A circular economic model can help solve the environmental challenges created by our built environment – water, waste and power systems, transport infrastructure and the buildings we live and work in. A circular economy involves sharing, leasing, reusing, repairing, refurbishing and recycling materials and products for as long as possible.
Circular economy principles have gained recognition from all levels of government in Australia. But there’s a big gap between acknowledgement and action. Progress towards systemic change has been very limited.
A new report by university and industry experts lays out a roadmap to a circular economy. Those working in the sector reported the top three barriers as: a lack of incentives, a lack of specific regulations, and a lack of knowledge. The top three enablers were: research and development of enabling technologies, education of stakeholders, and evidence of the circular economy’s added value.
So what are the world leaders doing?
Extensive research for the report drew on real-world experiences, including a survey and interviews with stakeholders. The report offers practical recommendations to drive the transformation to a circular economy, with examples from global front-runners.
The first recommendation is to learn from these nations. Most are in Europe.
A leading example is the Netherlands’ “Cirkelstad”. This national platform connects key players in the transition to a circular economy in major cities. It provides a database of exemplary projects, research and policies, as well as training and advice.
Cirkelstad highlights the importance of broad collaboration, including research organisations. One outcome is the City Deal initiative. It has brought together more than 100 stakeholders with the shared goal of making circular construction the norm. They include government bodies, contractors, housing associations, clients, networks, interest groups and knowledge institutions.
We rarely see such collaboration in Australia. Connections between government, research and industry practices have been weak. Our universities compete fiercely.
In Denmark and Sweden, rigorous regulations have been effective in promoting circular practices. Denmark has incentives for the use of secondary materials such as recycled brick. It also promotes designs that make buildings easy to disassemble.
In Canada, Toronto is notable for its proactive approach. Measures include a cap on upfront carbon emissions for all new city-owned buildings.
Test beds and pilot projects have proven effective, too. A good example is the UK’s Waste House.
Waste House was built using more than 85% waste material from households and construction sites. Yet it’s a top-rated low-energy building. The project is an inspiration for architects and builders to challenge conventional construction methods and embrace circular practices.
Much of the focus of Finland’s circular economy initiatives is on construction and urban planning. Various policy tools and incentives encourage the use of recycled or renewable materials in construction. The renovation of Laakso hospital in Helsinki is a notable example.
Strategic zoning of public spaces can also be used to bolster circular economy activities. An example is the repurposing of urban land for activities such as waste sorting.
How can Australia create a circular economy?
Australia has been slow to adopt such measures. There are voluntary schemes, such as Green Star, that include emission caps for buildings. However, Australia lacks specific, well-defined requirements to adopt circular economy practices across the built environment sector.
Our report’s recommendations include:
develop metrics and targets to promote resource efficiency
adopt measurable circular procurement practices for public projects
provide incentives for circular practices
establish technical codes and standards that foster the use of secondary products.
The report finds funding for collaborative projects is badly needed too. Regrettably, the Australian built environment is not seen as a research funding priority. But more funding is essential to foster the innovation needed to make the transition to a circular economy.
Innovation can help us reconcile the public demand for spacious homes with sustainable construction practices. We can achieve this through a mix of strategies:
moving towards modular construction techniques
creating incentives to adopt circular design principles
making adaptive reuse of existing structures a priority
designing multi-functional spaces that makes the most of resources.
Integrating circular economy principles into education and training at universities and schools can embed a culture of innovation. Equipping students with this knowledge and skills will enable the next generation to drive change in our built environment.
Currently, there are few Australian-based training programs that focus on the circular economy. And available courses and programs overseas are costly.
There is also a need to promote inclusivity in the built environment sector. Circular solutions must incorporate cultural considerations.
By embracing the above strategies, Australia can foster a harmonious balance between cultural values, environmental sustainability and efficient resource use.
Collectively, these initiatives will lay the foundation for a circular economy in the built environment sector. The growing need for housing and infrastructure underscores the urgency of achieving this goal in Australia. Ultimately, consumers, industry and the environment will all benefit.
The building sector can address pressing environmental problems by leveraging two major trends: circular economy and digital technologies. Circular building practices emphasize restorative design principles, which can significantly reduce the amount of virgin material used and the environmental footprint of buildings. When combined with digital technologies, circular practices can achieve even higher environmental benefits. Such technologies enable visualization of the environmental impact along the entire value chain, facilitating smart design, production, and use to increase material- and eco-efficiency. However, realizing the full potential of these trends requires more than just technological advancements. Institutional, behavioral, and socio-economic system changes are essential to effect a transition towards a circular and digital economy. To facilitate such a transition, a new form of governance is needed, in which network governance complements conventional public governance. Network governance fosters the formation of coalitions of willing partners that jointly strive towards the goal of system change, creating a fertile ground for a new economic paradigm, behavioral change, government regulation and innovation. The effectiveness of network governance in supporting public governance depends on the specific socio-cultural and political context of a country. However, a thoughtful application of this governance model can facilitate the building sector’s journey towards greater material- and environmental efficiency.
The building sector is confronted with the imperative of accelerating its environmental performance. Currently, building and construction generate 36 percent of global energy consumption, produce 40 percent of waste and account for roughly 40 percent of carbon dioxide emissions worldwide1. To tackle these environmental challenges, the building sector must capture the opportunity that two major trends provide: digital technologies and the circular economy. This article explains why these trends can be critical for mitigating the environmental impact of the building sector and outlines strategies for how their implementation can be achieved and accelerated.
The application of digital technologies can benefit the building sector by making the building process more material- and eco-efficient2. A broad field of digital technologies are available and continuously scaling, including artificial intelligence, big data, cloud computing, cyber physical systems, blockchain and virtual and augmented reality3. However, the building sector has just begun to adopt these emerging technologies. Integrating these technologies into daily work processes would significantly add value to the sector4. For instance, data management tools—such as Building Information Modeling (BIM), material passports, lifecycle analysis and material flow analysis—can enhance transparency about the environmental performance of the entire building chain and provide insight into how the chain can become more eco-efficient5.
The broad field of virtual and augmented reality can provide a 3D understanding of how a building is constructed, with what materials, and how this can be attuned to the needs of the customer. In addition, it can optimize resource use during the construction, maintenance, and end-of-life phases. An example is the use of digital twins6. This is a virtual representation of an object or system that spans its lifecycle, is updated from real-time data, and uses simulation, machine learning and attendant reasoning to help decision-making, also about material-efficiency7. In addition, 3D printing offers a greener building technique that eliminates a great amount of CO2 emitting and energy-consuming processes compared to conventional building techniques8. Thus, digital technologies can help improve the environmental performance of buildings, particularly when combined with the circular economy.
The concept of the circular economy is simple yet urgent. It highlights the fact that we are overconsuming natural resources, some of which are scarce, on a global scale. In 1970, we only needed one earth to provide mankind with the necessary resources; nowadays we need 1.75 earths. If we continue on our current path, we will require 3 earths by 20509. The Circular Gap Report has revealed that our world is still largely linear10, as we only bring 8.6% of what we use back into the cycle, resulting in a Circularity Gap of over 90%. To address this issue and become more prudent with raw materials, energy, and water, pleas are made to move to a circular economy11. There have been various definitions for the term ‘circular economy’12. However, the common denominator is that it is restorative by design and aims to keep products, components, and materials at their highest utility and value, distinguishing between technical and biological cycles13. This notion is particularly significant important for the building sector because of the high percentage of waste produced. However, this sector is characterized by strong project-based institutionalized practices and market mechanisms, which in many aspects do not facilitate the inclusion of circular economy principles14.
Technically, it is possible to consume far fewer raw materials in the building sector and drastically reduce CO2 emissions. We can extend the lifespan of buildings, redesign them with circularity in mind, reuse parts of them and recycle their materials15. Three Dutch examples serve to illustrate the benefits of building with circular economy principles. For instance, the distribution system operator Alliander—an entity responsible for distributing and managing energy to final consumers—opened its new office in 2015 in Duiven. Although everything about the building exudes style and newness, almost nothing in it is actually new. In fact, 83% of the materials used in the building are recycled. Similarly, in the new Venlo town hall (established in 2016 in the Netherlands) all the raw materials used in the construction can be fully reused with no loss of value. Moreover, the town hall building is entirely energy neutral, thanks to features such as solar panels, thermal energy storage, and solar boilers. The Green House pavilion is the final example, designed to be temporary, as the municipality of Utrecht has plans to redevelop the area in 15 years. The construction used as many recycled materials as possible, which will also be reused when the building is removed. And ultimately, when that happens, there will be no trace left of The Green House in or on the land. The building’s construction is designed to ensure that no pipes, cables, or sewage will remain in the soil under the pavilion, thus minimizing its impact. However, scaling up such iconic projects and making circular building mainstream remains a significant challenge. It requires system innovation, in which technological change goes hand in hand with a socio-economic and behavioral change. The main obstacles to realizing this system change include a focus on short-term goals, complex supply chains, a lack of collaboration between stakeholders, and the absence of a commonly agreed definition of the circular economy within the industry16.
Experiences in circular economy have demonstrated that the aforementioned obstacles can be overcome with effective governance during the transition to a circular system17. This shift requires a fundamental departure from the current linear system in which products are carelessly discarded after use. No single entity, whether it be a company, local government, or NGO, can undertake such a comprehensive system change on their own. Collaboration among partners who are committed to contributing to the change is necessary to establish a robust network. To ensure its efficacy, this network should be orchestrated through a concept known as ‘network governance’. Network governance is not meant to replace conventional public governance, but rather to complement it. It facilitates the attainment of circular objectives and strengthens societal support for more stringent government measures.
A comparative study encompassing 16 countries has illustrated that network governance can offer substantial added value18. However, the extent to which network governance can support public governance is contingent upon specific socio-cultural and political contexts19. For instance, in countries where the government takes a strong leadership role in circular economy and receptivity towards network governance is high, the conditions for initiating and accelerating circular economy are propitious. The Dutch circular building examples mentioned above serve as a case in point. In contrast, where both forms of governance are weak, it is more arduous to launch circular initiatives. Nevertheless, opportunities for developing circular economy can be identified in all 16 countries studied. In Australia, for instance, industry, government, and NGOs exhibit a rather antagonistic attitude towards one another. However, this does not preclude cooperation among these actors in sectors such as building; it simply necessitates additional incentives. For example, when commissioning parties cooperate in restructuring an urban area and implementing circular strategies, they can urge the network of contractors to exchange data and adopt an integrated circular approach. Digital technologies can reinforce such cooperation.
Hence, the building sector worldwide can make substantial strides on the path to circular economy when new forms of network cooperation among pertinent actors are implemented in conjunction with government leadership. Individual actors frequently hesitate to assume leadership roles in system change, as they do not perceive it to be their core business and await others to step forward. To resolve this predicament, independent intermediaries, known as transition brokers, can play a pivotal role in orchestrating the change process. They can align actors with divergent interests around a shared vision and resolve impasses. To be effective, transition brokers must possess a specific set of competencies and acquire the mandate to function as intermediaries. Once accepted, transition brokers can accelerate the process significantly.
Researchers can also contribute to the transition towards a circular building sector. However, to render their research socially relevant, individual projects should be clustered around themes that collectively portray the broader picture of transitioning to a circular economy. In this way, research can be mobilized that centers on fundamental solutions confronting society today. Generalists with sufficient knowledge about the variety of innovations and the specifics of the building sector are certainly equipped to bundle research and highlight the most promising innovations. These knowledge brokers can facilitate the utilization of research in practical applications in the building sector, in the short or long term20. This would enhance the value of the arduous work undertaken by numerous researchers in the field of the built environment.
Digitisation could turn electricity into a worldwide network – tech expert
The image above is about the Electricity distribution system, cables to the system, red electric wires, industrial environment
Referencing the Rubik’s cube, Edwin Diender, Chief Innovation Officer: Global Electric Power Digitalisation Business Unit, Huawei Technologies, Thailand, said each cube represents something or someone.
He was speaking on the second day of Enlit Africa 2023, focusing on the theme, Find the Right Technologies to Power the Global Energy Transition.
A cube that contains all the requisite components has the potential to link up the worldwide web of energy, he said.
“It is energy powering the construction of intelligent cities.
“The digital journey is passing phases. It’s a journey that follows programmes and initiatives and brought together as pieces through universal infrastructure.”
Diender said the conversion of analogue to digital is the first step to digitisation. In the energy sector, for example, analogue meters are replaced by smart meters, an item that is digitised and may be “the first step on this journey.”
The next step involves different building blocks that are brought together in a smart system that’s intelligent. This cube connects to many other cubes by a digital framework.
Diender said Huawei is looking at other forms of infrastructure, including electric power digitisation.
This would encompass finding the right technologies to help drive the digital journey for the energy industry.
Harnessing electricity transmission through digitisation
The company wants to “grab opportunities” like a software defined grid, intelligent power plant and green intelligent energy solutions. It wants to bridge industry requirements with digital technologies and finding the right technologies for industrial scenarios.
“The digital journey is a collaborative journey. We are working closely with customers worldwide in the electric power industry.”
He also cited technology solutions that can be used to protect power infrastructure – like an intelligent substation inspection system. Diender said the award-winning Yancheng Industrial Park was an example of Huawei looking at digital energy solutions.
The Yancheng Park project was jointly developed by the company and the Yancheng Power Supply Company, a subsidiary of the State Grid Corporation of China.
“The project uses the triple-dimensional model for energy transformation, decarbonisation, and digital transformation.
“By focusing on the three scenarios of smart energy management, carbon management, and campus management, this project delivers real-time monitoring of energy equipment, strong carbon emission management, intelligent and convenient access control management, and intelligent and coordinated micro-grid control.
“The campus is powered by complementary energy sources and integrates its energy consumption system with on-campus terminals.
“The project is a showcase of an intelligent and low-carbon campus that contributes to a green, low-carbon, safe, and efficient modern energy system.”
Here is a decent snapshot of the going-on climate risks that are increasingly apparent these latter days. It is about the Built Environment taking a major leap in Race to Zero with new joiners and sector progress by CLIMATE CHAMPIONS.
Built Environment takes a major leap in Race to Zero with new joiners and sector progress
4 May 2023
The built environment sector is responsible for almost 40 per cent of global energy-related carbon emissions and 50 per cent of all extracted materials. Because of this, the sector is critical for climate action. Critically, the long lifespan of built assets highlights the need to act now to avoid ‘locking-in’ emissions and climate risk long into the future.
The role of the Built Environment extends beyond emissions reduction. As the ‘stage’ on which our lives are played out, the Built Environment is the platform through which a resilient, equitable and nature-positive future is delivered.
In recognition of this, the Climate Champions have been supporting the sector to reach net zero emissions by 2050. As part of this work, the Built Environment team has been tracking the progress of ‘major’ businesses in the Race to Zero campaign across four sectoral stakeholder groups, which include architects and engineers, construction companies, real estate investment companies, and real estate asset managers.
The team found that 49% of major architects and engineers by revenue have joined the campaign, while only 16% of major construction companies by revenue have joined
Furthermore, 19% of major real estate investment companies by revenue and 29% of major real estate asset managers by revenue have joined the campaign, indicating that the sector is making progress towards decarbonization.
In April alone, six new companies joined the Race to Zero, including Kerry Properties Limited, a Hong Kong-based real estate company, and Daito Trust Construction Co., Ltd., a Japanese real estate company. Both of these companies are significant joiners and will contribute to the sector’s efforts to achieve net-zero emissions.
The Built Environment sector has also seen progress in terms of policy, with Dubai announcing its Climate Action Plan to reach net zero and reduce emissions. The WorldGBC has launched its Global Policy Principles, which are driving action in the sector towards achieving net-zero emissions.
In finance, UNEPFI’s Finance Sector Briefing has shown that over 50 major banks and investors have a developed understanding of the physical and transitional risks of real estate. This report paves the way for the finance sector to price the cost of non-resilient and inefficient buildings into their funding decisions.
The sector has several strategically important events coming up, including the World Circular Economy Forum in Helsinki, Finland, and the EmiratesGBC Annual Congress, which will discuss the road to COP28.
Notwithstanding the positive signals of change, currently the Built Environment sector is not on track to achieve decarbonization by 2050. UNEP’s 2022 Buildings Global Status Report shows that whilst decarbonisation efforts have increased since 2015, these efforts are swapped by the growth of the sector globally.
Addressing this call-to-action will require accelerating ‘radical collaboration’ across the value chain, to drive market transformation. The upcoming ‘Buildings Breakthrough’, due for launch ahead of COP28, will provide a forum for driving international collaboration to unlock climate action on buildings.
The Built Environment 2030 Breakthrough Outcome
Our dedicated Built Environment 2030 Breakthrough Outcome page provides information and resources for anyone interested in tracking the sector’s efforts to achieve net zero.
The page highlights the importance of the sector’s transition to a sustainable, low carbon economy and provides updates on the progress being made by key stakeholders, such as major architects/engineers, construction companies, real estate investment companies, and asset managers.
The page also features a list of new members who have joined the Race to Zero, along with relevant events, policy developments, case studies and partners, such as the Buiding to COP initiative.
Earthquake and Wind Programs Branch Civil Engineer Pataya Scott, PhD shares more about the work FEMA does to improve building codes and standards. The Role We (FEMA) Play in Earthquake Preparedness is inspiringly here for all those in the MENA region concerned by a possible repeat of the same recent disastrous events.
The Role We Play in Earthquake Preparedness
After the devastating earthquakes in Turkey and Syria last month, you may have wondered: in a similar event, what would have happened to buildings in the United States?
For more than 40 years, FEMA has worked with our partners to improve building codes and standards, as well as advance their adoption and enforcement across the nation. While these improvements are significant, there are still older buildings in our country that are at risk of collapse during an earthquake.
More work is needed to avoid the kind of regional disaster Turkey and Syria are experiencing after the magnitude 7.8 and 7.5 earthquakes. Many existing buildings in the United States are likely to perform poorly in earthquakes because they are built to outdated standards or, in some cases, no standards at all. These buildings remain vulnerable to collapse in seismic regions like Alaska, the Pacific Northwest, California, Hawaii, the Rocky Mountains, the New Madrid region, South Carolina, the Eastern United States, Puerto Rico and Oklahoma.
To explore how these areas would be affected during a major earthquake event, you can use FEMA’s Hazus Loss Library. This tool demonstrates the cost of life and severity of damage that would happen in earthquake events similar to those in Turkey and Syria. While the numbers presented in these scenarios might be less than what those regions endured, they still represent a significant risk and enforce the need for the nation to improve its built environment.
Modern codes and standards are only effective if they are properly enforced. Turkey is known for having a current building code, similar to many parts of the United States, but implementation has historically been an issue. Regional differences in code adoption and enforcement mean that some communities may not benefit from the protection offered by stronger codes. Ongoing advocacy for both code adoption and enforcement is still needed.
FEMA is always focused on improvements. We look at the latest lessons-learned information, new science and technology. We also collaborate with many government sectors to address and mitigate a community’s risk with existing buildings. This work includes improved methods for risk assessment, prioritization and retrofit, as well as support for developing and adopting effective mitigation policies and practices, which could include replacing with new buildings.
New attention on post-disaster response and recovery has suggested that emphasis on building collapse prevention may not be enough. Disaster-resilient communities need buildings that can be occupied following a hazard event and provide functions and services necessary for meeting essential community needs and maintaining economic vitality. This means buildings that not only stand strong after an earthquake but still allow residents to safely use things like running water and electricity.
There are many actions you can take on a personal level to improve your own community’s earthquake resilience.
Practice Safety Drills. Since earthquakes can happen without notice or warning, be prepared by practicing Drop, Cover, and Hold On with family and coworkers.
Make an Emergency Plan.Create a family emergency communications plan that has an out-of-state contact. Plan where to meet if you get separated. Make a supply kit that includes enough non-perishable food, water and medications for several days, a flashlight, a fire extinguisher and a whistle. Prepare for pets and service animals, too.
Protect Your Home. Secure heavy items in your home like bookcases, refrigerators, water heaters, televisions and objects that hang on walls. Also consider obtaining an earthquake insurance policy since a standard homeowner’s insurance policy does not cover earthquake damage.
Earth has been used as a building material for at least the last 12,000 years. Ethnographic research into earth being used as an element of Aboriginal architecture in Australia suggests its use probably goes back much further.
Traditional construction methods were no match for the earthquake that rocked Morocco on Friday night, an engineering expert says, and the area will continue to see such devastation unless updated building techniques are adopted.
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