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Annual review 2022

Three minute insights:

Circular economy

There is huge scope for innovation, as well as creating new roles and jobs within the built environment value chain. Organisations that can conserve the greatest value in resources will gain the greatest advantage.”

Sarah Griffiths, senior sustainability consultant,
circular economy

Sarah Griffiths

Who’s affected and how?

The circular economy involves rethinking resources and waste for a sustainable future. It will affect everyone. As with all new initiatives, early adopters blaze the trail for others to follow.

They’re likely to be organisations that are already well advanced with decarbonisation, digitalisation and use of modern methods of construction: they’ve already reaped benefits from innovation and are experienced at managing risks.

Rapid scale-up requires the biggest clients to get involved. Large projects and programmes offer scope to develop circular practices and enjoy the rewards without the need for a wider ‘ecosystem’. The client and supply chain will seek to reproduce and improve on those benefits on subsequent projects, so the circular economy should cascade rapidly.

Starting the revolution

We created a new circular economy team in 2022 and launched it at the internationally important Ecomondo sustainability fair in Italy.

In 2022 we worked with the UK Green Building Council to establish the link between circular practices and whole life carbon savings. We developed circular economy design criteria as part of our wider role as authors of the Product Platform Rulebook, published by UK government body the Construction Innovation Hub. The rulebook sets out principles and practices for improving construction productivity, quality and cost.

We were delivery partner for the Holcim Low Carbon Concrete Accelerator programme, a global initiative to encourage innovation geared to material efficiency, materials separation and recovery, symbiotic material flows between industries, and the incorporation of recycled content into building materials. We also produced a circular economy strategy for the Ports of Jersey, which operates the Channel Island’s commercial, fishing and leisure harbours, and is embarking on a comprehensive port modernisation programme in 2023.

What are the risks of not acting?

The circular economy is fundamentally about efficiency. It’s also linked with carbon reduction, climate resilience, digitalisation, and environmental and social outcomes. We’re already seeing those organisations that act gaining an innovative and competitive edge; those that don’t act will miss those opportunities and also become increasingly misaligned with environmental, social and governance requirements.

And what are the benefits of acting?

In short, efficiency, new business opportunities and early mover advantage.

The circular economy will require new industrial ecosystems and new ways of contracting and transacting. The value chain will need to configure itself to reuse, remanufacture, recover and recycle resources; and assemble, transport, operate, maintain, modify, refurbish, decommission and disassemble assets, assemblages, components and materials.

As the circular economy grows, the built environment will increasingly be viewed as a materials bank, with digital solutions used to tag and track embodied resources, and to reclaim them for reuse.

There is huge scope for innovation, as well as creating new roles and jobs within the built environment value chain. Organisations that can conserve the greatest value in resources will gain the greatest advantage.

How can we help?

We encourage our clients to consider these five essential steps.

1. Operate and maintain for circularity

In mature economies, new construction adds about 0.5% per year to the value of the built environment – 99.5% of our buildings and infrastructure already exist. Therefore, creating the circular economy should start with the buildings and infrastructure that are in use. The best way to avoid waste is to keep the existing assets and resources that are embedded within those structures working.

2. Plan for circularity

From major clients to small suppliers, organisations need to set circularity as an objective. This may strike some as heretical, but they should start by seeking to avoid construction. That involves challenging user demand and using nature-based solutions instead of engineered ones. They should view the built environment as a bank of materials that can be drawn on as an alternative to first-use materials. And they must arrange themselves so that materials can be traded and exchanged with maximum retained performance and value.

We continue to work on the UK’s National Highways concrete roads programme, which is finding ways to extend the service life of concrete road surfacing. With the agency’s supply chain, we are researching recycling and reuse options that minimise carbon emissions and retain the best possible material performance.

3. Design for circularity

You’re probably familiar with DfMA – design for manufacture and assembly. The circular economy requires design for a much wider range of stages and activities, including manufacture, assembly, adaptation, repurposing, repair and disassembly – design for ‘X’, or DfX.

In 2022 construction of a prototype GenZero school got under way in Derby, UK – the first in a programme of new schools designed from a ‘catalogue’ of standardised modules that enables adaptation over time, and eventual disassembly. We have a diverse role on the NHS New Hospitals Programme, which also takes a DfX approach.

4. Procure, manufacture and construct for circularity

New commercial approaches and relationships are necessary, right across the value chain. Tender criteria and bid evaluation need to be aligned with the circular economy with appropriate scoring, contracts and commercial incentives. Greening procurement also requires clear vision and effective leadership, workforce upskilling, appropriate standards and performance metrics, and robust governance.

5. Sustain and recover value

As the circular economy grows, economic, social, environmental and commercial opportunities will multiply in number and value. The value chain is already pioneering new ways to procure materials as a service, deconstruct and disassemble, trade and use recovered materials, recycle, and harness energy and bioresources.

We are starting to see municipal authorities and private sector waste management companies pursuing circular economy opportunities, as illustrated by a research project carried out for a city client in France last year. We examined the content of waste streams, waste separation and waste-to-energy technologies, commodity markets and prices, and demand for ‘second life’ materials.

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Annual review 2022

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