Changing attitudes towards circular construction

Author: Tiina Haaspuro

The construction sector is slowly starting to adapt to the idea of circular economy. But for faster progress, multiple challenges must be tackled. It is not only technical solutions we need to look at, but also regulatory barriers and the decisions that are made in planning policy that govern the built environment. Additionally, existing attitudes, beliefs and common procedures can potentially hinder the shift towards a more sustainable, circular economy.

But how do we overcome these barriers? CIRCuIT’s focus area on governance and tools aims to lead by example. Starting with a review of key regulatory barriers in the Helsinki region, identified in interviews with several city administrators working in the building sector in the City of Vantaa. The aim of the review was to find out what kind of barriers are present, especially in municipal construction regarding circular economy.

Doubting reuse

We noticed the widespread belief that the general and especially microbial quality of reused and recycled materials is questionable. This belief is also common across the EU and often leads to an unwillingness to reuse materials and an idolization of new ones. Constructors and clients tend to choose new materials to be on the safe side: to make sure they fulfill standard requirements and avoid possible risks.

Assumptions about the inferior quality of reused and recycled materials also influences how clients perceive pricing. It is common to assume that products made of reused and recycled materials should be cheaper than similar products made of virgin materials, which is not necessarily the case. New materials are still often cheaper, and the quality is seen as better and more durable than that of reused materials. Furthermore, the industry generates business by creating new building materials and parts, making it more appealing to use them instead of choosing products that are more sustainable and logical from a circular economy point of view.

One challenge in increasing confidence in the quality of reused and recycled materials and building parts is the lack of demand and lack of established procedures for testing and certifying the quality (e.g. material audit – storage – preparation - selling). This issue will be explored in CIRCuIT’s focus area on ‘Urban mining and reverse cycles’.

Lack of procedures, fear of problems

It seems common, that circular economy is not considered in demolition procurements and this process tends to lack goals and criteria for more ambitious material reuse. In Finland, this comes down to a lack of established procedures for ensuring the procurement process is circular. And without established procedures for making the procurement process circular, procurements for both demolition and construction are often done using price as the main criterion and other criteria are only given minor importance. This helps to avoid any problems with meeting the standard requirements for procurements but at the same time leads to a risk aversion approach which doesn’t encourage finding new ways of doing things, and in so doing promoting circular economy practices.

Repairing and refurbishing existing buildings or disassembling and reusing building parts are good solutions from a circular economy point of view and can prevent existing buildings becoming waste. But, in many cases property owners are not interested in repair construction, as it can be almost as expensive as new construction and they also tend to be unfamiliar with the concepts of disassembly and reuse. In fact, in the 60’s and 70’s it was common practice in Finland to cast building parts together, making disassembly very difficult, so it often remains an unconsidered option.

Building supervisors are sometimes blamed for interpreting regulations quite strictly, making it more difficult for circular economy solutions to be applied. However, avoiding problems with meeting standard requirements is the reason here as well. Regulations can be interpreted more freely, but a single public official may not have the courage to do so due to legal liability issues that may arise in case problems with new solutions occur.

When good and functional examples, solutions and clear methods are lacking, it is easier to remain in business as usual mood, especially if there is no strategic pressure. Getting the industry to embrace circular economy practices would require change in attitudes and a better understanding of the importance of reuse, and design for disassembly.

Finding solutions

Evidently, there are a number of barriers to overcome before there is a shift towards more sustainable, circular economy approach in construction. One way to drive the shift is to test and showcase functional examples. When these exist, resistance may abate as people start to see the possibilities a circular economy approach has to offer instead of focusing on perceived difficulties and risks.

To encourage a shift towards increased use of recycled or reused materials, providing incentives for adhering to circular procurement requirements is a good option. Even “penalties” for raw material use or for not using environment-friendly or reused materials should be considered. When it comes to pricing, some political pressure might be needed to lower the prices of reused and recycled materials.

There is a clear need to increase understanding of the importance and positive impacts of circular economy in construction. A change in attitudes towards reused and recycled building materials and new ways of doing things is necessary for decision-makers, designers, contractors and through the entire value chain. Even though attitudes may slowly be changing for the better, there is still very little change in behaviour and action. Strong strategic pressure is needed.

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