Circular economy, data, and the construction industry

Circular economy (CE) as a concept has become widely known in relation to the reuse and recycling of short-lived consumer goods such as clothing, phones, computers, washing machines etc. In the last decades, people have become more conscious of the ways consumer culture has affected our society and economy. However, when it comes to the awareness regarding how this can be applied to buildings and infrastructure that exist for decades if not centuries, the picture becomes less clear.

Whilst many buildings/infrastructure projects are designed with sustainability principles in mind (such as the use of ‘green’ products), some issues worth looking at hinder the ‘full’ application of circular economy thinking.

This article looks at issues related to the use of data and how solving them may have a positive effect on bringing the benefits of CE to the construction sector.

What are likely to be the challenges for CE thinking in the built environment?

Firstly, due to the complexity of buildings, it is very hard to think of the ‘end of life’ stage as one point in time that relates to the whole building/infrastructure. Because of the various lifespans of products that make up a built asset the recycling or reuse of different entities is much more complicated than the general case with consumer goods. To eliminate waste facility managers/building owners need to know what products are eligible for reuse or recycling at any point in time in a buildings life-cycle. The scarcity of product information in a digital format poses a great issue in this regard.

Product information – an important prerequisite for CE thinking

According to the Construction Products Regulation, products covered by harmonized EU standards must have a Declaration of Performance before they can be traded and marketed in Europe. This legislative framework applies to products eligible for recycling and reuse too. If building materials are to be reused, building actors must use available product information from technical documentation and performance statements to assess whether a construction product can meet the original technical specification. Moreover, changes in legislation may mean that a recovered material is no longer compliant with the building regulations. Therefore, it is essential that product information is readily available at all stages of the building/infrastructure’s life cycle. Product data integrated into the building’s original BIM model can cover the designers’ information needs, including the reuse of products in a new building.

Circular economy

Boosting the commercial appetite

Currently, because recycling and reuse of construction materials is an information-inefficient process it is perceived as one of the reasons for more complicated and time-consuming construction and demolition stages, challenges during project planning, cumbersome logistics, etc. The current regulatory environment is not well adapted for the sales and use of used construction products. In addition, there is a lack of readily available information about products and materials that can be reused. So it is easy to see why the commercial appetite for the use of recycled goods is on the low.

To this date, there is no common platform or marketplace where ‘buyers’ can find information about buildings/infrastructure to be demolished or products and materials available for reuse. In order to have feasible recycling processes, an easy channel for access to such goods is required.

Circular economy and digital technologies

In order to be able to establish a marketplace for recycled product or products for reuse, it is necessary that the documented characteristics of products meet legal, market and project requirements. Such a platform needs machine-readable, interoperable, structured data. The key to managing this process lies in the proper digital use of the EU and international product standards that manufacturers follow when they fabricate a product. The same standards are used by designers as the basis in their design work. These standards provide the common language and common data model needed for machines to be able to easily match product data with requirements.

Cobuilder’s Data Templates for structuring product data are based on these product standards, which allows the product data to be communicated and understood equally by people and different software throughout the value chain. Using Cobuilder’s Data Templates, product data can be easily structured and distributed to digital models.

In a future, where technologies such as the Internet of Things (IoT) and digital twins will be widely applied, digital models will be further enriched by data capturing the impact of the external environment on the building. In this way, existing as-built data can be further enriched with data about the products’ real-time performance and wear. However, unless we think of how we are collecting the data about the built environment today, there is no way to ensure that this future will lead us to the benefits of CE.

The light motive

Many think tanks, industries, companies, professional institutions, trade associations, and NGOs are pushing forward with CE thinking as they understand the need to change our consumption patterns. As part of its continuous effort to transform Europe’s economy into a more sustainable one and to implement the ambitious Circular Economy Action Plan, in January 2018 the European Commission adopted a new set of measures.

These efforts, however, should be coordinated with the ongoing standardization work related to the use of digitalized construction product data. CE Policymakers should be aware of the Smart CE marking initiative, led by Construction Products Europe (CPE) that addresses the use of harmonised product standards in digital construction. Moreover, within the European standardisation body CEN, The Technical Committee TC/442 has already come forward with standards addressing the interoperability of all information in the built environment.

In the 21st century, the circulation and reuse of goods cannot be sustained without the proper data infrastructure. In an industry that wastes more than 40% of the world’s raw products, it is more important than ever to align CE thinking with digital data thinking in order to achieve the best results for the built environment and our society as a whole.