Locale : Global (English)
Adapt, recover and recycle
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From vision to action

A new paper explains why the built environment must become part of the circular economy. The exciting challenge and opportunity now lies in working out how, writes Eszter Gulacsy.

On 1 June ‘Our shared vision: a circular economy in the built environment’ was launched at the World Circular Economy Forum in Helsinki. The vision is that ultimately every organisation in the built environment value chain plays a part in changing the way resources are used, to establish sustainable balance between the built and natural environments. It emphasises the societal importance of achieving this, as current ‘take-make-waste’ linear economic practices are stressing the natural environment and harming people.

The vision is the product of consultation with more than 120 industry leaders, representing 80 organisations, led by Mott MacDonald strategic advisory director Mark Enzer. It is necessary and timely: The built environment consumes 98% of the 100bn tonnes of resources taken from the natural environment each year. Material extraction has tripled since 1970 and almost doubled since 2000. Despite occupying just 1% of the Earth’s surface, the built environment is responsible for about 25% of land system change. The way buildings and infrastructure are designed, constructed, used and ultimately disposed is causing habitat destruction, water stress, biodiversity loss and climate change.

Circular economy principles involve minimising resource consumption and waste by keeping the materials, products and assets we already have in use for longer – and adapting, recovering and recycling them through multiple lifecycles, ideally for ever. Other sectors have already made considerable progress in changing their use of materials and products. The vision encourages those involved in creating, operating and maintaining the built environment to do so too. And it recognises that the wider circular economy needs the built environment to unleash value.

The vision defines the value of resources in terms of the social, environmental and economic outcomes gained from their use, taking account of negative externalities arising from extraction, manufacturing, use itself, maintenance and disposal. Accounting for the effects of resource use on biodiversity, ecosystem services, climate change and human health should promote resource efficiency and conservation:

Efficiency and conservation follow a hierarchy, starting with prevention.

Prevention – avoid the need to build by:

  • extending the life of existing assets.
  • challenging and altering user behaviours giving rise to demand for new assets.
  • sharing or leasing assets.
  • finding ways to meet needs using existing assets, through operational changes and efficiency measures.
  • using nature-based solutions wholly or partially instead of built solutions.

Reuse assets in situ and without modification by:

  • reimagining how they’re used.
  • enhancing maintenance, or carrying out repair/refurbishment.

Reuse assets in a new location and/or with modification by:

  • reconfiguring, modernising or upgrading them to meet new or changing needs.
  • viewing assets in- or retired-from-service as stock/inventory that can be drawn on to meet new needs.
  • disassembling assets into component parts for reuse in new asset assemblages.

Recovery and closed-loop recycling – maintain resource value by:

  • returning resources recovered from manufacturing, construction and demolition wastes to the industries that produced them, alongside or displacing virgin resources, so that they enter a new cycle as ‘more of the same’.
  • remanufacturing materials and components for reuse.

Recovery and open-loop recycling – minimise loss of resource value by:

  • using resources from construction and demolition as feedstock for new industrial processes that change their properties and performance.
  • cycling resources between different users in a way that results in minimal loss of quantity or quality.

Reduction spans the whole hierarchy. The quantity of resources cycling through the built environment needs to be carefully managed and minimised. That starts with examination of the socioeconomic demands that drive new construction and expansion of the built environment, includes design, construction, operation and maintenance, and addresses waste generated when assets are in use, resulting from adaptation, and during end-of-life disassembly/recovery/recycling.

Mott MacDonald’s young but fast-growing circular economy business is supported by our executive director responsible for environmental, social, governance (ESG) and sustainability, Denise Bower. “Circular economy thinking is part of systems thinking, which has become steadily more central to the way we and our clients approach challenges and solutions,” she said following the vision’s launch. “Sustainably managing materials in the built environment requires understanding of cause-and-effect relationships, connections between sectors, the whole-life performance of assets and systems, and the outcomes they deliver – and it can help to address many of today’s big, systemic issues, including the climate and biodiversity emergencies.”

Our circular economy team has set out steps towards the circular economy.

  1. Operate and maintain for circularity
    Construction adds only a small amount to the value of the built environment each year. Therefore effort to develop the circular economy must address materials, products, assets and systems already existing and in use. This involves using digital solutions to optimise building and infrastructure performance; seeking to reconfigure, repair and refurbish in preference to demolition; and building circular economy objectives into asset management strategies.
  2. Plan for circularity
    Challenge the need for new construction by working with users; use nature-based solutions where they are a practical alternative to construction; view the built environment as a bank of materials (with ‘passports’ recording provenance, composition, use and condition) that can be drawn on to meet new needs; assess the service life of asset and products, and their effectiveness in delivering intended outcomes, to gauge when materials can be released for reuse; and create local ‘ecosystems’ to allow the flow and trading of resources between industries and organisations.
  3. Design for circularity
    You are probably familiar with DfMA – design for manufacture and assembly. The circular economy requires design for a much wider range of stages and activities including manufacture, assembly, adaptation, repurposing, repair and disassembly – design for ‘X’ or DfX.
  4. Procure, manufacture and construct for circularity
    Developing the circular economy calls for new commercial approaches and relationships across the value chain. Tender criteria and bid evaluation need to be aligned with the circular economy, with appropriate scoring, contracts and commercial incentives. Innovations include procuring materials, products and assets as a service, with the supplier optimising performance in use and taking them back when no longer needed or at end of life; specifiers need to accept and expect asset reuse, combining the reclaimed with the new, and demanding materials that have no harmful health or environmental impacts; and modern methods of construction are essential, allowing for clean disassembly as well as standardised assembly.
  5. Sustain and recover value
    As the circular economy grows and becomes more sophisticated, with ever greater numbers of organisations connected into it and trading in resources, the economic, social and environmental benefits will multiply in number and value. This step is about recognising that one organisation’s ‘waste’ is another’s resource.


The circular economy requires a fundamental rethink of objectives, strategy, planning and delivery, focused on the drivers for circularity: to reduce resource consumption, eliminate waste and regenerate nature – and all contributing to new business opportunities, improved business resilience and ultimately improved outcomes for society.

The circular economy demands collaboration, innovation and entrepreneurship. Right across the built environment value chain, there is much to be gained commercially. And with an intergenerational view of our activities, advancing the circular economy is part of our duty of care.

Our shared vision has been launched to call this to all our attention. It invites us to choose positive change, take collective action, and embrace and learn from globally diverse approaches to developing the circular economy.

Let’s turn the vision into action.

Eszter Gulacsy, technical director, Mott MacDonald

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