Moving towards a Circular Engineering and Construction Economy

Moving towards a Circular Engineering and Construction Economy

The engineering and construction (E&C) industry is big business. It is estimated to account for 6% of global GDP with revenues of $10 trillion annually and it employs more than 100 million people (World Economic Forum, 2016). Then with the continuing trend of urbanization and projections of the world population increasing from 7.6 billion to 8.6 billion by 2030, the E&C industry will need to grow substantially to keep up with this demand (United Nations, 2017).

Unfortunately, the industry also comes with a big cost to the environment. Construction and demolition accounts for approximately 40% of solid waste sent to landfills in the US and 27% in Canada (World Economic Forum, 2016)(Muluken Yeheyis, 2013). Moving forward this is going to become a gigantic problem unless there is a step change in how we design, build and demolish infrastructure and buildings.

Fortunately, this problem also represents a massive opportunity. If we can design and implement a new model that efficiently captures the value of this wasted material, it will create a new industry that turns this value into revenue and profits. It will also reduce project costs as less material is sent to the landfill.

The problem is complex and multisided, requiring everyone across the value chain to think differently, from engineers and contractors to project owners to regulators and back down to suppliers. Although it will be difficult to gain widespread adoption, below are some examples of changes that should result in waste reductions and added value.

  • In demolition projects, owners could undertake a detailed materials and parts inventory assessment of the structure to be demolished, which includes finding markets and determining values for these materials. Once the overall value recovery has been quantified, the demolition contract and methodology can be developed that optimizes the sorting and processing of material according to its value. In other words, the demolition site becomes a recycling, sorting and processing plant.
  • New designs could incorporate modular parts and come with a detailed parts inventory linked to a 3D model that makes it very efficient to identify and recover materials at the end of the structures life.
  • Use of 3D printing. Although the technology may not quite be there for widespread adoption, it is improving quickly. 3D printing can enable parts or even entire structures to be optimally designed with less material and then printed with little wasted material.
  • Engineers should try and develop options that work with existing ground conditions even when those conditions are not classed as being suited for the project (i.e. ground improvement, different structural design, etc.). Removal and replacement with engineered fill can be a significant cost and if the existing ground cannot be repurposed it will normally end up in a landfill. For this to work, engineers need to be better at communicating risks and invite project owners to be part of that process.
  • Parts and materials should be delivered to construction sites in reusable packaging. The packaging could be based on deposit type schemes or even a membership model that includes suppliers, contractors and transport companies.

However, there are some big hurdles to overcome first though. The E&C industry is a laggard. It is slow at adopting new technologies and processes, and is well behind other industries in productivity improvements over the last 50 years (World Economic Forum, 2016). Partly due to the high consequences of failure, most people in the industry are very conservative and have built rules and regulations that are not conducive to new innovations and ways of thinking.

Another major problem is that the industry is based on project to project models with an aim to minimize short term costs. Innovation normally requires short term investment that will result in long term benefits. Someone needs to pay for this up-front cost.

Finally, when it comes down to money, people are blindsided by the costs to reduce waste and it consequently becomes a ‘nice to have’ in a lot of cases. Project owners and E&C companies need to have the vision that by investing in innovations that reduce waste, projects will ultimately be cheaper.

Moving forward, there will be more and more pressure from the public to reduce waste across all industries and E&C will be no exception. Regulators have already and will continue to tighten rules around waste. Companies can also quickly find themselves on the wrong side of a social media campaign that can mobilize people across the globe quickly and on mass.

E&C companies that take charge and develop innovative designs and processes that can remove waste from construction and demolition projects will gain a unique competitive advantage in the market. They will also benefit the environment at the same time.

References

Muluken Yeheyis, K. H. (2013). An overview of construction and demolition waste management in Canada: a lifecycle analysis approach to sustainability. Clean Technologies and Environmental Policy.

United Nations. (2017). World Population Prospects: The 2017 Revision .

World Economic Forum. (2016). Shaping the Future of Construction: A Breakthrough in Mindset and Technology.