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Virtuous circles: Can reusing building materials in new projects go mainstream?

Circular Economy   RetroFirst
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Reusing building materials in new projects could significantly reduce the industry’s carbon emissions. Fran Williams looks at how the circular economy is faring in UK construction

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The UK currently consumes 600 million tonnes of products annually while generating about 220 million tonnes of waste. Not only do construction, demolition and excavation contribute about 60 per cent of this amount, but the built environment accounts for 45 per cent of the UK’s total CO2 emissions. 

Reducing waste is not enough to change this – but, together with reappropriating waste back into construction as a way of slashing the construction industry’s carbon emissions contribution, it could be a game-changer. In the context of the AJ’s ongoing RetroFirst campaign for a circular construction industry, how easy a win could this be?

It’s essentially a way of looking at cities as material stores for the future 

In his keynote speech at the AJ100 in June last year, environmental activist and BBM Sustainable Design co-founder Duncan Baker-Brown set out how architects and ‘constructors’ need to stop digging up materials and instead use what is already above ground (preferably locally above ground) from now on. Stating simply how the profession can make change, he said: ‘We need to mine the Anthropocene: rework the already produced stuff. The human layer of stuff, whether it’s ocean plastic, landfill, existing buildings and re-wild our natural world.’

But what does the process of material reclamation in the built environment involve and what are the key obstacles to this becoming mainstream in construction from now on? 

Starting with the basics, the use of reclaimed materials involves reusing products and materials that have previously been part of another building. The materials may be altered, refinished or resized but not reprocessed; they should retain their original form. 

Types of materials that may be reclaimed include brick, steel sections and timber, to whole elements such as window frames and tiles down to door handles. It’s essentially a way of looking at ‘cities as material stores for the future’, explains Baker-Brown.

Resource rows crop

Resource rows crop

Source: Mikkel Strange

Lendager Group’s Resource Rows project, Copenhagen

His 2014 waste house project with the University of Brighton demonstrates the principles of reuse on a small-scale experimental scheme, in the simplest manner – literally using over 85 per cent of waste material from household and construction sites to make a whole building. But are there examples on a larger scale?

Architects in Europe have been leading the way on material reclamation so far. In 2016, Belgian studio Samyn and Partners completed the European Union’s headquarters in Brussels which features a large glass atrium enclosing a lantern-like structure with a transparent façade on its north-western corner constructed out of 3,750 recycled wooden window frames from demolition sites across Europe.

In Copenhagen, the pioneering Lendager Group’s 92-home Resource Rows project has also been built mostly from recycled construction materials. This approach was pushed by the project’s architects, winning support from clients NREP and Arkitektgruppen. The project’s core architectural idea was to upcycle buildings, an idea that has been translated literally into a façade made up of a patchwork of panels of recycled brickwork – prefabricated from cut-out segments of old brick walls complete with their mortar. The placing of these was decided on site with bricks taken from three different buildings. 

The materials may be altered, refinished or resized but not reprocessed; they should retain their original form 

Other construction elements taken from recycled materials included exterior wood from crates for window frames, terraces and decking; floors of offcuts from high spec flooring company Dineson; and recycled glass to create greenhouses. 

Elsewhere, Rotor Deconstruction, a side-project of Brussels-based firm Rotor, specialising in deconstruction and reconstruction, has been promoting and facilitating the reuse of building components for at least a decade. Working with between 25 and 40 buildings a year, Rotor’s work includes unbolting the façades of a complex of 20-year-old skyscrapers at the Brussels World Trade Center to extract components including lighting fixtures, partitions, radiator covers, hardware and marble floors. While this did massively slow down the demolition process, many of the products have already been sold – there is evidently money to be made in this industry.

Back in 2013, Rotor initiated a survey of the Belgian market in second-hand building materials, the results of which are found in online directory Opalis. Since then Opalis UK (plus others across Europe) has been set up with a few hundred companies pinpointed.

Upcycle studios end house crop

Upcycle studios end house crop

Source: Mikkel Strange

Lendager Group’s Upcycle Studios in Copenhagen

Connected to this is a European Commission-funded co-operation programme, Interreg’s FCRBE (Facilitating the Circulation of Reclaimed Building Elements in North-western Europe). This research project aims to increase the amount of reclaimed building materials being circulated in the region including the UK by up to 50 per cent by 2032. 

Working with partner organisations, including UK-based Salvo, and Baker-Brown at the University of Brighton, the project takes Opalis’s work one step further. By 2022, it aims to deliver an online directory documenting specialised reuse operators and specification methods for reclaimed products plus a pre-demolition audit method for reusable elements. 

The research project’s lead, Rotor’s Michael Ghyoot, says that, while documenting existing salvage dealers, it has become obvious that many of them have ceased activities over the last couple of years – often because either the owners couldn’t find a buyer for their business or they were no longer profitable. 

There has never been so much talk about the circular economy, yet operators in this field are struggling to conduct their business 

‘This is a paradoxical situation,’ he says. ‘There has never been so much talk about circular economy, yet operators fully active in this field are struggling to conduct their business. 

‘To me, this indicates the need to further question the current practices of the construction sector. How is it that something so simple and obvious as keeping reusable resources intact and in circulation can have become so complicated to put into practice?’

So, what are the main barriers to a more closed-loop process? To start with, there are issues with insurance and liability. How do you know what the performance of a reused material is? Baker-Brown says until there is more transparency with this, it will be hard to implement this process on a bigger scale.

On top of this, there is the issue of knowing what is up for grabs, and this is where technology comes in. ‘We need BIM models for all existing buildings in danger of being demolished, so we know what is available,’ says Baker-Brown. ‘There’s always reasons why buildings need to be taken down and if that’s the case, you can turn up at a situation with your smart phone and do a quick survey of the resource.’ If this became commonplace, it could seed a virtuous cycle. The more information that is retained from the outset, the more transparency there will be with the data on products and materials such as their physical characteristics, ability to be recycled and toxicity levels. 

Companies on the continent are also paving the way in terms of facilitating and solving some of these issues. The Netherlands-based Excess Materials Exchange is offering a digital marketplace, which describes itself as functioning ‘like a dating site’ to match demand with materials. 

The system uses a ‘resources passport’ to provide data on materials coupled with a tracking identifier and a financial value to facilitate ‘matchmaking’. Another Dutch outfit, the Madaster Foundation, similarly promotes the development and use of material passports – digital documents containing information on all parts of a building.  

We need BIM models for all existing buildings in danger of being demolished, so we know what is available 

All of these tools facilitate the concept of resource mapping – the process of only using materials lying around locally.

In the UK, material reclamation has always taken place on a small scale (bricks were commonly reused in Victorian builds) and now involves salvage companies, such as Lassco in London, providing access to salvaged materials, often for high-end reclamation catering for a certain desirable ‘heritage’ aesthetic. 

Architect-initiated projects using reclaimed materials also exist in the UK. At bere:architects’ new home for environmental engineer Max Fordham, the architect worked closely with the contractor to reuse surplus materials from previous jobs. Practice director Justin Bere says: ‘Our contractor saves and stores leftover materials from other jobs, and we were happy to vary some of our specified products, such as lime mortar and bathroom tiles, in order to make use of this.

Upcycle studios wooden floors and walls

Upcycle studios wooden floors and walls

Source: Mikkel Strange

Lendager Group’s Upcycle Studios in Copenhagen

‘This is the first time this has been suggested to us, and it demonstrates a benefit of early collaboration and standardised contractor offerings, which we are now establishing on other projects, resulting in reduced environmental emissions and reduced costs due to reduced waste.’

Early collaboration and good communication were clearly crucial here, but why is this type of co-operation so unusual and why can’t it be implemented on larger-scale projects?

London Waste and Recycling Board chief executive Wayne Hubbard says: ‘Reclaimed materials can be an unknown quantity for many developers, both in terms of whether they’re going to perform well and meet required standards and whether enough of the right materials are going to be available at the right time and place without causing project delays and extra cost.

‘Unless the client (or regulation) specifies the need for higher environmental standards, it’s often just easier, quicker and cheaper to choose new materials.’

His view is backed by Sara Morel, chief executive of Salvo, a long-established UK-based company providing architectural salvage and reclaimed building materials. 

‘At present almost all reuse is initiated by clients,’ she says, ‘so the salvage sector has been an underutilised resource for decades, supplying less than one per cent of the construction materials market since Salvo started in 1990.’

In an industry dominated by economies and efficiencies, where longer and more complicated processes are pushed aside, relying solely on the client to pursue a material reclamation agenda is clearly insufficient.

Camden mews crop

Camden mews crop

Source: Tim Crocker

Camden Mews (aka Max Fordham House) by bere:architects

‘The best way in which architects could reduce their material carbon dependence is through reuse,’ Morel argues. ‘Reclaimed materials should be mandated, not an option, for any LEED [the North American environmental building standard] or BREEAM building.

‘All buildings should aim to outperform the national average by including 5 per cent – by value, volume or mass – reclaimed building materials.’

At the end of 2019, the AECOM-led MI-ROG (Major Infrastructure – Resource Optimisation Group) published a white paper entitled The Case for a Resource Exchange Mechanism, calling for the creation of a national ‘mechanism’ to allow the trade of surplus materials and products across UK projects. The scheme would encourage widespread reuse of materials in construction to deliver environmental, social and cost-saving benefits. ‘It’s exactly what we need at a regional and national level,’ says Baker-Brown.

But there is also the issue of waste management. Arguably legislation is required to reduce downcycling so that architects and others can get hold of construction waste before the waste managers receive it. 

At the moment, this happens only on a case-by-case basis. Large contractors do move resources from one building site to another. With Baker-Brown’s Waste House, the team were able to get to the material before waste managers, while with bere:architects’ Max Fordham House, the contractor Bow Tie Construction was in control of its own waste recirculation. 

From an architect’s perspective, I would say the biggest barrier is the mindset as to what circular economy is and making a change from ‘business as usual’

European companies such as Amsterdam-based Copper8 offer circular construction support by using a systems-based approach to organise collaborations between all parties. In the UK there is a lack of a system to implement a similar sort of resource management – perhaps the biggest barrier to material reclamation becoming mainstream. However, as Baker-Brown puts it, we are all responsible: ‘At the end of the day we are all resource managers. We need to be engaged with where materials come from and how they are made.’

Camden mews int 7163

Camden mews int 7163

Source: Tim Crocker

Camden Mews (aka Max Fordham House) by bere:architects

Behavioural change could be the key here, says David Greenfield, managing director at the consultancy SOENECS (Social, Environmental & Economic Solutions) which is working with Brighton Hove City Council on a circular economy framework. 

‘From an architect’s perspective, I would say the biggest barrier is the mindset as to what circular economy is and making a change from “business as usual”,’ he says. ‘In many cases it is embracing this concept by those designing. It’s the same for all partners involved in a building – M&E, local government – and it is still not understood by everyone.’ 

Material reclamation is undoubtedly beginning to take off in Denmark, Belgium and the Netherlands, perhaps because these countries have less constrictive building regulations. In the UK, the challenge is to find a way to incorporate these circular economy principles when building with the tightest budgets and time constraints. 

So, what can architects do to help push this forward? It clearly requires a shift in industry culture involving hard work, flexibility and some risk-taking. Time scales, insurance and product warranties are clearly big issues and architects need to embrace waste management systems, advances in IT and the latest thinking from Europe.

We already boast a few circular economy pioneers. But more wide-ranging transformative change won’t happen until architects and others properly engage with material reclamation.

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