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Circular Economy Debate | New approaches to sustainability

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How can the construction industry rethink its approach to projects to embrace circular economy techniques and reduce its unsustainable use of resources?

At a recent New Civil Engineer debate about circular thinking, WSP UK director of sustainability David Symons neatly summed up the challenge facing the built environment and infrastructure industry in terms of using a sustainable amount of resources that the planet can support.

“The UK uses around 2.5 times a sustainable amount of resources each year, and the construction industry is the largest consumer of these resources,” he said.

Efficiency responsibility

“Resource efficiency is a business opportunity and a responsibility for our industry. It is an opportunity since the government has made clean growth, including resource efficiency, one of its four Industrial Strategy Grand Challenges. And it is our responsibility to leave a sustainable legacy for future generations.”

The big challenge is how to stop the juggernaut that is construction industry current practice. Most operations are  geared up to design and build schemes that, when they reach the end of their useful life, have the materials involved largely broken up and either recycled in a low level way or thrown away altogether.

Delegates at the debate broke the issues down into how to value whole life costs against cheapest capital cost, funding, design and collaboration.

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Dixon: The industry is still getting to grips with what it takes to be more sustainable

First ideas when talking about circular thinking are usually about how something can be reused and recycled. But delegates argued that for infrastructure which can be in place for over a century, the focus should be on longevity, and that means prioritising whole life, and long life over lowest price.

Tarmac head of major projects Tony Dixon said he thought the industry was still on a journey to understanding how to achieve the most sustainable results.

“I’ve been involved in sustainability a long time,” he said. “Initially we concentrated on using as little material as possible, but if you look at the buildings of the 1960s and 1970s, when that was also the approach, you will see that many are now being demolished. We need to build robust structures that can be subsequently adapted to meet changing lifestyles and fashion. I am frustrated that we don’t look at whole life cost and waste enough. In building and infrastructure, capital cost is always king, even in PFI schemes.”

Tideway chief technical officer Roger Bailey used his mega-sewer project as an example of what should be happening in infrastructure as a matter of course.

“My job is to ensure the fitness for purpose of the finished asset including delivering a design life of 120 years,” he said. “You can’t take it down and rebuild it; we have had to think in terms that this should last way beyond 120 years  and we have taken some big decisions in terms of whole life.”

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Symons: Efficient resource use is an opportunity

That has required Tideway as a client to be focused and relatively prescriptive about the outcomes it wants from the supply chain.

“No one was under any illusions that Tideway would be anything but a high spec project,” Bailey said.

“We tried to bake best practice into procurement and used the early contractor involvement phase to draw out ideas and innovations with money on the table – between £10M and £15M – to promote that.”

For the supply chain, having a clear direction from the client is vital to lead an industry-wide assault on reducing materials consumption, said Costain group innovation and knowledge manager Tim Embley. “We like working to do things differently, rethinking business models. Circular thinking needs a collective industry approach,” he said, “a switch to true value engineering and away from cost engineering.”

WSP head of structures Jane Richards picked up on the implication that clients would have to be prescriptive in their demands if circular thinking is to become a construction norm, particularly at the design stage. Whether what is required is long life, or the ability to dismantle and reuse, or to recycle, designers have to know what the end game is.

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Richards: Circular thinking needs investment

 

“You need to be prescriptive at the start,” she said, “but you need the time and money invested during the project as well to innovate with in order to get that prescriptive output.

“Really it’s about redefining the problem. We are all very good at problem solving. If we include the circular economy as one of the big issues on a project, you can put the industry’s first class brains onto coming up with the answers. It is in our gift to define what the problem is.”

One of the big wins in terms of reuse and adaptation of materials will be modularisation and off-site manufacture for construction, according to Richards.

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Bailey: Tideway must last longer than 120 years

“It all goes back to design. We have to think about it early. More and more complex elements are being modularised, for instance the canopies at London Bridge Station in London. If you build in a modular way, things are easier to dismantle and repurpose.”

Funders will also have a role to play, the round table attendees agreed. Ethical investment is a growing industry and schemes and companies with clear circular thinking strategies are likely to prove attractive.

“A lot of us borrow money and the stock market is putting emphasis on this again,” Embley said.

Bailey added that infrastructure designed for longevity was an added attraction.

“Tideway is the largest example of selling sterling green bonds in the world,” he said. “We had to prove to the financial markets that our project was a good one and that we were building it in the right way. Pension funds seek to invest in the long term and now they see we are building infrastructure that will last in the long term we are well on our way to a whole life solution.”

Local government

Local government projects are going to be a big challenge to crack if the circular economy in construction is to be adopted wholesale.

Budget pressures are forcing councils to stay focused on lowest price, making long term thinking almost impossible.

The debate focused on highways. “If local authorities just look at price alone, they won’t get value or innovation,” said Chartered Institution of Highways & Transportation president Matthew Lugg.

“And it is complete nonsense that the government is providing extra money to fill pot holes rather than providing this money up front to help local authorities more effectively invest in better long term solutions.”

Tarmac head of major projects Tony Dixon said whole life value options for highways are available but not used.

“Longer lasting solutions exist, but councils are hamstrung by short term budgets,” he said. “They are compelled to go for the cheapest designs which cost much more to maintain in the long run.”

But there are some positives in the current environment, Lugg said.

Some clusters of local authorities are collaborating to gain economies of scale, allowing bigger thinking.

The Midlands Alliance of 25 councils was cited as an example. And the commitment of the government to invest some of the hypothecated Vehicle Excise Duty revenues into a new major route network, a strategy supported by the current and emerging sub-national transport bodies such as Transport for the North and Transport and Midlands Connect, this may help open the door to more circular thinking .

 

Debate Participants

This report is based on a round table discussion which took place in September. The participants were:

Roger Bailey chief technical officer, Tideway

Tony Dixon major projects director, Tarmac

Tim Embley group innovation and knowledge manager, Costain

Mark Hansford editor, New Civil Engineer

Matthew Lugg president, Chartered Institution of Highways & Transportation

Gary Mayo commercial director, Taylor Woodrow

Jane Richards head of structures, WSP

Keith Scott transport infrastructure manager, Surrey Highways

David Symons UK director of sustainability, WSP

Matthew Tattersall head of programme development, infrastructure projects, Network Rail

Jackie Whitelaw contributing editor, New Civil Engineer

In association with

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Wsp cmyk 01

 

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