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When is a building ‘circular’?

Over the past 10 years, EU climate policy has been the single biggest driver towards sustainability in Europe’s building sector, with a pretty narrow focus: energy use. However, in the back rooms of Brussels, officials are formulating plans to help our construction industry radically rethink the way it approaches projects.

Plans to move the region towards a ‘circular economy’ – a restorative and regenerative economic system in which resources are retained and reused (as opposed to our current linear economy of ‘take, make and dispose’) – are now in full swing. But what this will really mean for our sector hasn’t been clear for some time: until now.

In Europe, WorldGBC and its major partners have been advocating the need to shift towards circular or whole ‘lifecycle’ thinking for buildings – through a simple ‘framework’ of ‘common indicators’ assessing construction projects. This summer the European Commission has released the first details of what this might look like.

Now, the words ‘Framework’, ‘common indicators’, ‘lifecycle’ etc. may sound like jargon, but the idea is relatively simple – so bear with me.

Today the construction industry across Europe is fairly comfortable speaking the language of energy performance, but when you mention ‘sustainability’ the list of potential things to be considered seems fairly overwhelming to most.

To help the majority of actors in the construction value chain become comfortable with speaking this new language, and begin the shift towards a more resource efficient and circular building industry, the EU wants to create a ‘common’ language. This will focus on reducing the number of key aspects of building design, to encourage thinking around impacts that span the entire building lifecycle, from production to demolition and eventual reuse.

The hope is that creating such a common language will allow for easier communication of sustainability information to building professionals and non-experts, provide data to help decision making throughout the life-cycle of building projects, and widen the market for sustainable buildings. From a policy and commercial angle, the last of these anticipated effects of this new framework is the most exciting.

The way the European Commission has approached the difficult issue of how to design this framework is to split its central objectives into indicators that address environmental performance (as well as those of related but wider issues like quality, performance and value). A series of sub objectives sit under these, from lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions, resource efficient material flows and water efficiency, to indoor air quality, resilience and lifecycle costs. Now the Commission is consulting on the specific indicators best placed to assess these aspects of performance.

Still with me? Good.

For those who produce and use timber, this new EU assessment framework will be a truly hot topic. Timber and the potential of CLT (Cross Laminated Timber) get dozens of mentions in the most recently published reports by the Commission, and products that can demonstrate optimized embodied and end of life impacts are anticipated to be drawn to the attention of projects using the framework.

When the finalised framework is released later in 2017, it won’t come in the form of an EU law – it will be wholly voluntary. Despite this ‘soft’ launch, companies whose sustainability reports advocate being best in class on sustainability should take note – the framework sets the tone for European policy to come in the years ahead, so gaining experience of it and aligning practice with it are important for corporate strategists to consider. Companies advocating sustainable building in Brussels are already starting to talk about a future ‘Sustainable Performance of Buildings Directive’ that could drive industry action, based on the foundations this framework creates.

Now, I know what you’re thinking… This all sounds and looks like another building certification scheme, and Europe already has a bunch of robust certification tools like BREEAM, DGNB, HQE and LEED. However, the intention is not to reinvent the wheel by creating another certification scheme.

In fact, the hope is that existing national policies and assessment tools will align around the framework, so we all start to speak this ‘common green language’. Existing certification tools could become routes to show that a project is ‘compliant’ with the framework or has taken it into consideration. And in turn, as the framework begins to embed itself in procurement and other national policies, pursuing certifications aligned with it will hopefully become more commonplace across Europe.

In conclusion, the framework is a humble start on the pathway to truly circular buildings, in which each stage of the lifecycle is considered to create a continuous, closed loop of resources where resource is not lost or wasted.

There is certainly a mountain to climb before 99% rather than 1% are speaking this common language around sustainability, but the transformative potential of the framework is something we at the European Green Building Councils deeply believe in. We hope all in the industry will join us on this journey to ensure our sector moves from current practice to best practice – vital if we are to truly green our built environment.

James Drinkwater is Director of WorldGBC’s Europe Regional Network.

This blog was originally published for Stora Enso, a Partner of the Network. Read it here