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Eight core strategies for circular construction

© Shutterstock / ESB ProfessionalSkyscrapers overlooking a large green park.
Skyscrapers overlooking a large green park.

The UK Green Building Council (UKGBC) has released a new framework to support the construction industry’s contributions to the development of a circular economy. 

  • The new toolkit outlines eight core strategies that could help the construction sector to overcome its barriers in the transition to circularity. 
  • Without a complete overhaul of its operations, the construction sector is likely to stand in the way of the net zero transition and the development of a more sustainable, circular economy. 
  • By highlighting the different contributions that can be made by various stakeholders, the UKGBC’s framework could prove to be a valuable resource in delivering the systemic transformation of the built environment. 

The UKGBC’s new toolkit outlines eight core strategies that could accelerate the construction industry’s transition from its current model to a sustainable, circular alternative. With a number of systemic barriers yet to be overcome, the toolkit provides guidance for a wide range of stakeholders to fulfil their respective roles. 

“Industry can either keep trying to tweak business-as-usual and make minor improvements to a failing system, or we can make fundamental, systems level changes and create a resilient, collaborative, and thriving construction sector fit for the future,” explained Yetunde Abdul, the UKGBC’s head of climate action. 

“UKGBC’s new guidance aims to catalyse this change through confronting some of the key barriers that exist in today’s market and signpost industry and government to the practical steps they can take to support a circular economy.” 

The environmental impacts of a linear construction industry 

With its linear model of resource extraction, material production, construction and subsequent demolition, the built environment is a major driver of climate change, biodiversity loss and other interconnected crises.  

Estimates suggest that it accounts for almost 50% of global greenhouse gas emissions, around 20% of which are generated by the construction process and the various materials it involves. Unless these emissions are significantly reduced before 2030, there will be no hope of achieving net zero by 2050. 

In addition to its greenhouse gas emissions, the buildings industry is a major source of waste. According to 2018’s statistics, the UK alone generates around 67.8 million tonnes of construction and demolition waste in a single year. It is important to note that this figure does not include hazardous forms of waste nor those produced during excavation. 

This wastage raises a number of concerns, as it results in the loss of vital resources and their associated contributions to the economy. Furthermore, wasted construction materials often contain hazardous components such as solvents or asbestos, which can be extremely harmful when released into the environment. 

Given that the total global floor area covered by buildings is expected to double by 2060 to accommodate the growth of urban populations, there is an urgent need to address these issues. The construction industry must undergo a complete transformation if it is to deliver the changes required. 

System Enablers for a Circular Economy 

In the Systems Enablers for a Circular Economy toolkit, the UKGBC highlighted the barriers constraining the construction industry’s transition towards a more circular and regenerative model. Among these limitations are the sector’s overwhelming focus on profit maximisation, its tendency to focus on short-term objectives and its culture of competitive individualism. 

With these challenges identified, the UKGBC outlined a series of recommendations for how they may be addressed. Its suggestions include improving the collaboration between industry stakeholders, creating a marketplace for secondary materials, increasing the adoption of circular design principles and expanding the use of ‘green contracts’ or leases.  

The toolkit highlighted the various roles that different stakeholders must play to achieve a transformation. For example, it recommended that governments must introduce tax incentives, regulations and other policy measures that could drive the implementation of circular practices, while the investment community must expand its green financial mechanisms to deliver vital funding. 

Noting that the sector will need to carefully monitor its progress, the UKGBC also suggested that a consistent set of metrics, benchmarks and indicators be developed. Finally, it said that all practitioners and decision-makers must be equipped with the knowledge and awareness required to truly understand and adopt the most sustainable approach. 

Systemic challenges require systemic solutions 

When considering the challenges identified by the UKGBC, it is worth acknowledging that each issue is deeply engrained at the very heart of the construction industry. The Council is not calling out the use of any single material, nor the lack of a specific support mechanism. Rather, it has revealed flaws within the system itself. 

The systemic nature of the problem at hand is reflected by the holistic approach of its recommendations, as its eight core strategies rely on the engagement of various parties. From architects and contractors to policymakers and investors, each stakeholder must make their own contribution. 

This holistic approach is a crucial aspect of transformation, as the breakdown of systemic beliefs, processes and values can only be achieved through the cooperation and collaboration of each actor involved. As such, the UKGBC’s new toolkit could serve as a valuable resource in the delivery of a circular construction industry. 

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