Advancing Circular Construction

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Guy Grainger, Chair of Business in the Community’s Circular Economy Taskforce.

Guy Grainger Chair of Business in the Community’s (BITC) Circular Economy Taskforce and Chief Executive Europe, Middle East and Africa, JLL, on incorporating Circular Economy principles in construction

“Right now we are in the midst of the world’s sixth mass extinction – just as devastating as the one that wiped out the dinosaurs”.

This is a quote from Sir David Attenborough made in January 2019 at the World Economic Forum in Davos. He was speaking to business leaders, and from the timing you will gather he was not talking about the COVID-19 pandemic, but about climate change due to carbon emissions.

But it is due to COVID-19 that, for the first time in my 30-year career, everyone is looking to business leaders in the built environment. As we build back economies all around the world, we will re-imagine our cities and town centres and re-purpose our workplaces and homes. For the first time in a generation, the property industry will play a key role, but there is a continued call to do so responsibly. One way we will achieve it is delivering low-carbon buildings in development and in operation.

As we build back economies all around the world, we will re-imagine our cities and town centres and re-purpose our workplaces and homes.

I’m proud to work closely with BITC, chairing its Circular Economy Taskforce. This week we launched Advancing Circular Construction a set of four case studies showing how different organisations from different sectors [workplace, home, infrastructure and education] have incorporated circular economy principles in construction and taken a leadership role in fighting against climate change. These are real-life examples of completed projects that use different measures of success but all directly link to positive impacts on the environment.

The Ellen MacArthur Foundation Completing The Picture report showed that adopting circular principles with just four key materials of cement, steel, plastic and aluminium could lead to a 40% reduction in carbon emissions by 2050. Using previously used materials, you can reduce the embodied carbon (being the total amount of emissions associated with materials throughout their lifecycle) in a new development or refurbishment. And circular design can reduce operational carbon too. At JLL, we found this with the opening of our new Manchester office earlier this year, where flexible spaces along with reused furniture and fittings mean significantly less energy is consumed in this space.

What underpins all the case studies is that they started with a central vision of circularity. Without clear, careful planning at the start of the process you will forego opportunities to reduce your impact. Development projects typically prioritise visual and functional design over sustainability, but once you’ve started down a linear path you have fewer opportunities to build in circularity. For example, one crucial factor in the successful retrofit and extension of the UCL School of Architecture building was that the decision to reuse the existing concrete frame which was made right at the project conception stage – there would have been fewer opportunities to re-use materials had they designed a new building from scratch. Likewise, Flat House, constructed from new, would not have incorporated so much in the way of carbon positive hemp based materials if it was conceived as a standard house.

And like in all these examples, the suppliers in the Thames Tideway sewerage system project were empowered to innovate and create circular solutions on behalf of the client. The incentive for all parties was value based rather than just cost. This also demonstrates that cost isn’t a barrier to reusing materials, as many developers and land owners have argued with me. Each of these examples have proven to be more cost-effective and resilient than a traditional build. It just requires businesses to think differently.

As we use this moment to reflect and change personal habits of a lifetime, perhaps it is also a time for the industry to reflect and change its mindset about using fewer resources and simpler design to repurpose many of our buildings to match the needs of a future generation.

Find out more about BITC’s Building Back Responsibly agenda.