Circular economy, a more sustainable future for the building industry

Although gaining ground in everyday consumer goods, the circular economy is a more complex model when it comes to building our homes.

With a very long life and using thousands of components, buildings are a real circular model headache (preserve, recycle, upgrade) - as opposed to the simpler linear model (extract, make, use, throw).

According to the World Economic Forum construction accounts for 6% of the world's gross domestic product ($10 billion) per year. And building our homes requires enormous quantities of resources – for example, half the annual global steel production.

A very heavy price tag when you add in that the sector is responsible for between 25 and 40% of the world’s carbon emissions and that it produces huge amounts of waste. According to France’s Ministry of the Environment, Energy and the Sea, building accounts for about 15% of the waste produced by the construction and public works industry in France - 50 million tonnes per year (compared to the roughly 30 million tonnes of household waste produced every year). 65% of this waste comes from demolition, 28% from rehabilitation and 7% from new builds. Unfortunately, recycling is now estimated at under 50%.

Nevertheless, the sector is gradually embracing a circular approach. Even though initiatives are still limited, today there is reason to be more hopeful.

Encourage renovation

In "circular housing", the first solution is as far as possible to keep existing buildings and encourage renovation. However, another approach is emerging - should all our dwellings be designed as permanent structures or, on the contrary, should we consider shorter life spans and from the outset include the possibility of dismantling and reusing them?

This is the approach being taken by Studio XX Architecten, based in Rotterdam. Their "Villa Caméra" is a rare example of building that can be regularly dismantled and reused. In its first incarnation, the building was an art room for children. Designed to last five years, it was then dismantled and the components stored. Two years later, the same elements became temporary accommodation for a school. Then, in a third reincarnation, it became "Villa Camera", an office and storage space in the Hilversum media park.

Recycling and recovery

Another priority in the circular system is to design materials that can be recovered, recycled and re-used. The French company “Recovering” is supporting the construction sector in this process, in particular by recycling plaster-based waste. And it’s booming: more than 45,000 tonnes of external waste was recycled in 2012. Another example is Tarkett, which specializes in PVC carpeting and flooring, which has joined forces with Veolia to collect and sort the flexible floor covering cut offs discarded by building professionals. This waste is then recycled on Tarkett’s production sites.

Air quality

The issue of dealing with construction industry waste has inherent health challenges. Increasingly airtight and small interiors can cause respiratory problems, allergies, nausea, and headaches. Conversely, an experiment carried out in 2015 by SUNY (State University of New York Upstate Medical University) - an American research center - found that the cognitive abilities of people working in offices are greatly improved by reducing the amount of organic volatile compounds polluting the air...

This explains why builders are increasingly concerned about building clean and hypoallergenic living and working spaces.

At the beginning of 2018, in Sainte-Hélène in France, a primary school will be opened that is 100% recyclable. It is a first for France and the circular economy is central to the project - the goal being to avoid creating waste, and use only non-toxic materials that can be infinitely recycled or that can be returned to the environment without creating pollution.

The building, which can be dismantled at the end of its life, will consist entirely of paint, flooring, coatings and electrical cabling free from harmful components. The politicians’ goal is to ensure that their "green" school does not cost the municipality any more to build than a conventional building would, and for it to greatly improve the children’s well-being and ability to learn. A circular economy in the form of a doubly virtuous loop!

Conflicts, climate disasters, and the movements of large numbers of refugees are all major world issues - as indeed are massive religious or festive gatherings. These phenomena directly challenge the very notions underpinning our current understanding of cities, urban planning and architecture.

Pressure on urban spaces and ephemeral urban movements call into question the ideas of permanence, building to last, and stability usually associated with cities.

These reflections are at the heart of the 15th Architecture Biennial taking place in Venice until 27 November.

Key figures

Building and public works contributes to 5% of France’s GDP and 6% globally.

The industry generates 25 to 40% of all global carbon emissions.

The building sector accounts for about 15% of the global production of construction waste.

65% of the waste produced by the building sector comes from demolition, 28% from rehabilitation, 7% from new build.

Estimates suggest that less than 50% of building waste is currently recycled.

Find out more:

- Peter Lewis turns plastic waste into green bricks
- City of Greensburg, Kansas : a story of urban resilience
- Could oil silos be the eco-friendly homes of the future?

Sources : INSEE, World Economic Forum and France’s Ministry of the Environment, Energy and the Sea

Back to top
comments powered by Disqus