European Green Building Councils set out the building blocks of a circular built environment
New idea or ancient philosophy?
Circularity may be the buzz word of the hour, but the truth is Europe’s buildings have been circular for millennia. Urban mining, buildings as material banks, design for deconstruction: all novel-sounding ideas but, in fact, people have been reusing and repurposing building materials throughout history. Even Wikipedia acknowledges that, at one time, the colosseum in Rome was used as a quarry.
It’s only in our recent history that we’ve forgotten some of these basic principles. But European Green Building Councils (GBCs) are leading the transition (back) to a circular built environment. At the network’s recent meeting in Oslo, dedicated to the topic, we heard from five national GBCs about their work in this space; as retro as it is cutting edge!
I’ve summarised their presentations into three key themes; three C’s for circularity! But first, what actually is a circular built environment?
What is a circular built environment and how do we get there?
The Ellen MacArthur foundation defines the circular economy as ‘restorative and regenerative by design’. In her keynote address to the network, Anne Solgaard of Norway Green Building Council, and formerly Circular Norway, explained how our current business models seek to maximise labour productivity at the expense of resources. In a circular model we must reprioritise material productivity, ensuring we get the most out of every resource we have.
Interestingly, several GBCs noted that ongoing national initiatives and discussions on the circular economy tend to focus on plastics, electronics and textiles. That’s not to say the massive material footprint of our sector is being ignored; but circular solutions and initiatives in the built environment tend to be overlooked. The life cycle of buildings and the value-chain of the built environment is complex. Closing material loops is easier the closer the two ends of the loop are to each other. The long lifecycles of buildings and the fragmented nature of the industry mean that the distance between each end of the loop, in terms of time, space and organisational responsibility can seem hard to surmount!
Unsurprisingly then, the starting point for all the GBCs working on this topic was to bring together stakeholders from across their membership. This whole value chain representation is one of the unique aspects of the GBC model and is vital to increasing circularity in our sector. For example, UKGBC used the Kumu tool to create an actor map of organisations and initiatives across the UK that are addressing different barriers to circularity. Free to access, the map allows anyone with an interest in the topic to see who is already doing what and to identify possible opportunities for further collaboration. It was an important step in identifying how UKGBC could most usefully add value.
For Alliance HQE-GBC, in France, a vital next step is to galvanise industry and policy action by agreeing on common metrics and indicators of circularity. Businesses are often most effective at implementing change when they have quantitative targets to work towards. The Framework for a definition of circularity in the buildings sector (in French) provides these in terms of 15 levers for action.
GBC Italia took a similar approach, drawing on the expertise within their membership and scientific committee to draft their Position paper on circular economy for buildings (in Italian with an Executive Summary in English on pages 6-8).
This consensus building is essential for engaging in policy discussions to demonstrate the weight of industry behind GBC advocacy work.
GBCs can help bring people together and advocate the way forward, but it is their members, businesses across the value chain, that undertake the work of transitioning to more circular practices. GBCs have developed a number of tools to help their members with this.
Alliance HQE-GBC updated its voluntary sustainability certification to include a circularity indicator – allowing users of the scheme to benchmark and improve their performance.
GBC Finland published guidance on circular economy criteria to be taken account in building projects and a list of circular economy examples in Finland for members to follow. They also developed guidance for public land owners on conditions to consider applying when granting building plots that would support circularity (all in Finnish).
GBC Italia worked with the Centre for Renewable Materials on an innovative business model for dealing with construction and demolition waste, 80% of which currently still ends up in landfill.
Norway GBC has included circular principles, such as closing material loops and design for deconstruction, in the immediate actions called for in its Property sector roadmap towards 2050. Norway is also currently testing criteria for circular buildings as part of the FutureBuilt programme of projects (in Norwegian).
UKGBC has published its Circular economy guidance for construction clients, offering practical advice on how to use procurement to drive circularity.
There is incredible value in exchanging knowledge and best practice across different markets. The regional networks of WorldGBC are a great platform for this. In Europe we have recently launched our new think tank, which will allow GBCs’ members to benefit more directly from the network’s shared expertise. The think tank will be a series of virtual and in person events where we explore cutting edge topics and ideas (old and new!) that can support our vision for a sustainable built environment at the heart of Europe’s future. To find out more about this exciting development, contact your local GBC or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Stephen Richardson is Head of Projects, Europe Regional Network