Construction needs circular economy models

19 FEBRUARY, 2016BY CLAUDIA JAKSCH

Our built environment and the way it is designed, constructed and managed has an immense impact on the environment, economy and society.

Buildings are responsible for almost half of the UK’s carbon emissions, half of our water consumption, about a third of landfill waste and a quarter of all raw materials used in the economy.

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Moving towards a more circular built environment is imperative in order to make the sector more sustainable. Such a move is supported by a robust business case while also providing strong social benefits.

As the UK’s largest consumer of natural resources, the construction industry urgently needs to minimise the impact of the materials it uses by sourcing them in a responsible way and focusing on the use of secondary or recycled materials. On the flipside of minimising resource use is the effective management and reduction of construction waste.

Alternative methods to the disposal of construction waste include the introduction of collection systems, diverting waste away from landfill and recovering energy from waste. Offsite construction solutions are also able to deliver assets with half the waste and 25% less energy, improving precision and quality, reducing assembly time and making working conditions safer. This benefits the industry and our economy as a whole.

Furthermore, the importance of the design and planning at a service level needs to be improved, for instance, by optimising the way we store, collect, transport and process waste in urban contexts in the future.

Increased resource management and efficiency as well as improved design in the built environment are key components to a modern, resilient society that acts to mitigate the effects of climate change. The long-term economic benefits that are available to businesses and governments by adopting these approaches are well established.

The interlinking challenges presented by sustainable resource management in the built environment, which is increasingly affected by climate change, require decision-makers to think more holistically about these key areas, in order to allow for more flexible and effective policies.

At the end of January, Policy Connect hosted a reception, jointly organised by its All-Party Groups on Sustainable Resources (APSRG), Climate Change (APPCCG) and the Sustainable Built Environment (APSBEG) in order to discuss the challenges and opportunities arising from embedding circularity in the built environment. With keynote speeches from shadow minister for energy and climate change Barry Gardiner MP and UK Green Building Council chief executive Julie Hirigoyen, the event made it unequivocally clear that the principle of ‘take, make, dispose, repeat’, which still prevails in the construction industry, is outdated and in urgent need of replacement by circular economy models, complemented by a stricter enforcement of waste reduction targets.

Considering the Government’s ambitious house-building target of a million new homes by 2020, it will be of the utmost importance to ensure that those new buildings conform to a high standard of sustainability and do not contribute to the aggravation of increasingly scarce resources, such as precious metals.

Furthermore, with construction and demolition waste as one of the biggest sources of waste, the sector can do more to embrace design for deconstruction and disassembly. Holistic assessments of the effects of resources used during the course of entire lifecycles of buildings should also increasingly be considered.

This will need to be supported by a waste industry that acknowledges and appreciates material value more, and thereby helps the construction sector to create a whole-life, circular built environment.

Claudia Jaksch is head of sustainability at Policy Connect

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