Practical Sustainability and the Next Steps Toward A Circular Economy

October 19, 2021 | Sustainability

A Summary of Circular

In the construction industry, sustainability is more than just a lofty ideal. It can be a sound business strategy. Studies consistently show that sustainable building practices can result in more efficient resource spend, lower long-term costs, and a greater return on investment.

This idea shifts the mindset of traditional building construction, which begins with compliant construction techniques, yet ignores the issues with end-of-life material disposal and construction waste. By shifting to a circular approach, project stakeholders begin with the intention of repurposing and reusing materials and structures. Incorporating these sustainable practices results in better use of financial resources and materials, and has a better long-term impact on society as a whole. The question becomes—how can organizations better facilitate this circular practice of good stewardship that stakeholders are coming to expect? Let’s dig in.

Narrowing the Definition of Sustainability

At its core, sustainability is the ability to meet today’s demands without jeopardizing the potential of future generations. Built on a foundation of social, economic, and environmental principles, it motivates organizations to formulate long-term resolutions with a positive impact on humanity and the world.

Within that context, pragmatic sustainability describes the process of evaluating any product from its initial manufacture and rethinking the end of its life to include a new beginning. It’s a lifecycle assessment that estimates exactly how many resources are required, from the beginning all the way to the next stage of use.

The benefits of embracing the concept are clear. A more comprehensive understanding of resources required, from materials to energy, leads to smarter long-term decisions about minimizing the use of resources (along with their cost and negative impacts) in the long run.

Furthermore, having a “next stage” purpose in mind at a product’s inception can save energy and keep the environment cleaner.

In building construction, for instance, the idea that materials are more cost-effective is not true simply based on the fact that they bring construction costs down. Initially, higher performance materials may often require a higher upfront investment. In the long run, quality products multiply value in ease of installation, fewer repairs, and energy savings.

The sustainability of a building or product is the sum of its components and development process throughout each phase of its development.

  • Materials extraction
  • Processing
  • Manufacturing
  • Distribution
  • Use
  • Maintenance

Improving How Lifecycles Function

Less Sustainable More Sustainable
Dispose Repurpose
Recycle Reuse

 

Though recycling is a good practice, it burns fuel. When reuse is designed into a product or building material, it takes less energy to make the process work.

From New to New: A More Sustainable Pattern

The circular approach doesn’t stop at the end of a product’s life, but naturally leads into the next lifecycle? That’s where the circular economy enters the equation.

The Ellen MacArthur Foundation describes the concept best:

A circular economy aims to redefine growth, focusing on positive society-wide benefits. It entails gradually decoupling economic activity from the consumption of finite resources and designing waste out of the system. Underpinned by a transition to renewable energy sources, the circular model builds economic, natural, and social capital.

In other words, it goes beyond the traditionally linear process of a given micro-economy. In the circular economy, the lifecycle of a product doesn’t simply end with waste but naturally leads into the next lifecycle. That’s accomplished through three core principles:

  1. Minimizing and designing waste and pollution out of the system.
  2. Keeping products and materials in use where possible.
  3. Regenerating systems or the reuse of products.

It’s about far more than simply being “green” for its own sake or ideological reasons. Especially in high-waste processes like building construction, embracing a circular economy approach comes with tangible benefits. A recent report by the MacArthur Foundation found that this approach can save up to 40% of the energy used in real estate, reducing carbon emissions by 38% in the process. 

How Circular Opens the Door to Greater Sustainability

Think of the circular approach as an entry point. Once an organization adopts a mindset in a sustainable direction, other topics with similar, compounding benefits begin to open up. 

For example, a Health Product Declaration (or HPD) can help communicate the ways in which sustainable building practices were followed to customers and other stakeholders. It identifies sustainable elements in areas including architecture, design, manufacturing, and others, minimizing the use of products that may be unsafe or hazardous in the process.

Working with HPDs and Environmental Product Declarations (EPDs) in mind allows builders to match their planned materials with those deemed safe and sustainable. Think of it as a checklist from experts who have done their homework already, allowing the organization to embrace the principles of the circular economy without additional resources or expertise required.

Following HPDs and EPDs, of course, can also lead to public certifications such as LEED, communicating sustainable building practices to key stakeholders in the process. 

5 Examples of Circular Construction in Action

The MacArthur Foundation report also includes several real-world examples of how embracing the circular economy has led to business benefits across the globe and in a variety of applications. 

These examples are built on five models:

  1. Flexible Spaces, building on co-working trends by listing unoccupied spaces online for short-term tenants. In a test office space in Milan, this concept brought in 18% of the net lease cost in additional revenue.
  2. Adaptable Assets, which are buildings that can adopt more than one use during their lifetime through streamlined retrofitting. A residential development test in Denmark found that embracing this approach increased its internal rate of return by 3% over 50 years.
  3. Relocatable Buildings, moving across several unused locations thanks to modular design and highly durable materials. A study in Amsterdam estimated that this approach could create an internal rate of return of up to 26% over 11 years.
  4. Residual Value, creating futures contracts for leftover materials at the end of a building’s life cycle. Tested on a retail fit-out in Berlin, this model reduced the whole life cost of ownership by more than 5% across ten years, with the reduction of waste a pleasant side effect.
  5. Performance Procurement, which takes the concept of product-as-a-service to the building level in which construction clients and tenants buy subscriptions for services rather than using their capital expenditures. In a test in London, the internal rate of return increased by 3% over 30 years.

Yes, sustainability is still considered a feel-good approach in many circles. But, as highlighted through these real-world examples of the circular economy, it can lead to significant benefits as well. Embracing the approach, and investing in products like Gridd® low-profile raised flooring that support minimal waste and models like the Adaptable Assets example above, can help transform facilities for the lifecycle of a building and beyond. In the instance of Gridd, the floor may be easily reconfigured an infinite number of times, and even picked up to move with a business to another room, building, or state.

It’s time for sustainability to become more than just a “green” opportunity. Within the circular economy, it might just be the engine that drives organizations forward.

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