The HOUSEFUL project, in which Housing Europe was a partner, has just come to an end after five years. The main goal was to develop and demonstrate an integrated renovation system, composed of 11 circular solutions, co-created by stakeholders in the current housing value chain. The system included circular management and efficient use of water, waste, energy and material resources for all stages of the building’s life cycle. However, after five years, what have we learnt, and what is the state of play vis-à-vis public, cooperative, and social housing providers embracing the circular economy?
Firstly, what do we mean by the “circular economy”? When it comes to the built environment, like housing, we mean that buildings should try to use as few resources as possible throughout their lifetime, from conception, to development, the use phase, and then their eventual obsolescence.
When resources are used, there is a strong focus on incorporating recycled, repurposed or recovered materials. The use of renewable ‘biosourced’ materials like cork, hemp, and (sustainably sourced) wood is also strongly promoted. In other words, buildings should try to avoid the need to use completely ‘new’ construction products, or products derived from finite resources. The use of so-called modular or ‘plug-and-play’ prefabricated components, while not strictly related to the circular economy, can still help to cut down on waste during the construction or renovation process.
Another important aspect is the performance of homes, as circularity tends to go hand in hand with energy and resource efficiency. Circular homes also tend to address how water use can be reduced. In the HOUSEFUL project, for example, rainwater and greywater were harvested, treated on-site, and then reused for toilets, gardening and other safe uses (i.e., not used for drinking or bathing). Black water treatment systems were also developed. In an age where droughts are becoming more common, maximising the use of the water that enters our homes is becoming ever more essential.
One final aspect of circularity is the obsolescence phase of a building - the end of its life, when it must be demolished wholly or partly. At present, the construction sector is responsible for 32% of all waste generation in the EU. This is a truly staggering statistic, especially when compared to the household sector, which produces only 8% of waste, and even the manufacturing sector, which is responsible for only 11%.
The circular approach demands that as many of the components from buildings that have reached the end of their lifecycle be recovered as possible, with the goal to avoid that they end up in landfills. As well as simply ‘mining’ existing buildings for everything from windows, to doors, and kitchen and bathroom fittings, and increasingly concrete, bricks and similar construction elements, one approach that is now becoming more common is design-for-disassembly; sometimes referred to as the ‘reversibility’ of buildings.
Of course, being more efficient with resources and avoiding waste is a natural progression to make in terms of how we build or renovate our homes. The current spike in construction costs has served to reinforce this point, and encourage building owners to assess the existing value of the materials in their homes. However, how easy is making the circular transition in reality?
Housing Europe has worked with a number of partners from the HOUSEFUL project, and other stakeholders to try and answer this question. What we have found is that while there is a visible trend towards greater circularity within our sector, there are also many barriers and obstacles that make the transition more difficult than might otherwise be the case.
We can take the hypothetical case of renovating or constructing a multi-family apartment building. If the housing provider wants to reduce their use of new materials, they can try to source existing materials that have been recovered or recycled. This, however, raises many questions. For instance, in the traditional approach, a building owner might purchase all of the windows that they need from a supplier, who will make them to measure. If instead of purchasing new windows they use existing windows that have been recovered, the job becomes significantly more complex to manage.
Firstly, windows may need to be recertified, in order to ensure that they meet minimum standards. This creates a cost. Secondly, the windows would have to be stored somewhere while they are being reconditioned (if necessary) and waiting to be resold. Logistically, finding depots to warehouse the windows might be difficult or costly. Finally, as the building owner, you have less choice over supply, and finding windows that are the right size or that are sufficient in quantity for your project is not guaranteed. This also creates potential difficulties for architects or engineers working on the project. While the above illustration is about windows, it could also be applied to many other components. Indeed, it is for this reason that many recovered materials tend to be used to serve more of an “aesthetic” function, rather than being integral to the structure and overall solidity of a building.
Another issue that is worth mentioning is public procurement, which is of relevance to most public and social housing providers in Europe today. In many instances ‘price’ is the overriding criteria that is applied when a public contract for construction or renovation is put out for tender. While environmental concerns may be more present in tenders than in the past, price is still king. Furthermore, given that some companies that tender for contracts with housing providers are not yet familiar with the use of many innovative circular products and practices, the degree of uncertainty that might exist for them regarding the final development cost might be higher. Under normal public procurement procedures, the fee for the private company is fixed in advance. For innovative circular practices, it might mean that either companies take the approach of being overly cautious, submitting a high bid, to avoid the risk of losing money if they incur cost overruns, or else they simply don’t tender at all, leading to a lack of competition for contracts.
Of course, the objective of this article is not to be negative and to present the circular transition as some insurmountable task. Indeed, as we highlighted in a recent publication developed with partners in HOUSEFUL, there are already many great examples of ambitious circular projects from our sector. This point was reinforced during a recent webinar organised by Housing Europe, in which a number of social providers from across Europe discussed upcoming circular projects.
What we see from these projects is that, “yes”, a certain extra degree of commitment to environmental sustainability is required. However, once experience with new circular approaches increases, other problems can be reduced. A circular building that has been developed can act as a benchmark for those tendering for circular projects in terms of costs, which in turn will help to reduce issues around public procurement. If done in multiple projects, circular approaches can also lead to the development of economies of scale, which in turn can justify, for example, developing an in-house service for the reconditioning and storage of recovered materials.
Indeed, from all of the discussions that Housing Europe has had with housing providers in recent years, the number one policy recommendation that was raised time and again was the need for more circular “lighthouse”, or demonstrator, projects right across Europe. Once you have built one, then the second project becomes much easier, and then the third is even easier again, and so on. The EU, and its Members States, ought to provide some financing to develop such lighthouse projects, with a view to creating locally adapted templates for replication.
Another recurring recommendation is the need for a new EU-level agency that is responsible for developing the secondary market for construction materials. The activities of this agency could include financing pilot projects, testing different ways in which common products can be recycled or reused, and informing the development of better policies at both the EU and member state levels. The EU should also look at better incentivising the use of circular solutions by, for example, reducing taxes and levies on their use. Another factor that cannot be overlooked is making sure that circularity becomes more embedded within professions like architecture, engineering, and construction. Education and apprenticeship programmes will play a key role in this regard.
For its part, the EU has taken a number of important steps in recent times to support building owners to become more circular. The proposed recast of the Construction Products Regulation may have a big impact. Under the current proposals, greater flexibility could be shown by Member States regarding the testing and certification of reused products. This would also include allowing for the reuse of ‘excess’ construction products, i.e., products that are delivered to a building site, but never actually used. At present, these products are usually wasted or end up in landfills.
Another important update from the point of view of the European Commission is the recently published delegated acts for activities related to water, biodiversity, and the circular economy to be included as part of the Environmental Taxonomy. The draft proposal for the ‘Circular Economy’ outlines many areas of direct relevance to the circular economy in the residential buildings sector, including new construction and renovation, as well as use of bio-sourced materials, and even the reuse of water and products-as-a-service.
The EU is also becoming more critical, actively seeking to better identify areas in which the bloc needs to perform better or adapt current frameworks to promote the circular transition. A good example of this is the recent publication by the European Commission of its ‘The Transition Pathway for Construction’ document. Important to mention is alsio the EU Construction and Demolition Waste Management Protocol (published in 2016, soon to be updated), with the overarching objective to increase the perceived quality and reliability of construction and demolition waste management processes, as well as the use of recovered materials.
So, where are we five years on from the start of the HOUSEFUL project? Much progress has been made, and we see that many more public, cooperative, and social projects include elements of circularity. In addition, we see that the EU is actively taking steps to accelerate and facilitate the use of circular solutions. Projects like HOUSEFUL play an important role in informing EU policies in this regard. However, many obstacles remain, including many quite practical issues related to the supply-chain for recovered materials, storage, financing, and logistics. For now, one concrete result is the Houseful Digital Platform, a recently launched one stop shop to Discover, Connect & Share content for circular building services.
Housing Europe is continuing to work on the circular economy, including through on-going projects like DRIVE 0 and ARV. We are also working to gather the experiences of housing providers across Europe, and to make sure that, as much as possible, this information is being used to inform better policy making, learning, and the transmission of best practices.