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Rethinking and redesigning the construction industry in a circular way

Updated: Sep 9, 2022

By Nilesh Jeetah, University of Plymouth

The new knowledge

The CIRCuIT summer school was a great opportunity to connect students with experts and professionals in the circular economy, sharing and devising ideas on all aspects of circular construction through multiple perspectives. Each day, we had morning lectures given by CIRCuIT partners on various circular construction concepts and were then given a provocation to discuss as a group, prior to presenting our proposed solutions at the end of each day.

Before we jumped into the varied and fascinating world of circularity, it was important that we grasped the concept of a circular economy and how it is and/or can be applied to construction. I think of it in this way: in the natural world, there is no landfill. Instead, materials flow - one species’ waste is another’s food - things grow, then die and nutrients go back to the ground again. Similarly, in a circular economy, waste is prevented by rethinking and redesigning products and materials more efficiently, so that the goods of today become the resources of tomorrow (see fig 1 below).

Fig 1.

Some key learnings

Skill sessions

As the summer school was organised at Dyson School of Design Engineering, a few creative problem-solving tools were included in the programme. Techniques such as Theory of Inventive Problem Solving (TRIZ), and Morphological Analysis are really useful in solving design problems. Being able to try these tools in our own projects for the programme helped to apply these newly gained skills.

Levers that can enable circular measures

One of the key learning points of the week was the need to push industry to start adopting circular measures in construction projects.

Inspired by Policy SI7 in the London Plan, which requires circular economy statements for developments that are referable to the Mayor of London, one of the proposed solutions we considered was to set out circular economy statement criteria for different company sizes when they apply for building permits from the council. For example, as part of the permit process, a small firm will have to show at least 5% circularity in their project. Likewise for large firms, they will have to show 20% circularity as a way to kickstart the circularity movement around the country.

Interdisciplinary collaboration on solutions

The group sessions were my favourite part of the programme because they provided a unique experience of working with, and learning from, an interdisciplinary team of engineers, PhD students and architects from Germany, Finland, Cyprus, Sweden, and the UK. This brought in a diverse range of knowledge and industry experience for construction professionals to find solutions for current problems faced.

Throughout the week, we discussed various innovation ideas. The sessions got me thinking particularly about a “factory in a box” concept for the recycling of materials. Instead of transporting the waste materials to the recycling plant, I proposed the other way round. The recycling plant would come to the construction site giving rise to a network of electric lorries on the streets of the UK. It’s a bit like the Uber of recycling construction materials. This would not only help to reduce landfill sites around London but also work side by side with the logistics and management of construction sites.

Session highlight: 3D laser scanning technology

Over the past decade, the construction industry has undergone a radical change in digitalising the industry, and the COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated this change. In the architecture, engineering, and construction (AEC) domain, three-dimensional (3D) models are increasingly being used to improve design efficiency and project management.

Major technology advancements in recent years have enabled detailed 3D models to illustrate the “as-is” condition of structures. Reality capture can be defined in simpler terms as the process of gathering the greatest and most accurate data about real-world conditions, which is also known as the "as-built" condition. A reality capture approach we used was the 3D laser scanning technology.

On Friday 23rd July, we were given a demonstration of the 3D laser technology: the scanner throws and captures light off a surface and the innovative software stitches together all the measured points to create ‘point clouds’ from the data gathered. It was really fascinating to see the level of detail and speed of the model being produced as the scanner does a 360˚ across the room at the touch of a button.

General reflections

The CIRCuIT summer school gave me an appreciation of the changes happening in the construction industry. As a young civil engineering student, I got the opportunity to contribute to the transition of the industry to a circular economy by questioning and redefining existing circular principles, as well as working on how to kickstart companies into applying them. The programme allowed us to interact and seek guidance from sustainability consultants, architects, and engineers which has hugely broadened my horizon about how the industry is reacting and transitioning to a circular economy.

Additionally, Imperial College London, known as an environment where pioneering technology is designed by the UK’s greatest minds, was the perfect place to do the summer school. The interaction with like-minded students and the lectures from Professor Childs truly created an unparalleled experience in my academic life.

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