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‘Enormous opportunity’ | Making the business case for circularity

Circular economy methods – such as reusing materials and cutting waste – offer considerable financial benefits on top of carbon savings, a study of 18 cutting-edge developments has found.

By reusing a building’s sub and super structure, buildings such as 1 Triton Square – which PlaceTech recently visited – achieved savings of 15-18.5% compared to a new build.

The majority of projects UKGBC studied in its report have also seen or expect to see a shortened programme time by reusing materials. This is despite the time required for deconstruction.

Alongside reusing materials, the report identified four other circular principles with potential benefits for cost and carbon reduction:

  • Designing for optimisation: creating assets that meet long-term needs through flexible and durable design
  • Standardisation: using standardised elements or modular designs
  • Products as a service: establishing a payment structure where customers have unlimited access to resources but only pay for what they use
  • Minimising impact and waste: using low-impact and recycled materials, designing out waste and reducing construction site waste

By designing in flexibility, for example, some developers have been able to let space faster by accommodating specific tenant needs.

Buildings that can be disassembled can also be used as a material bank: as material costs rise, owners can benefit by selling existing components.

Real estate targets carbon, not costs

Although there are financial benefits, the report – which asked those submitting case studies why they pursued circularity – found that projects embraced circular methods mainly for carbon-related reasons.

Upfront carbon reduction (cited by 22% of respondents) and whole life carbon reduction (16%) were identified as the two most common reasons for using circularity.

A further 14% pointed to planning requirements, which, in cities like London, increasingly demand whole life carbon assessments that calculate emissions for every stage of a building’s life cycle.

‘Enormous opportunity’

Last year, the UKGBC’s Whole Life Carbon Roadmap found that the UK built environment can reach zero carbon by 2050, but to do that it would have to cut both embodied and operational carbon to “almost zero”.

Circular principles would have to be an important part of that transition.

Julie Hirigoyen, CEO of UKGBC, said: “The circular economy represents an enormous opportunity for the built environment industry.

“Today’s research demonstrates that through the smart application of circular practices, significant carbon savings can be made across the entire lifecycle of a building, as well as delivering cost-benefits and providing opportunities to enhance social value.

“Whilst UKGBC’s Roadmap confirmed a net zero carbon built environment is achievable by 2050, it also confirmed that meeting this target will require a transformational shift in the way we approach and deliver construction projects, with circularity as an important part of the solution.”

Challenges

Measuring the benefits of circular design principles is difficult because there is a lack of consistency in the industry.

The report found that case studies did not always measure carbon, financial or non-financial benefits. In some cases, this was because those gains will occur at some point in the future and will benefit new tenants and owners. Current owners, therefore, have little incentive to set up measurement processes.

Another problem is that whole life carbon assessments are done with a range of measurement tools, assumptions and criteria, which makes like-for-like comparisons difficult.

Despite these issues, the report argued that what results developers have reported should “aim to inspire action” on circularity – even where expected benefits are years away.

Read the full report for all the case studies and analysis around them.

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