Circular construction: inspiring beyond boundaries

By Zahra Aleshaiker, University College London

The CIRCuIT summer school opened my eyes to a different perspective about the current state of the construction industry and how much still needs to be done in order to get as close to circularity as possible. By participating in this year’s summer school, I was able to discuss with young, like-minded people from various sectors in the industry about the importance of shifting from a linear to a more efficient and circular economy. As well as my curiosity on the subject, one of the main reasons I joined the programme was to learn more about why the industry I will be working in as an engineer requires serious changes and adaptations.

Circularity inspiring research and action

My master’s dissertation topic focuses on using decommissioned wind turbine blades in a second life cycle: by adapting the blades and incorporating them as external and/or internal reinforcement in deteriorated traffic bridges. The research topic arose because the renewable energy industry is facing a material wastage crisis, where wind turbine blades are sent to landfill after reaching the end of their life, because the composite material cannot be recycled easily. The problem is expected to get worse, as Europe alone will decommission about 25,000t/yr of blades by the year 2025, rising to 52,000t/yr by 2030 (Bhatti, 2021). With the pressures of becoming carbon neutral by the year 2050, the UK has also legislated that at least 95% of all waste should be either reused or recycled efficiently (GOV.UK, 2020). It has therefore become even more crucial to look into new ways of reusing the blades more effectively, while at the same time stopping valuable material ending up as waste in landfills.

One of the main sessions of the summer school discussed how the construction industry can extend the life cycle of structures and materials while reducing wastage in the process. The topics debated were how the life expectancy of old and existing buildings can be extended and how the environmental and economic impact of new-builds can be reduced through adapting material circularity.

The ideas generated from the summer school groups included:

  • maintaining the integrity of the structure,

  • using modern-day technology to collect and preserve building data,

  • new structures should be designed for disassembly and adaptability,

  • increasing recycling rates of more materials,

  • reducing the impact of downcycling, and

  • knowing the supply chain of materials.

The summer school helped to influence my dissertation topic to take a much more interesting direction than anticipated. In the reading and research phase of my project, I was solely focusing on how I can reuse the wind turbine blades in the construction sector. However, after participating in the summer school, it enabled me to expand my focus by looking into how the blades can benefit the industry environmentally, socially, and economically. In particular I considered how the carbon footprint and embodied carbon of reusing the blades as reinforcement in maintaining an existing, deteriorating bridge compares with constructing a new bridge. The main lessons I learnt from the school were the importance of extending the life of any structure through the use of maintenance and refurbishment works, and the value of using materials and products to their maximum potential throughout each of their life cycles.

Fig 1: Structural segmentation of the blade (Joustra et al., 2021a)

Fig 2: Re-Wind project concept design of a bridge made from WTB (André et al., 2020)

Circularity and the future

I believe in order to get closer to achieving circularity within the construction industry, all the sectors have to work hand-in-hand together. Whether it’s the energy, transportation, civil, water or materials sector, positive outcomes will only be seen when everyone collaboratively works together to accomplish the same goal - a circular industry.

One way of achieving this is to start at the beginning: by educating our younger generations early to think about how they can improve their lifestyle to include minimising material wastage and improving circularity in their everyday lives, this will naturally become instilled throughout their education and eventually their careers.

However, you and I also have the same obligations. Attending the summer school has given me the opportunity to explore and adapt my thinking process through the various debates and discussion topics. My outlook and purpose as an engineer have become even more intriguing and viable because now, more than ever, my critical thinking and creativity skills will be tested to their limits to understand what I can and need to do to change the industry one step at a time. As the famous saying goes “Rome was not built in a day” - to achieve the bigger picture, we need to make small changes that may seem insignificant today.

Bhatti, J., 2021. Europe bans disposal of decommissioned wind turbine blades in landfills: A step towards life cycle sustainability. DownToEarth.
GOV.UK, 2020. UK sets ambitious new climate target ahead of UN Summit - GOV.UK [WWW Document]. URL (accessed 6.14.21).

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.