Does the circular economy help minimize the environmental effects of the construction industry?
Applying the principle of the circular economy to construction materials and the renovation of buildings offers benefits not only for the sector but for society in general. The architect must be a fundamental part of this change in the way the world thinks.
According to a study conducted by the Ellen Mc Arthur Foundation, 45% of greenhouse gases are a consequence of the production of materials and manufactured goods. According to the same report, we could achieve a reduction of the greenhouse effect of up to 40% by 2050 by changing the production processes of materials such as cement, steel, plastic and aluminum: the four horsemen of the construction industry.
The circular economy (reduce / recycle / reuse) is becoming increasingly important for new buildings or building renewal. Moreover, the new sustainability paradigm is of utmost relevance in the conceptualization phase of new buildings or renewals. Contemporary architecture must lead the change towards a dramatic reduction of the environmental impact of construction, employing new materials and resources. In this sense, the question is: how can architecture help reduce the environmental impact of new building or renewals?
The design phase of a project, key to the circular economy
In June 2019, Belgium launched the Construction Industry Roadmap towards a circular economy, aiming to regard today’s buildings as material assets and so reduce the production of waste and the extraction of raw materials, all the while generating new employment. The program also helps architects to access the large amounts of information required for in-depth conceptual reflection. “The vast majority of the environmental impact of any product is determined at the design stage. Subsequently, architects and designers in general should be able to anticipate the impact a particular building would have on our environment”.
According to Ellen Mc Arthur’s concept of "urban mining", today's assets are tomorrow's resources: should we consider existing buildings and waste as material mines we would have resources galore for now and for the future.
How to start applying the principles of the circular economy
The urgent need to take action on climate issues and address the causes of climate change has led many professionals in the construction industry in Europe to reflect upon the implementation of tools to help architects, engineers and other industry professionals implement a circular strategy for their new construction or renewal projects. In the Netherlands, for example, it is mandatory to use Gebouw GPR software consisting of various online packages for the calculation of the sustainability performance of buildings and urban plans. On the other hand, in France, architects can use similar online software (Elodie) launched by the Centre Scientifique et Technique du Bâtiment. These and other tools help calculate the ecological impact of new construction and the expected environmental performance of materials.
“What would also help industry professionals at the conceptualization of a project would be to launch a passport for each type of material,” said Eric Allodi, director of Upcyclea Circular Engineering at the 2020 EnerJ-Meeting in Paris, adding that it would be perfect if industry professionals could access, in only two clicks, the provenance and history of a product, including its materials.
In the case of insulation, small changes can translate into a dramatic reduction of waste, allowing more insulation materials to be recycled or reused. For example, staff trained in the handling of materials could adequately separate and save insulation waste, preparing it for reuse. Secure storage of recovered insulation materials would allow for them to be reused in a number of construction applications, including most refurbishment projects. Glass and stone wool batt insulation can be incorporated into concrete blocks or fiberglass boards and ceiling tiles.
Applying the thinking of the circular economy to architectural design and the use of construction materials offers great sustainability benefits for the industry. If you wondering how to start the process, talk to our experts about green building and insulation waste management and reuse.