Circular Economy in Construction
With every passing day we are being made extremely aware of an impending doom as result of the chronic climate crisis globally. In fact, it is hardly news anymore. The realization that sustainability and sustainable practices are the only way forward has more or less dawned on the general population. Now it is in the hands of professionals and change makers in the society to implement this on a larger scale.
As a part of the architecture fraternity which can be held accountable to bring about these changes, we must be well informed as well as enthusiastic to introduce and practice more sustainable practices. As per reports of the World Economic Forum, in the 90s, the construction sector was responsible for 40% of the use of raw materials and a third of the energy consumed globally. Studies show that between 2010 to 2020, this sector is still the world's largest consumer of raw materials, and accounts between 25% to 40% of the global carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. In this sense, the built environment puts one of the highest pressures in relation to the natural environment.
Recently, one of the terms associated with sustainability that has been gaining considerable traction is ‘Circular Economy’.
What is Circular Economy?
In our current economy, we take materials from the Earth, make products from them, and eventually throw them away as waste – the process is linear. In a circular economy, by contrast, we stop waste being produced in the first place. – Ellen Macarthur Foundation
The circular economy is based on three principles, driven by design:
It is underpinned by a transition to renewable energy and materials. A circular economy decouples economic activity from the consumption of finite resources. It is a resilient system that is good for business, people and the environment. The circular economy is a systems solution framework that tackles global challenges like climate change, biodiversity loss, waste, and pollution.
This has often left me wondering, as architects where do we put our skills to use to promote this concept? After my readings and observations, I can confidently say that architectural conservation is an excellent tool that will supplement the nurturing of a successful circular economy. Architectural conservation and allied practices seek to protect and conserve built heritage which holds some sort of value either in terms of its history or in terms of its construction practice. It is important to note is that both conservation and circular economy aim to safeguard the ‘values’ of materials and entities. Now how this value is defined might be slightly different but complementary nevertheless.
The change to a circular economy paradigm should be established by the implementation of different actions of knowledge, decision-making strategies, and stakeholders’ engagement, which is usually supported by the overlapping of the sustainable dynamics created through the encounter of the natural, economic, human, and cultural approaches.
This new approach to the management of cultural heritage requires scientific knowledge and expertise from multiple disciplines in order to decide on a specific action. This approach contributes to sustainability in the management of cultural heritage, with a balanced integration of technological, environmental, economic, social, governmental, and behavioral performance.
Cultural heritage buildings hold a unique niche in the urban landscape, as they embody the local cultural and historic characteristics that define communities. Refurbishing and adaptively reusing underutilized or abandoned buildings can revitalize neighborhoods whilst achieving environmental benefits. Extending their useful lifespan has multiple benefits that go beyond the project itself to the surrounding area, contributing to sustainable development, but decision-makers lack knowledge of the environmental benefits and tools for adaptive reuse of cultural heritage buildings.
In the paradigm of conservation practices, the one that best suits the concept of circular economy would be adaptive reuse. Adaptive reuse aims at retaining its heritage even as it continues to serve other functions. It is a movement in planning, designed to conserve old monuments & areas in order to tie a place's history to its population and culture. It is essentially the repurposing of existing buildings that may be of some heritage value to suit the functional needs of present-day activity. This method involves a lot of steps which include integrated management of heritage and heritage structures. After careful evaluation of a building in terms of its vulnerability and stability, the apt buildings are chosen to give a new lease for a more current purpose. There is also wide popularity for a method of adaptive reuse where parts of a heritage structure-which may not be fit for use-is extracted and put to use elsewhere without the loss of essence. This way the legacy lives a longer life even though the structure itself is no longer physically present and the material is used to its maximum potential without wastage.
The need for shelter is irrefutably critical to human well-being. The subsequent manufacture, use, and disposal of buildings for shelter is conducted on a massive scale, causing significant consumption of natural resources extracted from the environment and wastes returned to the environment. Although not all cultural heritage buildings are located in urban areas, the majority of buildings that can be repurposed and reused in future are concentrated in cities. They are critical to sustainable urban development.
As the theme of this year's Environment Day, ‘Only one Earth’ signifies we don’t have a plan B for this planet. It's either now or never, we get to take that decision today. Studies predict in the very near future there won’t be any more new constructions and only conservation or adaptive reuse projects due to a major land and resource crunch. We are already experiencing a serious resource crunch as it is, so why wait till the eleventh hour to start our efforts? Circular economy and conservation practices are creative and effective ways to breathe new life into our redundant buildings and drowning planets.