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To achieve net-zero, infrastructure must embrace the circular economy

New business models will kickstart a 21st century approach to delivering our built environment.

While everybody now takes the net-zero agenda seriously, there is still much debate over how to square this with the need to deliver vital improvements to the built environment. Driving down energy use, streamlined designs, low-carbon materials and digital transformation all play their part.

But we can’t keep doing things the same way. We need to shift away from our linear approach to infrastructure, which makes few plans for when a building reaches the end of its lifecycle. Instead, we need to adopt circular economy principles – where buildings are designed from the very outset to be assembled, used, disassembled and re-used as needed. This aligns perfectly with the net-zero agenda, as it has waste minimisation as the key driving factor in the building’s design.

In a sense, these ideas are not new. People have been constructing temporary buildings for several decades, from temporary housing for gold miners in 1800s California, to sports venues for the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games and, more recently, the Nightingale Hospitals built in the UK to accommodate large numbers of COVID-19 patients.

Adopting circular economy principles can have a major impact on carbon emissions. In a typical new office building, the structure represents over 50% of the initial embodied carbon. Circular design cuts waste significantly by focusing on modular components which can be continuously re-purposed rather than sent to landfill, better supply chain management and more efficient production and transportation. The development of design for manufacture and assembly (DfMA) makes circular design even more accessible to those in our industry.

So why aren’t planners, architects and decision-makers demanding more of this? Modular design is most suitable for completely new buildings and less applicable to existing buildings, especially historic buildings where renovations focus on preservation. Decision-makers often have an old-fashioned approach to legacy, developing buildings that outlast their original need to leave a lasting asset. Architects and master planners often don’t offer their clients the choice of innovative builds and need to be encouraged to move away from resource-hungry, conventional buildings. There are also misconceptions that re-useable or modular buildings are less structurally sound or safe.

New business models

How can we encourage the take-up of more modular buildings? Getting the right business models in place will help. Elsewhere in the wider construction industry, selling ‘products as a service’ is gaining traction as a model that works well for both the client and the supplier. In this model, the supplier remains the ‘owner’ of their product – which they lease to the client.

For clients, there are several advantages of this model:

Lower upfront cost: While traditional buildings are paid for in full by the client on completion, selling modular buildings ‘as a service’ replaces this with lower initial outlay costs and ongoing lease costs instead.

More efficient delivery: Modular design brings vast efficiencies to the construction process, as components are fabricated offsite and delivered for assembly onsite. This means quicker installation, less waste, fewer delays and a much safer delivery process. The manufacture of standardised components also leads to better quality control and reduced risk.

The supplier is responsible: As the supplier remains the ‘owner’ of the building structure, they are responsible when it comes to maintenance and repair – giving clients a guarantee of no unexpected costs. Project risk is also borne by the supplier as the principal contractor.

More agile master planning: Modular design enables more agile, long-term approaches to urban development by promoting a ‘meanwhile use’ which can be easily disassembled and replaced. For example, the ABBA Voyage Arena constructed in east London will be dismounted at the end of its run to make way for future development of housing or other public use.

Long lifetime: Despite perceptions, modular buildings have long lifecycles, comparable to traditional builds, giving clients the choice of keeping the buildings long-term or replacing them if needs change.

Sustainable re-use: When a building comes to the end of its lifecycle, the client can count on the supplier to dismantle and re-use the building components rather than worrying about decommissioning.

There are already some notable examples of the ‘products as a service’ business model in our industry. Philips provides lighting to clients as a continuous service, and under these contracts are responsible for maintenance and replacement. Rolls-Royce is known for its leasing model of engines to major airlines – providing ongoing support as needed.

While we know that adopting circular economy principles will help drive down waste – and carbon by proxy – in our industry, take-up is yet to become mainstream. Much depends on what clients ask for. Offering innovative business models can help steer clients towards this lower carbon building approach, aiding our industry’s journey towards net-zero.

This blog is brought to you by:

​Eszter Gulacsy, Project Principal, Mott MacDonald
Fiona Chu, Sustainability Manager, ES Global
Ben Carlisle, Global Practice Leader for DfMA, Mott MacDonald
Amy Casterton, Business Development Director, ES Global