Why should we close the loop? Advancing environmental practices in construction

In the process of supporting our clients' ambitious environmental goals, we've reflected how to provide practical, impactful ways of making a difference to reduce energy used, emissions and the resources we use.

How many planets do we need?

The earth provides multiple free services to humans, including air to breath, water to drink, fertile soil, termed ecosystem services.  It is difficult to put an accurate value on these services, however, in the Science Direct publication Global Environmental Change Vol 26 May 2014, the estimated value of ecosystem services for 2011 was $125- $145 trillion per annum. Comparing this against global gross domestic product value of $95 trillion for the same year, underlines why it is important for us to create built environments that are in sync with the natural world, supporting ecosystem services not eroding them.

But, the world operates on largely linear behaviour around material use termed take-make-dispose which erodes ecosystem services and means that we are inefficiently consuming the earth’s finite resources. Based on work by the Global Footprint Network, since 1970 have been consuming more than one planets worth of resources and regenerative capabilities each year. The date when we have depleted the earth’s resources and regenerative capabilities is termed Earth Overshoot Day. From Earth Overshoot Day to the end of the year, we effectively borrow from future year’s resources and assume we can borrow the earth’s regenerative capabilities too. The graph provided by the Global Footprint Network, Earth Overshoot Day, shows the date this occurred by year since 1970. Clearly, we have only one planet, so we need a new way of working.

Circular economy

The term circular economy (CE) was coined in 1989 by David W. Pearce and R. Kerry Turner in their publication, Economics of Natural Resources and the Environment, but what does it mean?  In essence it is a different way of thinking and hence acting. 

It starts with the expectation that whatever philanthropic activity is being undertaken that we design it so we do not create waste.  This means our focus is on carefully considering

  • material choices – lightweight, low impact, low energy manufacture, virgin materials, high recycled content, no hazardous properties
  • how to join and combine the materials so they can be easily de-constructed and separated out for reuse – this approach started in earnest with the introduction of the waste electrical and electronic equipment legislation in 2012 placing responsibility on manufacturers to make sure their products are recycled. Manufacturers looked at the types of fixing they use to reduce the number of tools needed to take their products apart so they could more easily retrieve valuable components and the cost of deconstruction was lowered
  • how to enable simple maintenance and life extension through re-engineering

A leading think tank on circular economy, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, estimates that moving to this new model could be worth up to €1.8 trillion per annum for Europe. Indeed, the award winning circular economy approach by Renault started when the company thought about the value of the components of a car, on average this is around €13,000 in a new car, rather than valuing the car based on its age.  For example, a new car has the same components as a 10 year old car, in a linear economy, the value of a 10 year old car in the second-hand car market is less than £1,000, but in a circular economy its real value is the sum of its components which can be reused, re-engineered, remanufactured or recycled.  This value is much closer to €13,000 than its second-hand value.  So circular economy and closed loop thinking could mean values remain higher supporting a move the manufacturer or supply chain retaining ownership of assets or materials and or their management and maintenance to end of life and the user effectively entering a lease or rental agreement.  This can reduce pressure on raising capital for projects and whilst there is an increase operational costs as the asset or materials to cover the lease/rental costs, the cost of a lease should be lower than standard lease arrangements as it reflects the real value of the assets and leasing is tax efficient. 

Off-site manufacturing and 3D printing

Off-site manufacturing offers many benefits to traditional construction to the construction industry and communities affected by construction because of the

3D printing in construction is moving beyond demonstration projects into real-life. On January 18, 2015 Skanska unveiling a mansion style villa and a 5 storey tower, using 3D printed components.  The buildings stand as the first complete structures of their kind fabricated using construction 3D printing technologies. In May 2016 a new 'office building' was opened in Dubai. The 250-square-metre space (2,700 square foot) is what Dubai's Museum of the Future project is calling the world's first 3D-printed office building. In 2017 an ambitious project to build a 3D printed skyscraper in the United Arab Emirates was announced with Cazza construction building the structure. 

Both off-site manufacture and 3D printing could provide the construction industry with an easy way into circular building by also considering deconstruction for reuse or recycling.


So why isn’t this the norm? Circular economy is a specific way of thinking, it doesn’t easily fit with typical business decisions, so it disrupts custom and practice which needs careful handling and focused training.

The accountancy processes we operate under limit our ability to project some aspects of costs/savings.  For example, depreciating assets to zero value over their life does not allow for their circular economy value to be expressed which then must be reflected in lease costs and arrangements, energy prices are expected to double over the next decade, and whilst we know they are going up, we cannot easily use an extrapolated price into costings.  This we need new rules and new methods are needed so more accurate whole-life cost analysis can be carried out to determine if circular economy leasing is a better option than owning or vice versa.

How we support clients

We help our clients think about closing the loop by providing them with specific support through our safety, health, environmental and quality (SHEQ) function. A straightforward service we provide is supporting clients to stipulate output and outcome specifications. This approach provides opportunity for designers and the supply chain to more freely innovate. However, to work effectively, this must be aligned with clear client expectations for not only the quality and engineering requirements needed but a mandate that the designs must design out waste, the output or outcome must be low environmental impact and  at end of life materials and components enter circular or closed loop re-engineering, re-manufacture or recycling. 

We also support clients who are seeking to implement the Circular Economy Standard BS 8001:2017 by providing training, system and process mapping, assessment and analytics, review and auditing.

Similarly by working with our procurement colleagues, we support clients move towards sustainable procurement practices, where key material inputs can be pre-determined so they are known low impact and key risks by procurement type identified so they can be managed through the procurement process from strategy to delivery rather than through a process that considers each purchase separately.