Construction industry needs a collaborative ‘evolutionary jump’ towards a circular economy

Collaboration within the construction industry is crucial to ensuring that businesses can embed best practice and overcome barriers to applying circular economy principles to the built environment, the UK Green Building Council's (UKGBC) sustainability officer has claimed.

Speaking at a panel discussion between leading industry figures at property developer Argent’s offices in London on Thursday (26 May), UKGBC’s Mark Edwards explained that only an industry-wide resolution to share ideas and resources will enable the circular economy to become mainstream within the sector.

“By definition, the construction industry is project-based and for me that presents barriers,” Edwards said. “You’ve got project management teams even within the same organisations and they’re very good at delivering to budget to time and to the best quality. But they very often don’t look over the wall to their neighbouring project.

“They often think ‘my project’s finishing now so I don’t need those materials anymore, that’s great I can get rid of those’. But his mate is running a project which starts in a few weeks and needs those materials. If you put them in storage you can use them again. Simple things like that don’t seem to happen very often.”

‘Evolutionary jump’

With the built environment demanding around 40% of the world’s extracted materials and demolition waste representing the largest waste stream in many countries, it would be highly unsustainable for the construction industry to carry on operating within a linear economy of make, use and dispose. Edwards explained that working with both the supply chain and other industries is vital to enabling the transformational change that the circular economy can bring.

“We also need to look at the supply chain to ensure we can embed best practice and spread this learning,” Edwards said. “Collaboration is key across the supply chain to make it happen. We need to engage as early as possible and make sure that things aren’t value engineered out.

“There’s also collaboration outside of the industry, it isn’t just the construction industry that is generating waste. How can we turn resources from the construction industry into input for other industries, and how can we use their waste? All these things are down to behaviour change. I don’t think we need revolution, I think we just we need quite a large evolutionary jump.”

Two-way approach

Also speaking at the panel debate was AECOM’s sustainability director David Cheshire, who recently released a ‘Building Revolutions’ book exploring how a circular economy approach to building design could bring cost, efficiency and environmental benefits to the built environment sector. Cheshire echoed the sentiments of the UKGBC’s sustainability officer, recalling various case studies of industry collaboration he witnessed during a recent visit to the Netherlands.

“In many of the projects in Amsterdam there was a real natural instinct to be collaborative,” Cheshire said. “The people I worked with seemed very inclined to collaborate and it’s just so different from us [the UK]. It needs to come from both ways. Seeding the environment and using a top-down approach helps set it up but also it takes individuals to come together and say ‘let’s go and do this’.”

Signs of new, business-driven sustainability movements are beginning to emerge across the built environment sector. Earlier this month, Berkeley revealed a new two-year plan to deliver a 10% reduction in carbon emissions per person, while utilising an internal carbon tax and carbon offsetting schemes to reach the new ambitious target which will see the group offset more carbon than it produces.

Carillion recently added an additional £33.8m to its overall profits thanks to an increased focus on sustainable business practice, while a technological innovation that will enable Europe’s cement and lime industries to significantly reduce their environmental footprint through carbon capture and storage (CCS) recently received €12m backing from the European Union (EU).

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Industrial applications of the circular economy is a central focus of the edie Resource Revolution Conference.

Taking place on the July 5, the edie Resource Revolution Conference provides resource management, sustainability, waste, product, supply chain and design professionals with tools they need to rethink their approach to resource use and waste outputs, drive organisational efficiencies, behaviour change and profitability, and effect a revolution in their company’s sustainability credentials.

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George Ogleby

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