Putting Circular Economy Principles into Practice

Circular economy and the notion that we cannot continue to deplete resources indefinitely is now at the forefront of the discussion by those that design and operate buildings. The principles of designing out waste, keeping materials in use and regenerating natural systems are now more clearly understood and methods more readily available than ever before. A change from the traditional bottom-up approach and voluntary measures taken in the past has also seen moves to require such principles to be undertaken through top-down policies. However, the industry as a whole faces considerable challenges to reaching that circular nirvana, and genuine learning through collaboration will be required.

Policy direction

With a focus on London, the draft New London Plan has set ambitious objectives regarding the reduction of waste and implementation of the circular economy. This promotes resource efficiency and innovation to keep products and materials at their highest use for as long as possible. The policy is requiring new developments to produce ‘Circular Economy Statements’ to set out how a proposal is promoting circular economy outcomes and is centred around:

  • Demonstrating all demolition and remediation materials will be re-used or recycled;
  • How the building can be disassembled and reused at the end of life;
  • Managing waste onsite; and
  • The efficient storage, handling and space required to support re-use and recycling.

Under each of the above sections, targets, metrics and challenges are produced to demonstrate how circular economy principles are embedded within the proposed development. These statements also include a review of the wider circular economy principles that are part of the client’s corporate strategies which provides an understanding of their overarching commitments to delivering circularity in their developments. This may result in businesses reassessing their existing strategies to incorporate circular economy principles into their corporate commitments which would further help to ensure that we are working towards a circular economy.

Some challenges and learning

Through the recent experience of putting circular economy principles into practice, we have observed that challenges can arise in making meaningful changes to the way in which we design and construct buildings. We were involved with a major public realm refurbishment project in the City of London where the client provided a very strong remit to seek resource efficiency and reduction of embodied impacts. This led to an exercise looking to re-use the large amount of existing stone on site to minimise waste during the redevelopment process. Coordination between several parties who would not normally be involved in the demolition phase of an asset was required. This included stonemasons, specialists in materials salvage, cost consultants, programme managers, construction contractors, developer, and even the client of a new scheme in London who were looking to source reclaimed stone locally.

Issues concerning cost and time were central to conversations had with the client and other project team members. Additionally, challenges surrounding the difficulty of removing the existing stone due to how they were originally fixed, and the risk of the stone being broken became apparent. To remove the stone carefully, clean it up and store it would take 10 to 20 times as long as conventional demolition methods, with associated increased costs. Ultimately, despite the best will of both a donor and recipient of reclaimed material, it was determined that the re-use of existing stone was not possible due to a specifically tight demolition programme which would be uneconomical to extend. As a result, whilst the material will be recycled into aggregate for use elsewhere, it will have lost some value which cannot be regained.

This micro-example provides an insight into some of the macro challenges we all face in moving to true circularity. It also helped to open up the conversation with the current design team about the importance of designing in deconstructability at this time, so as to avoid a repeat scenario when the new asset reaches the end of its life. It will be key that the strategy prepared at the start of the development process incorporates circular economy principles to ensure they will be embedded and monitored throughout the design, construction and operational stages in order to deliver a development that has been designed for life. Ultimately this will require a shift in thinking about the value of materials once they are in use and greater collaboration between previously disparate groups, responsible for assets at different stages in the lifecycle.

This article was written by Rob Miller, Associate at Greengage Environmental Ltd

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