'In circular construction, everything is a nutrient for something else'

A report from ING indicates an increasing demand for buildings to be constructed using circular economy principles.

In the south of the Netherlands a disused government building sits in an inaccessible location awaiting to be demolished, despite its highly sustainable design features and materials. Although this could have been the sad end to a once functioning workplace, on this occasion, the building’s materials will be transformed.

New Horizon, a Dutch company which is a pioneer in the practice of urban mining, or demolishing buildings to reclaim materials for use in other construction projects, has partnered with an architect who has agreed to transform the building’s materials into a new children’s hospital in a nearby location. Construction will begin at the end of this year.

“It’s the first time I’ve worked with an architect that is willing to design a building based on materials we already own,” says Michel Baars, the founder of New Horizon. “Roughly 60-70% percent of the materials are being one-for-one reused in this new building - that’s the new way of architecture.”

This project is a prime example of a lifecycle approach to the built environment which incorporates tenets of the circular economy, an alternative model of consumption which means resources are kept in use for as long as possible.

A 2015 report from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation notes that the circular economy can be applied to nearly every facet of our economy, but one of the more promising sectors is in the built environment, where there is a growing awareness and implementation of circular construction practices. The opportunities for energy and cost savings are high if architects, engineers and contractors agree from the outset that sustainability and resilience are the means as well as the end.

Baars’ company was featured as a case study in a 2017 ING report about circular construction. The report notes users and customers are increasingly demanding that buildings are constructed using circular economy principles, which, it says, has added value for building owners or investors. There are myriad reasons for this increased value, according to the report. 

The first is reduced environmental impact during the construction process, which is significant as about 5% of CO2 emissions and 35% of waste flow in the EU come from construction activity and building materials.

Another value-adding gain is more reliance on business models where companies offer products-as-a-service rather than an outright sale for hi-tech equipment such as lifts, lighting, and climate control systems. A products-as-a-service model means these resource-intensive systems are kept in use for longer. Lastly, more buildings are designed to be adapted for a new purpose, rather than demolished, so the investor can be confident that when an existing lease finishes, the building can inexpensively be repurposed if necessary.

“In circular construction, everything is a nutrient for something else”, says Maurice van Sante, the author of ING’s report. “By thinking of the building’s lifecycle at the very beginning of the design process, changes can be made easily down the line that cost less than demolition. The economy is changing faster and faster so these buildings have to change with it.” 

The company is applying this philosophy to their new headquarters, currently being built in Amsterdam. 28,000 tonnes of concrete from the old building is being transformed into 14,000 tonnes of gravel for use in the new building, with the rest cited for use in a new highway nearby.

ING is also now working with the Madaster Foundation on a digitial “material passport”, a new method of registering the products, parts and materials used to construct a building. By being registered, materials are given an identity rather than becoming anonymous waste. The passport is also meant to stimulate the use of recyclable materials and encourage investment in circular design.


Growing potential

Baars now handles a portfolio of €70m (£61.5) worth of demolition projects. He reclaims materials from buildings he is hired to demolish and then works with corporate partners who provide both logistics and resale opportunities to new construction projects. 

The success of his venture and projects like the materials passport is indicative of an attitude that’s growing throughout the construction industry. Jo Dobson is a member of the Institution of Civil Engineers Circular Economy Panel, as well as a consultant for Useful Projects, a UK sustainability consultant for the built environment that has worked with a number of organisations in the construction industry to foster circular economy solutions. She says that the supply chain opportunities like the one in New Horizon’s latest project are a growing catalyst for change.

A big challenge, however, is encouraging stakeholders in the industry to be proactive, and not wait for another member in the supply chain to make the first move.

“The circular economy has the potential to disrupt conventional procurement routes and a big part of our work has been to support the supply chain in understanding their opportunities,” Dobson says. “It requires organisations to develop new partnerships within the supply and recovery chain [and] also has the potential to disrupt conventional procurement routes.”


Photograph: kozmoat98/Getty Images/iStockphoto