The concept of the circular built environment is slowly gaining momentum within UK construction

By now we’ve all heard the doom-laden statistics about the enormous 40% that our industry contributes to annual global CO2 emissions. With figures this daunting and given the enormous economic pressures we are subject to, it’s hard to know where an SME like us should start to make any kind of meaningful change. If there was one common set of ideas, goals or regulations that would be applied across the industry, contractors like us would be able to tender for work not only sustainably but on a level playing field with our competitors.

One idea that is being widely championed as a potential common goal is the ‘circular economy’ and for construction specifically the ‘circular built environment’. At its core, the circular built environment seeks to shift away from the linear material use prevalent in construction today (‘make, use, discard’), eliminating the concept of “waste” by designing buildings and infrastructure that can be dismantled, reused, or repurposed at the end of their lifecycle. This approach encourages the use of sustainable materials and efficient resource management, an industrial ‘sea change’ which will have to originate from those who commission and specify construction due to the commercial risks involved.

Two-thirds of the aforementioned emissions are created after the point of handover, from carbon consumed by the building users and later the demolition of the building at the end of its useful life, so strong emphasis is placed on the integration of renewable energy systems and high energy efficiency as well as maintaining/preserving materials and entire buildings at their highest value for as long as possible.

Those who commission and design our built environment, along with those who invest in upskilling their workforce to complimentary technologies, play a vital role in making their work part of the circular built environment. Here, we outline some of the measures construction specifiers could adopt which would drastically reduce carbon emissions for their projects:


At A Vision for Value, CENE’s excellent summit late last year, a slew of innovative ideas were showcased that might become more mainstream in a near-future circular economy. One standout presentation came from Summer Islam AADipl ARB from Material Cultures, an organisation whose housing integrates groundbreaking low-embodied-carbon design and materials, regional supply chain intelligence (procuring localised materials) and fully digitised specification models that bridge the gap between emerging research and industry – they design with traditional materials such as timber, stone, clay, lime and plant fibres such as hemp and straw bales, all of which can be grown and sourced in the UK in contrast to the high-energy materials currently imported from overseas.

The Phoenix, a development of over 700 homes on the south coast, for which Material Cultures have provided design, modelling and material testing services. “Inherently low carbon, the buildings are constructed from prefabricated timber cassettes insulated with hempcrete. Varied natural timber claddings enliven the facades and streetscapes.”

Summer says that “the fact that it is so hard for us to think and design beyond these (architectural) languages is in part due to the fact that they are now embedded in the vocabulary of components, products and regulations that frame architectural possibility.” Clearly there is some way to go before these methods filter down and are more familiar to those who regulate and insure our construction industry day-to-day, let alone to consumers. However, Material Cultures seeks to lead and accelerate this sustainable change in the construction industry and their portfolio is full of fascinating examples where sustainably-motivated clients have been willing to accept risk in the name of progress.


Another impactful presentation at the CENE event was given by CoreHaus who have developed a new model of low carbon, affordable homes which they hope will transform the modular housing industry, allowing for easy disassembly and reconfiguration of building components, promoting flexibility and adaptability. They have refined the design and processes involved in their builds by using a standardised ‘modular’ core housing a pre-finished WC, bathroom, staircase and heating system, eliminating 80% of commonly-problematic construction processes and reducing on-site build programme by 50%. This standardised core has been designed to allow further CoreHaus modules to be configured around it in flexible 2, 3, 4 and 5 bedroom solutions, providing a cost-effective and sustainable package.


In their ambitious publication Circular Economy and Built Environment, Arup present how they see the Circular Economy working in practice and their vision is radical and uncompromising. They call for circular buildings to be designed and constructed with a longer lifespan in mind, ensuring that they can be adapted and upgraded rather than demolished and rebuilt, specifically “retrofit and upgrade-ready.” “Policy and incentives will encourage clients to issue full lifecycle contracts from design to operation and disassembly as well as pushing their ambitions in achieving holistic lifecycle certification and awards. Components and structures will often be leased rather than purchased. Performance based contracts will see tenants and landowners pay for a service such as lighting rather than individual fittings or materials.”

However their excellent ideas rely rather heavily on strong governmental leadership, for example “policies and industry standards will ensure components from different manufacturers and providers are interchangeable” – unfortunately in the relative chaos of 2023 this seems like wishful thinking.


The idea here is that fostering collaboration and knowledge-sharing among construction workers, architects, engineers, and project stakeholders will help to integrate circular economy principles into the design and construction process.

This is one area that is largely underdeveloped at present, according to Arup. Complexity is one of the defining features of the built environment and there is rarely continuity of ownership and control. “Actors in the early stages of development (such as architects and designers) are rarely held fully accountable for outcomes further down the chain, such as the operation or end-of-life of an asset.” In our experience, due to the tender processes involved, design is often completed well before contractors are able to exercise their expertise and influence material choices. SME construction contractors like ourselves who have long-standing relationships with local architects, and therefore a vested mutual interest in the success of our projects, are perhaps better placed to address these issues than contractors working on mega-projects in areas with more international investment. We just don’t have the tools to easily buy in to the more costly ideas yet, being still significantly squeezed by increasing cost of materials, local labour shortages and interminable amounts of red tape to get through before we can win work.


Frustrating as it may be to depend on clients and designers to begin to change the industry from the top down, there are certainly measures that construction contractors like ourselves can and do routinely take on site to ensure our sites are managed in a circular way.


Promote energy-efficient practices on site, such as using energy-efficient equipment and lighting, and reducing energy consumption during construction activities.


Implement effective waste management practices by segregating and properly disposing of construction waste. Encourage recycling and salvage of materials whenever possible.


Implement water-saving measures, such as capturing rainwater for construction purposes and minimizing water usage during site operations.

By adopting these measures, every member of the construction industry can actively contribute to creating a productive circular built environment, reducing waste, conserving resources, and creating more sustainable and resilient structures. Together with a little political help, we could help shape a future where construction practices align with the principles of the circular economy, leading to a healthier and more sustainable planet – there’s no time to waste.