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The Fairytale of CE
It all starts with telling a story
Last week was Circular Economy week and the title of this piece comes from Jacob Kurek (Henning Larsen) who explained that Copenhagen is the land of fairytales - he sees the circular economy and our building stock as the ducklings that are growing up. He wants these buildings to tell a story and grow up to become something of increased value, rather than stranded assets.
Fairlytales aside, I attended two packed out talks last week which showed me the idea of the circular economy isn’t going away, in fact I think it’s quite the opposite. Of course we need to be careful of the typical greenwashing stuff, where it’s just a headline that is being chased. The varied groups I saw in the room really believe this is the future, ranging from quantity surveyors to planning advisors, insurance brokers to demolition contractors and engineers to architects.
In Ramboll’s “Reform to Reuse”1 I heard how the circular economy is the future - it's a matter of how quickly we can make this happen, and how this fits with our sustainability, regenerative and business goals. And in Arup’s “Delivering a circular built environment“2 the group offered up examples of best practice, but also disappointing failings. Sometimes it’s the small things that break the chain and cause wastage, for example I heard how materials were extracted from a project but were destined for a skip because the contractor needed the yard space and had stored them for ‘long enough’.
What’s the solution here? Storage is the obvious answer, but there are others. Improved material testing, passports and exchanges might have found a buyer sooner and avoided the storage need? Adjusted procurement strategies could have widened the market for potential buyers, or designers could have specified reused materials on more projects nearby.
The reality is that there isn’t one solution. All these solutions are going to be needed and I believe they will happen, with time. We need industry to adapt, adopt and build solutions, if they don’t already exist.
I was surprised to hear mention of insurance as a barrier, which I think is not the case. It just goes to show that we’re all still learning - insurers have explained to me that if they understand the situation then they will likely be comfortable with it. During Reform to Reuse, Dominic Lion (insurance broker at Gallagher) told the room how recently we’ve experienced a period where insurers ”over assumed and under asked” and that the pendulum has now swung back, perhaps beyond the middle. But ultimately he says insurers are focused on how big will the payout be if things go wrong - “you just need to show insurer that there is no more risk”. So ironically, the material isn’t actually a ‘material issue’, just take the insurer on the journey with you.
Jacob explained his view on carbon measurement per square metre. He argued that this measure isn’t actually that good and that a time or use factor should be included. This stemmed from an example where an efficiently operating school was low on a leaderboard of energy usage - why, because it was designed to be flexible and was used out of hours for other activities when the other schools were not. It’s a tough balance to strike when looking at embodied carbon (in the build) and operational carbon (through the operational life) - some will argue that the emergency is now, whereas Jacob suggested there is benefit to spending more carbon now to create the most flexible buildings for the future.
Holly Price (Keltbray) shone a light on the demolition industry and said that she sees demolition (or deconstruction) as having become something rather than just being the necessary evil at the start of a project. I agree with this and think we are right at the beginning of a new era where the skill of taking buildings apart and feeding material back into a marketplace is critical piece of any development project.
On retrofit it was odd to hear how the perceived “A Teams” in companies that build the best and shiniest new buildings might be switching, with the retrofit and refurb “B Teams” taking their place as the new favourite with the expertise to deliver the best and most sustainable projects. Personally, I think we will still need both but it’s certainly an interesting perspective.
In one of the Q&As money came up. When do you see a return? I welcome this comment because we do have to be realistic and recognise that money drives the world. Projects must demonstrate financial robustness and profit margins, otherwise they won’t happen or companies will go under trying to deliver them. So can we do everything now, probably not? But we are leading the way on our large London projects, policy is improving and we should be doing as much as possible, with each project pushing the boundaries a little further. The financial justification of the circular economy is coming on the journey with us.