As highlighted in the diagram below, carbon is present at all stages of a property’s lifespan.
Therefore, to achieve net zero, emissions will need to be eliminated from construction, through operation, to the end of the building’s lifespan. Both government policy and the post-COVID environment can provide the opportunity to embed circular economics at all stages of a property’s cycle.
Carbon can be released from the demolition, transport and disposal of building materials at the end of a building’s lifecycle.
If a building’s materials and infrastructure can be recycled rather than extracting new materials and wasting the embodied carbon from making the materials to begin with, then it can limit emissions significantly.
Given the shortage of virgin building materials, and low revenue and cash flow amongst construction companies coming out of the pandemic, recycled or remanufactured materials offer a cost-effective and readily available opportunity for businesses.
Investments in reusing building materials and recycling deconstructed physical infrastructure is a key enabler for build-material circulation, as well as creating jobs within the circular economy. Another key circular economic principle is to design out waste and pollution by upgrading and renovating homes to improve not only energy efficiency but durability and adaptability.
This can offer a long-term, cost-effective solution to the supply of energy-inefficient buildings.
In particular, converting underutilised empty office space may be a solution to housing supply in a post-pandemic future.
Ensuring operational carbon is minimalised through good operational and maintenance practices is key to reducing energy wastage.
Given that 44% of all social rented homes in England (circa 1.8 million) have an energy performance certificate rating below C and 90% of all homes in England are using fossil fuels for heating, cooking and hot water, the UK needs to take significant steps to tackle the energy inefficiency of its current homes to achieve present and stricter future government targets.
There is a need for social landlords to consider replacing traditional fossil fuel-powered heating systems with zero-carbon heating systems (e.g. electric pumps) when conducting cyclical maintenance and retrofit programmes on existing properties.
Government schemes such as the Social Housing Decarbonisation Fund, funding for electric heat pump installation and the Clean Heat Grant enable housing providers to take the first steps to embedding circular economic principles for the future.
The post-COVID green economic recovery offers a unique opportunity to embed circular economic principles into each stage of a property’s lifecycle to create a cost-effective and liveable solution that aligns with current climate trends and future targets.
Social landlords should review how circular economics principles can be embedded into future new-build procedures and existing asset management strategies in order to maximise the opportunities arising from the post-COVID operating environment and for long-term, future-proof sustainability.
Will Morley, consultant, Altair