Moving toward a Culture of Circular Economy in the Built Industry

In recent years, people are increasingly coming to terms with the reality that our behaviors and consumption patterns drive climate change and environmental degradation. It’s not just a matter of raising awareness, either. More people now face historic weather extremes, a rising need for fire and flood restoration, and maybe even complete relocation.

For the environmentally conscious, socially responsible consumer, the modern home is one of the most high-impact areas for improvement. Many of us dream of living in net-zero homes that will offset our energy use and alleviate our impact on the environment each day.

But such green homes are only a partial solution at best. As a whole, the construction industry has a massive impact on our natural resources, and homes are just part of its activities. We need to change that culture and start building using a circular economic model.

Seeing the big picture

One reason why people like the concept of net-zero homes is their promise of completely offsetting our carbon footprint. Whatever electricity you need daily can be generated on-site, at times taken from the grid, and then returned later.

This solution helps by giving homeowners the chance to make a difference in the long term. However, it’s incomplete. Not all locations are suitable for harnessing renewable energy inputs. Living in extremely cold or warm climates will require more energy consumption to create well-regulated indoor environments.

We can’t all build and live in net-zero homes. And this approach focuses only on what’s known as ‘operational carbon.’ It mostly ignores the ‘embodied carbon,’ which is an environmental cost you pay upfront to manufacture, assemble, and later on deconstruct and dispose of the various building materials.

Limitations of a linear economy

Building and construction activities drive 39% of all carbon emissions on a global scale. Operational carbon accounts for 28%. The remaining 11% comes from embodied carbon costs. It’s not something we can ignore if we aim to achieve a sustainable society, especially when considering that not everyone can help solve this problem on the operational side.

The difficulty with embodied carbon in the built industry is that it’s largely inherent to the construction model. People build structures using a linear economy: we take, make, and waste materials. Inevitably, this puts a strain on the environment as we rapidly consume non-renewable resources while creating problems with excess pollution outputs.

The linear economic model is hardly unique to construction. Most businesses use it, particularly in manufacturing. However, more companies in other industries are starting to recycle and turn to sustainable materials and methods.

Achieving such change in construction is a massive task because many companies are engaged in large-scale projects involving multiple stakeholders. To further complicate the problem, modern buildings are seldom utilized to the end of their life cycle, creating demand for new construction that could have been avoided.

And as our world trends towards accelerating climate change, more complicating factors threaten to loop back and exacerbate these problems. Extreme weather will put more stress on our structures, demanding more frequent repair or rebuilding. It will drive up energy consumption in warm areas and encourage many people to relocate to more favorable climes, creating more demand for construction.

A circular economy is necessary

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As in other industries, the potential solution lies in a circular economy for construction. We need to close the life cycle of materials, keeping them useful for as long as possible, and minimizing waste.

That change begins with the design teams. Architects and engineers are in the best position to make decisions to implement circular thinking throughout a building’s life cycle. Working with the contractors and builders, they can specify increases in recycled content, changes towards more sustainable materials, and future reuse potential of various components.

However, the typical construction project also involves diverse groups of people. There are the end-users: occupants, building managers, and owners. These can be distinct from the investors, project managers, and developers overseeing and backing the construction. Upstream material suppliers and end-of-life demolition teams must be educated, as well as local authorities.

It will take a culture change for the circular economy to become a reality in this industry. But we can’t afford to wait until work begins on the next project, perhaps years from now, before making this shift.

Right now, any given construction company will have ongoing projects as well as others in the pipeline. It’s time for every stakeholder to learn the circular economy on the fly and start applying its principles. Otherwise, our planet might not have much of a future left to build for.

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