Nature and Biodiversity

How the circular economy drives a healthier future in the built environment

Cherry blossoms are illuminated next to the Roppongi Hills Mori Tower building in Tokyo, Japan, in this March 23, 2016 file photo.

Image: REUTERS/Toru Hanai

Remco Teulings
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Future of the Environment

The buildings sector is the biggest user of primary energy in the world – a clear reminder of how much impact construction and engineering can have on the environment. At the same time, worldwide demand in the sector is forecasted to grow by 85% to $15.5 trillion by 2030.

The big question is how the industry can meet this demand in a truly responsible way, supporting the environment as well as people’s well-being. The sector contributes to 6% of global GDP (or $10 trillion) per year, according to a new report by the World Economic Forum. It also contributes to 25-40% of global carbon emissions and uses up huge quantities of the world’s resources, such as half of all the steel the world produces in a year.

The report, titled Shaping the Future of Construction, considers the various tools that could be used to improve the way things are built. Whether it’s lean management, circular economics or cross-industry collaboration, all of these tools are important. But it’s circular-economy thinking that can have a truly radical impact on the built environment, as well as people’s health and well-being.

A new book by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation sets out what’s wrong with the current conventional system:

“We spend the majority of our time inside buildings – turning on lights, powering up electronics, and maintaining thermal comfort. But too frequently, our behaviour regarding buildings includes tearing down relatively new ones, quickly constructing others, and failing to take a whole-systems approach in their design, products and services. This creates some of the very things we use buildings to protect ourselves against: namely air pollution, environmental degradation and extreme weather events.”

One area that is helping is the development of Advanced Building Materials (ABMs), much of which has been inspired by the circular economy. Getting them to market, however, can be a challenge, as noted by the Future of Construction report. One reason is they often require high investment, the materials have not been licensed or proven yet, or buyers on the ground lack the information they need to make informed decisions based on a trade-off between price and quality or durability and ecological concerns.

There are many innovations in this area. There’s the rain-absorbing roof mat, which mimics perspiration and reduces air-conditioning costs. Then there’s our own iQ Natural vinyl flooring (a 100% recyclable product with a bio-based plasticizer) which also reduces Total Volatile Organic Compounds (TVOC) to 100 times below the strictest standards in Europe, thereby contributing to healthier indoor air quality.

Clearly we need to find ways to boost the sales of more ABMs – but, as the report discusses, this is not easy. However, the report authors say there may be a straightforward solution:

“Engineering and construction companies should build up relevant competencies in-house, and create a database of evidence on the applicability and benefits of ABMs, in order to provide clients with a convincing quantitative case for using ABMs. Then, contractors should institutionalize the knowledge transfer to local project teams, so that the decision-makers at a project level have all the relevant up-to-date information and can thereby optimize their decisions on materials.”

The key is to encourage ideas such as these, through collaboration and leadership, so that we are all working to this vision. One example is air quality, an area where the circular economy offers clear support and inspiration.

A recent report from the World Green Building Council, Health, Well-Being and Productivity in Offices, noted the heavy cost of absenteeism and ill-health, potentially caused by the design and make-up of office environments.

They reported: “It is increasingly clear that there is a difference between office environments that are simply not harmful – i.e. the absence of ‘bad’ – and environments that positively encourage health and well-being, and stimulate productivity.” The ultimate goal needs to be “buildings that maximize benefits for people, and leave the planet better off as well.”

Currently, outdoor and indoor pollution is a major crisis, killing more people than smoking, road deaths and diabetes combined, according to WHO figures. This highlights the need for all of us in the construction and engineering industry to design products that can improve indoor air quality.

This is not only the responsible thing to do; it’s also good for business. A scientific experiment completed last year by US research institutions SUNY Upstate Medical University and Syracuse University, found that people’s cognitive abilities were improved by working in offices with fewer volatile organic compounds polluting the air.

These are just some of the approaches that can be taken to transform the sector. With circular economy thinking, the future of construction can be both highly profitable and sustainable.

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Related topics:
Nature and BiodiversityEnergy TransitionCircular Economy
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