The environmental impact of the construction industry is significant, as it is a very intensive activity due to both the consumption of natural resources and the energy expenditure required for the activity. This condition makes a circular economy approach imperative.
As reflected in a magazine article published a few months ago, global economic development is connected to a commitment to low environmental impact. Of all the mechanisms that are being implemented, there is one that affects all sectors comprehensively: the circular economy. We turned to Clara Lorente and Cristina Verde, experts at the CIRCE (Centro de Investigación de Recursos y Consumos Energéticos [Energy Resources and Consumption Research Center]) Foundation, to learn how one of the most strategic industries in the world—construction—is tackling this challenge.
In addition to planning and time, constructing buildings or infrastructure requires the use of many natural resources, including water and energy. It also includes their subsequent use. “According to data from the European Commission, buildings currently consume 40% of the final energy used by the EU and they are responsible for 36% of greenhouse gases. This means that construction is a strategic industry when it comes to prioritizing how to act to meet the ‘Fit for 55’ objectives to reduce emissions that we have committed to in all countries,” says CIRCE. This commitment is a long-standing path that began with the Kyoto Protocol, which led to the passing of successive regulations to mitigate emissions, and that now reaches the current era in which all new buildings that are constructed in the region consume nearly zero energy. “The challenge now is to improve quality control in construction to eliminate the ‘performance gap’ between the design and the reality of the work, which is very common, and to find strategies to promote the rehabilitation of existing buildings,” the foundation notes.
Demanding Objectives and a Common Commitment
As Verde and Lorente explain, the current standards seek to reduce the carbon incorporated into building materials, integrate renewable energy into infrastructure, and enhance electrical mobility.
The objectives are very clear: by 2050, all EU buildings should be zero-emission buildings, and starting in 2030, that requirement should apply to all newly constructed buildings. There are two lines of action to meet these objectives:
- Methodologies will be gradually adopted to quantify and highlight the importance of optimizing the use of resources, such as the Life-Cycle Analysis, which will positively influence the adoption of circular economy practices in the construction industry.
- Within the documentation of the products they market, manufacturers will be required to provide the so-called Environmental Product Declaration. To achieve this, they must quantify the environmental impacts arising from the manufacturing process. Measuring is the first step to being able to improve, and competition is likely to increase to see who offers “the most sustainable product on the market,” according to a standardized calculation methodology.
In this context of progress, CIRCE believes that the reluctance lies in the renovation of buildings and infrastructure, which require significant investment in material and economic terms for which a stable and powerful business ecosystem has not yet been organized. “Situations such as typological diversity, different ownership regimes, and the lack of a culture of maintenance complicate renovation projects. Combining construction work with the uninterrupted use of buildings is not a simple issue,” the experts explain.
Challenges and Progress
The move to circular activity in construction has a very positive impact on the environment and points to the fundamental principles of this economic philosophy:
- Increase the useful life of materials;
- Reduce the amount of landfill waste;
- Reduce reliance on new raw materials.
Progress is being made gradually. “In 2022, the new ‘Contaminated Waste and Soils Act for a Circular Economy’ was passed, affecting the industry and establishing important requirements in terms of reuse, recycling, and material recovery for construction and demolition waste. There probably needs to be a significant move in the direction of controlling compliance with these regulations to benefit the agents who try to do things correctly,” CIRCE points out.
Given the difficulty of adapting traditional processes that generate very heterogeneous waste, the Foundation calls for finding ways to incentivize and reward good practices. “At CIRCE, we are convinced that this challenge, though complex, represents a business opportunity for companies. We work to promote the development of reverse logistics networks and we study procedures that facilitate the recovery of material resources in our Recycling Technologies laboratory. We aspire to be a facilitating agent to seek synergies of industrial symbiosis in different sectors of the economy,” the experts conclude.
Contributors to this article:
Clara Lorente Martín. Project Manager on the Sustainability team (CIRCE Circular Economy Group). Architect specializing in energy efficiency, comfort, and well-being in the built environment. Certified as a Passivhaus Designer and BREEAM Associate, she has participated in the design, construction, and Passivhaus certification of more than 2,000 collective residential units (185,000 m²) with nearly zero consumption in Spain. Her research on passive strategies for improving comfort in warm periods to reduce reliance on conventional cooling stands out. She champions the use of LCA methodology to assess sustainability in design and achieve objectives by minimizing resource use.
Cristina Verde Ramis. Project Manager on the Sustainability team, CIRCE Circular Economy Group. Architect specialized in Architectural Restoration and Renovation from the University of Navarra. BIM Manager International Master’s Degree in 2017. She has more than eight years of experience as a director of building projects (specializing in collective housing), defining projects in all their phases, including on-site control and monitoring. She has managed and participated in defining residential projects under the Passivhaus standard by developing knowledge in constructing energy-efficient buildings.