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How do we adopt circular economy principles in Construction?

Adopting circular economy principles in construction may seem like a monumental task but does it need to be so hard and more importantly: how do we change?

The movement toward a Circular Economy is inevitable by necessity. Those that adapt and exploit the opportunities it brings are already reaping the benefits, while sadly others are being left behind. How materials flow within a Circular Economy is probably best illustrated by the Ellen McArthur Foundation ‘butterfly’ diagram.  Fundamentally though, it’s about changing the way we design and procure things to prevent waste arising and maximise resource value. It’s about designing and engineering things so that they can be maintained, repaired, remanufactured, re-used and adapted. Where waste will arise, we need to think about how we can maximise the material value by using it again and again (and again?).

This has huge implications for construction (and demolition); a sector that has been far slower to change by comparison to other sectors such as manufacturing or biomedical sciences.  Fluctuation of commodity prices, the fragmented nature of the industry, increasing legislative pressures, a drastic skills shortage (highlighted by Mark Farmer’s 2017 report, Modernise or Die), current procurement and design practices, and lack of investment in research and development interact to create a seemingly formidable barrier preventing change.  That said, a number of Scottish companies such as Carbon Dynamic, MAKAR and CCG have adopted circular construction principles and together have been continually innovating for over 50 years.  The output of this is adaptable buildings, that are energy efficient and use construction methods that minimse waste.  The outcomes of this include enhanced health and well-being of residents and users, and reduced environmental impact.



However, there is another side to this coin. It makes sound business sense: businesses that adapt don’t just survive but flourish. Now larger construction companies are beginning to recognise the value that Circular Economy methods bring not only to their clients but to them. Depending on who you ask Circular Economy means different things for construction but there are a number of principles that are generally consistent.  These are:

  • designing out waste;
  • designing for adaptability;
  • building in layers;
  • material selection and
  • designing for deconstruction.


These principles are explained further in the book, Building Revolutions by David Cheshire.  Using this approach he explains what each of these means not just for designers but for all stakeholders involved in the construction and operation of buildings.

Within Scotland there is an incredible and globally unique network of support offered to the construction sector by Scottish Enterprise, the Construction Scotland Innovation Centre and Zero Waste Scotland.  As a part of this network we aim to encourage economic prosperity and influence change to help accelerate Scotland towards a resource efficient Circular Economy.  Zero Waste Scotland offers free support to small and medium-sized companies to help identify opportunities to prevent waste which may include designing out waste workshops in addition to a host of free online resources such as our Designing Out Waste Guide and Resource Efficient Procurement Guide.  We also work with larger companies to understand how we can support them to embed Circular Economy in their policies, business plans and procurement, with benefits rippling throughout their supply chains on to the client.



Ultimately, we all stand to benefit from the change from a linear to a Circular Economy, but it is still not happening quickly enough.  Circular construction principles, with reduced waste, greater material efficiency and reduced lifetime costs can reduce costs for the construction sector and their clients while at the same time safeguarding profits and natural resources.  As such, large contractors, architects and clients all need to take responsibility to implement these new ways of working into their current business.  It doesn’t have to be a dramatic sea change but can be small incremental changes made as part of a business plan or strategy.  Furthermore, it is by working together and sharing our knowledge and experiences that we will overcome the challenges we face and move to a more Circular Economy.

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