Human activity has a lasting impact on the environment and climate. As more people move to cities looking for economic prosperity, there is increasing pressure on local and national governments to provide healthy places to live, work, learn and recuperate for their citizens. Establishing a framework that accommodates both the rising rates of urbanisation and ensures the future sustainability of the population requires a circular economy that extends beyond the operational stage of buildings.
A report from McKinsey in 2012 estimated that by 2025 the world would need one billion additional houses. By 2050, Europe’s level of urbanisation will reach approximately 83 percent. The choices we make to accommodate this growth will have an impact on future generations and the environment. The vast number of resources and energy required to support these rates of growth will increase emissions and by extension, negatively influence our fragile world.
Resource consumption from building and construction products
By nature, the building and construction industry are resource-intensive. It requires the extraction, manufacturing and erection of specialised materials and products sourced from natural resources. According to the OECD, construction materials and the building sector are responsible for more than one-third of all resource consumption in the world annually. Additionally, the manufacturing of building materials uses about 30 percent of the global energy supply. Buildings also generate excessive levels of waste, with 40 percent of urban solid waste originating from the world’s buildings. Considering that only 20-30 percent of this waste goes through a recycling process, the standard approach is no longer sustainable.
Maintaining the levels of growth required while ensuring future sustainability necessitates a new resource consumption model. The concept of circularity is the approach that ensures the responsible management of materials we need today.
Moving from a linear to a circular model in buildings and construction products
The traditional take-make-use-dispose approach to resource consumption no longer works. Not only does it put a massive strain on the natural environment, it also creates unsustainable levels of emissions and waste every day. Adopting a circular approach to resource consumption imitates the processes of natural systems. In the natural environment, everything returns to nature and is absorbed by the environment. A circular approach to materials management follows the same philosophy, working to reduce waste and maximise consumption by designing out start or end-points in the cycle.
The European Commission includes the building sector as one of the main focus areas for the recently released New Circular Economy Action Plan, which is part of the European Green Deal. Moving to a circular economy in the building and construction sector provides additional benefits, but requires us to take a holistic approach to the entire lifecycle of buildings. This includes the sub-processes and extensive supply chains that support the sector.
The Ellen MacArthur Foundation advises that a circular economy relies on three main principles.
- Designing out waste and pollution from systems, processes and products.
- Extending the useful life of products, components and materials.
- Working to regenerate natural systems.
In the context of buildings, circularity requires a holistic assessment of the products and services selected for renovation or a new construction project. Here is how these principles apply to the building and construction sector.
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