Research highlights need for agreed standards to make construction industry circular

A new European Commission (EC) report identifies several standardisation gaps hindering the construction sector's transition to be more sustainable, including the lack of widespread definitions, indicators, and quality assurance procedures for reused and recycled materials.

Yard with construction materials for reuse, including bricks and timberThe EC report, Circular Technologies in Construction, highlights the industry's substantial impact on waste generation and resource consumption, with construction responsible for over a third of the EU's total waste output.

Adopting circular economy principles in construction involves a fundamental shift in how we design, build, and manage our built environment. To do this requires filling gaps in common standards, including terminology, indicators, quality assessment, as well as implementation.

Different organisations, professionals, and even countries in the EU (and beyond) use varying terms and definitions when discussing circular construction concepts and practices. This inconsistency can lead to inefficient collaboration, difficulty in setting targets and measuring progress, and barriers to knowledge sharing and best practice adoption.

Similarly, the absence of harmonised indicators and measurement frameworks makes it difficult to assess the circularity performance of construction projects and products. Without agreed indicators and measurement methods, it is difficult to make meaningful comparisons, set benchmarks and targets, ensure transparency and accountability, and drive innovation and continuous improvement in the construction industry.

Quality assurance is another critical area where gaps exist. Without this for assessing the quality and safety of reused and recycled materials, there is a reluctance to use recovered materials in new construction projects. The report calls for the development of standardised testing and certification procedures, including clear criteria for assessing the suitability of materials for specific applications, as well as traceability mechanisms to ensure the provenance and quality of recycled products. By creating confidence in the performance of reused and recycled materials, standardisation can help to drive their wider adoption in the construction sector.

Standardising waste management and resource recovery

Managing construction and demolition waste (CDW) is a key requirement. The European Commission's report highlights the lack of comprehensive definitions and classifications for CDW, which hinders the development of effective waste management strategies. Without a clear understanding of the types and quantities of waste generated, it becomes difficult to implement targeted recycling and reuse initiatives.

To address this challenge, there needs to be a common language and framework for classifying waste streams, as well as best practices for on-site waste segregation and material recovery.

Effective end-of-life management is a key component of circular construction, as it enables the recovery and reuse of valuable resources. However, there are several barriers to resource recovery, including the lack of clear end-of-waste criteria and responsibilities for end-of-life management.

End-of-waste criteria define the point at which a waste material ceases to be classified as waste and can be reused or recycled as a secondary raw material. This requires an industry-wide methodology, taking into account the specific characteristics and potential applications of different waste streams.

The report also highlights the importance of harmonising reuse protocols and selective demolition practises to maximise resource retention, through the careful dismantling of buildings to recover materials. However, the lack of standardised protocols and guidelines for selective demolition can lead to inconsistency in the quality and quantity of recovered materials.

Focus needs to be placed into managing the transition between the pre-demolition, demolition, and post-demolition stages. This includes the developing a standardised assessment methodology for assessing the reuse potential of buildings before demolition, as well as establishing data management systems to track the flow of materials throughout the demolition process.

Embracing circular principles in design

Another requirement identified is to design buildings that are easy to deconstruct, adapt, and repurpose. By doing this from the outset, architects and engineers can create buildings that are more resource-efficient, flexible, and resilient.

One of the key aspects is designing for disassembly, utilising building components and systems that can be easily dismantled and reassembled. This includes applying modular construction techniques and the use of reversible connections.

A feature of circular design is designing for adaptability. This involves creating buildings that can be easily modified and repurposed to accommodate changing needs and functions over time. The report emphasises the importance of designing flexible spaces and systems that can be reconfigured without requiring extensive demolition or reconstruction.

Standardising how the flow of materials is tracked throughout a building's lifecycle, from the extraction of raw materials to the end-of-life management of building components, will also advance the industry. By understanding material flows, designers can identify opportunities for reducing waste and optimising resource use.

Building information modelling (BIM) is a key tool for managing building data throughout the lifecycle of a construction project. However, there is currently a lack of standardised BIM protocols and data exchange formats, which if developed could facilitate the sharing and reuse of building data across different stakeholders and project stages.

The report also highlights the need for standardised reporting formats for circular construction. This includes the development of common metrics and indicators for measuring the circularity of construction projects, as well as the establishment of standardised environmental product declarations (EPDs) for building materials and components.

Data management and storage is a key consideration. Creating repositories for storing and sharing building data, including information on material composition, recycled content, and end-of-life management options could enable the exchange of information.

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