Mindset change is seeing the construction industry go round in circles


David Juniper
Darron Owen

Sustainability as a concept hardly needs any introduction. Everyone understands the urgency of making more energy efficient developments with a view to cutting carbon emissions, and by extension, cutting the emissions of the construction industry and UK PLC as a whole.

But sustainability goes far beyond just energy usage and ensuring the finished asset is as efficient as modern technology and materials can make it. There is, of course, the emissions created in the construction of a new build, and environmental consequences of the disposal of waste.

Thankfully, with a continually growing focus on ESG, funds are coming under increasing pressure to ensure their portfolios are as sustainable as possible, and that is leading to a change of mindset across the industry.

Couple this with the changes in the GLA’s planning polices, which now focus on Whole Life-Cycle Carbon assessments, and it is clear the industry is moving towards a much cleaner, less wasteful, and more sustainable future.

What is the Circular Economy?

But what is the circular economy, and how does it apply to construction?

The phrase refers to an economic system based on the reuse of materials and products in a way that minimises the impact on the environment.

Key components of a circular economy include refurbishing and reusing materials to extend their lifecycle and minimising waste. It emphasises keeping materials within the economy and once they reach the end of their lifecycle, finding new uses for them rather than throwing them away.

Clearly, there are some obvious synergies with construction here. Reducing waste has to be a key goal for developers and funds, and implementing a circular economy mindset is an effective way to achieve this.

Shiny Bells and Whistles

One area in which the principles of the circular economy are really coming to the fore is in office refurbishments.

In the past, the perception was that to attract potential occupiers to vacant office space, the interiors would need to glisten with new shiny bells and whistles such as brand new raised access flooring, new carpet tiles, partitions, doors, suspending ceilings, mechanical and electrical services, and more.

Traditional thinking had it that unless these were in place, agents wouldn’t be able to let prime office space as tenants wouldn’t look twice at it.

As a result, clients were encouraged to spend big to fully spec out an office, regardless of whether it matched the end user’s requirements or not.

Whereas this might have presented an aesthetically pleasing final concept, it comes with a large and very wasteful drawback – the spec was rarely even close to what the tenant wanted.

So, despite being brand new, the raised access floors, carpet tiles, doors, partitions, lighting fixtures, ceiling tiles, and other features were often stripped out and sent to landfill, and then replaced with those in line with the tenant’s requirements at significant extra cost.

Changes to Wasteful Practices

Thankfully, these wasteful practices have been falling out of favour in recent years as funds have started to take their ESG responsibilities more seriously in order to offer sustainable and ethical pensions and investments.

Clients seeking funding for developments or refurbs must consider projects through the lens of the circular economy, and this has been made more apparent as local authorities start to consider a project’s provision for salvaging and repurposing materials in their planning decisions.

This is leading to big changes in the industry.

For example, we are now seeing more office refurbished projects being handed over without floor coverings and with recycled raised access flooring, suspended ceilings, joinery items and meeting room partitions. Typically, in the past, these would have been stripped out and replaced with new.

Some clients go even further, providing only an office shell fitted out with common parts including staircases, reception, toilets and end of journey facilities only, thus enabling the tenant undertake the complete fit-out of the office space.

Although a fairly novel approach, it ensure waste is kept to an absolute minimum, while the tenant doesn’t have to compromise on the final design and specification of the space they want for their workforce.

Thinking big

So far, we’ve talked about raised access flooring, doors, partitions, and carpet tiles. But refurbishing and reusing doesn’t stop here. One area we have started to see become more popular is the refurbishment and repurposing of steel frames, and for good reasons.

For example, the carbon emissions associated with making new steel is high, so reusing the existing frame mitigates this and significantly reduces the environmental footprint of a development.

Salvaged steel frames can be reused in their entirety or repurposed for different uses such as part of a mezzanine floor installation. By finding new uses for existing materials in this way, developers can maximise the sustainability of their developments and dramatically reduce the amount of materials going to landfill.

Not Just the Fabric of the Building

But the circular economy need not just apply to the fabric of the building itself. Building contents should also be considered.

Upcycling old furniture can not only reduce waste, if done in conjunction with an expert designer, it can bring a whole new feel to an interior, one that will be appreciated by the tenant’s staff.

This again can be taken as far as clients want. In one development we recently worked on – the conversion of a former ice factory in London into a gym, office and restaurant development – many of the materials in the original building were salvaged and reused.

For example, the old ice lifting gear is now the reception desk. The original weighbridge steel plate was also refurbished and now forms a key feature within the external entrance walkway. The original steel beams and columns have been retained, refurbished and left exposed, for all to see.

All this brings a cool but retro vibe to the building, embracing modern design but acknowledging and celebrating the building’s heritage. Both the design concept and the sustainability credentials are highly prized by the occupier.

Embracing the circular economy

The circular economy is not a new phenomenon. In fact, refurbishing raised access flooring and retaining existing steel or concrete structures has been going on for many years and it is fair to say many responsible developers approach a refurb scheme by first considering what elements they can salvage and reuse.

Many of them, along with large parts of the construction industry, have been disgusted at seeing the new flooring, partitions and doors they fitted as part of a new build or refurb simply ripped out and sent to landfill. Sadly, refurbing and reusing was never incentivised, whereas simply buying new was and often meant shorter lead times.

So, what has changed?

In a word, funding.

The circular economy, sustainability, and other trends in the industry have come to the fore due to funders demanding more ethical developments. The decision makers in these funds, and in the wider construction industry, have changed. They are no longer happy to see a completely new office consigned to landfill. This is something to celebrate.

But for it to be fully embraced, the industry has to get to grips with the fact new is not always needed. In fact, when it leads to excessive and unjustifiable levels of waste, it is unacceptable.

Our experience tells us that as occupiers better understand sustainability, office wellness, employee wellbeing, energy efficiency, and a whole host of other factors that make up the circular economy, the more they want to be involved.

This means they are willing to accept refurbished floors, doors, partitions, and furniture, even if they are paying £120 per square foot in rent in London.

It also means the advice we give to clients had to change too. And it has. We now routinely advise our clients on how to maximise their role in the circular economy and to take materials away to be refurbished and reused.

As building consultants, this is our job. But as a united industry, it is also the job of designers, project managers, contractors, and agents. By salvaging, refurbing, and reusing existing products and materials, the industry can take a major step forward in reducing its carbon emissions and the amount of waste going to landfill, which ticks two very large boxes in making construction more sustainable.

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