Building; Building;

Time to act: how the EU’s circular economy is reshaping buildings

Huge change is underway in the construction sector. Given the scale of CO2 emissions produced by our industry, the move away from a ‘take, make, dispose’ model of linear consumption towards a circular economy is an urgent one. Across the EU, the real estate sector and its stakeholders have a particular role to play, as it accounts for more than 40% of the region’s energy consumption, over 50% of its resource consumption and 46% of its waste production. 

Rethinking the design of assets for sustainability and circularity has become an imperative for stakeholders across the value chain. Initially focused on delivering operational energy efficiencies, the conversation is now adopting a more systemic approach to evaluate all aspects of embodied carbon across the value chain.

Working to become carbon neutral by 2050, the EU’s Green Deal is levelling the playing field by providing a classification system and technical screening criteria that objectively define whether or not an asset is sustainable. In parallel, the level of detail introduced by the Circular Economy Action Plan and the EU Taxonomy is removing layers of uncertainty and helping players across the built environment to prepare for the future.

So, how do circular principles help?

Clear sustainability criteria - the opportunities

Firstly, regulation is redefining building performance. In August 2021, the EU launched the first list of technical criteria for buildings that will be legally binding from 2023 onwards.

The process is designed to remove ambiguity and help asset owners, operators and investors to de-risk operations and portfolios. Alongside the detail and clarity, the consultation is also kickstarting an essential conversation about our collective journey towards net zero.

The EU’s technical Circular Economy criteria highlights five key action fields, with the overall aim of extending the life of materials, components and buildings, focused on design optimised for durability, adaptability and flexibility.

On the building level, it calls for enhanced building occupation and utilisation, embracing the existing building stock, new circular business models such as space sharing as well as smaller and more efficiently designed units.

On the materials front, it predicates the switch away from carbon-intensive materials such as concrete and steel towards low-carbon and renewable materials such as timber or low-carbon concrete; the efficient use of materials to reduce consumption; and the recovery, reuse and repurposing of materials – replacing the production of primary materials and use of virgin materials. 

All of these embed circular economy principles in a substantial and lasting way.

To achieve a circular economy for building materials and practices, a new approach to data is key. Taxonomy compliance also requires the use of tools to help extend the service life of assets such as detailed material specification records as part of a building information model (BIM), including relevant information about the structure, façade and building services as well as actual building performance.

Work like our soon-to-be-launched Circular Building Design platform, developed together with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, will be central to unlocking value from an environmental, societal and economic point of view.

The numbers speak for themselves: while nearly 95% of building materials can be recycled, less than 5% of the actual resource value is currently being retained. We think action cannot be delayed – it is time to act now.

We need all hands on deck

Ahead of the 2023 deadline, every stakeholder that is designing, planning, constructing, operating or investing in real estate should have clear answers to the following questions:

  1. Do you have a clear understanding of the economic risks and opportunities that the shift to a circular economy will bring?

  2. Does your ESG framework align with the new taxonomy criteria?
  3. Do you have sufficient internal capacity and the right governance to address the new complexity?
  4. What added value can your assets, products or services deliver in a circular economy?
  5. Can you leverage data to enhance your operations, products and services in a circular economy?

By answering these questions, the sector is effectively redefining its approach to the built environment and becoming more responsible for emissions reductions and the wider environmental agenda. Circular economy principles that are already gaining acceptance in other sectors like manufacturing, are clearly going to play an increasing role in the architecture, construction and engineering field. We need all hands on deck to leverage the opportunities on our journey towards climate neutrality.

At Arup, we believe that the EU Green Deal and the related taxonomy are nothing less than a silent revolution of the market, and incredibly helpful to the battle against climate change. We are prepared to help our clients with a broad set of services ranging from strategic advisory all the way to technical planning and implementation.