report for buildings and construction: Towards a zero-emission, efficient and resilient buildings and construction sector. p. 16  UN Environment and International Energy Agency (2017): Towards a zero-emission, efficient, and resilient buildings and construction sector. Global Status Report 2017. p. 2  Durmiševic´, E. (2018). Reversible building design. In M. Charter, Designing for the Circular Economy (1st ed., pp. 344–359). Routledge. https://doi.org/10.4324/9781315113067-32 & Buildings as Material Banks: Integrating Materials Passports with Reversible Building Design to Optimise Circular Industrial Value Chains | BAMB Project | H2020 | CORDIS | European Commission. (n.d.). Retrieved August 3, 2020, from https://cordis.europa.eu