Fresh design approach can cut construction resource use by 23%, new research says

A new study has suggested a fresh way of thinking on design whereby firms switch to a more “circular” approach could potentially reduce construction time and costs by cutting resource use by up to 23%.

Research undertaken by the engineering consulting firm WSP has found implementation of 10 recommendations surrounding four areas which include skills; standards and policy; records and evidence; and finance and procurement within the built environment and infrastructure sectors could help achieve the government’s target to double resource productivity by 2050. 

WSP says applying a “linear” approach is wasteful, whereby adopting a more “circular” approach could be massively beneficial by accelerating the use of flexible, adaptable and modular designs for buildings and infrastructure.

A linear approach is said to be when after materials have been extracted, processed and used for construction, they’re then dug up or demolished at the end of their original use before, in most cases, being either discarded or recycled for use, often at a lower grade than they originally started. 

Some of the key recommendations laid out in the report for firms to adopt in the four areas include: 

  • Skills -  Giving all staff working in the construction and engineering sectors a strong grounding in practical, modular, adaptable and resource-efficient design 
  • Standards and policy - Simplify waste regulations, as the UK leaves the EU, DEFRA should work to avoid construction materials being classified as waste unless no other safe use can be identified 
  • Records and evidence - Store detailed design criteria in an accessible manner. Good records covering design and individual product characteristics are essential for design teams to adapt existing developments and reuse spare materials
  • Finance and procurement - Learn from European best practice, such as the Dutch CO2 Performance Ladder, to incentivise resource efficiency in UK infrastructure procurement. Good practice on incentivising resource eefficient, modular, adaptable designs already exists across Europe. Applying these practices to the £120bn of UK annual public procurement would have significant impact on accelerating circular design.

Commenting on the paper, David Symons, UK director of Sustainability at WSP, said: “The construction industry is the largest user of resources in the UK economy today, so it needs to take rapid action. We have to do something different and these 10 actions from WSP and supporting organisations show how the industry is stepping up and taking a leadership position itself.”  

The recommendations have received widespread from those in construction, engineering and academia and therefore show the benefits each can have. Among those to so far back the paper include Aldersgate, ArcelorMittal, Ashfords, Centre for Environment and Sustainability, Clean Energy BC, Costain, EIC, IEMA, Madaster, Morgan Sindall, Osborne, Tarmac, Tata Steel, UKGBC and the University of Leeds.

“It makes complete sense to embed these recommendations into government policy now,” adds George Baker, author of the paper and consultant at WSP. “They focus on the delivery of a key objective of the Industrial Strategy, the 25 Year Environment Plan and the Clean Growth Strategy.”

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