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Circling with intent

Wales’ construction sector is urged to adopt more sustainable ‘circular’ practices

With infrastructure spending in Wales for the next few years projected to be well ahead of the UK average - and Cardiff and Swansea in particular in the midst of very visible redevelopment efforts - the great and the good of the country’s construction sector recently met in the capital amid an exciting time for the industry.

But attendees at a seminar organised by Constructing Excellence in Wales (CEW) were warned that despite a healthy pipeline of major construction projects at the present time, industry players must move quickly to establish a more sustainable sector or face the consequences.

Delegates heard a succession of speakers on the topic of the “circular economy” outline a carrot and stick approach to developing a more environmentally and economically maintainable business model – told that doing so could see them share in the addition of £1 billion to Wales’ gross domestic product (GDP), but also warned that failure to do so would result in further depletion of scarce resources and could threaten the survival of a number of businesses.  

AECOM regional director for sustainability David Cheshire told the event that the construction industry is currently “locked” into a “linear economy”. He explained: “We are taking things out of the ground, we use them for a few years, and then we are chucking them away without any value.”

Members of Acuity’s construction and projects teams were in attendance at the event to hear the key trends many hope will drive the industry around and around in circles…

1. Adopting a ‘circular’ approach to construction could generate £1 billion for Wales.

Colin Carter, an associate director at engineering and project management consultancy Amec Foster Wheeler, unveiled a study by his firm which put the value for the Welsh economy of adopting ‘circular economy’ principles at an eye-catching £1 billion by 2035. That, Carter said, is equivalent to around two per cent of Wales’ current GDP of £55 billion. To reap such rewards, construction industry stakeholders must drive greater adoption of everything from the use of 3D printing for manufacturing, to greater sharing and multi-purposing of buildings – with redevelopment efforts hoped to reduce demand for new buildings by 9 to 10 per cent.

2. Critical shortages are expected for key materials.

Construction Excellence in Wales director Emma Thomas put it simply: “It is going to get harder and harder for a variety of reasons to use virgin material.” There are a number of factors at play here, including an increase in demand for materials such as steel and timber from other markets and more stringent regulations governing the use of things like aggregate – a category which includes the crushed concrete critical to many projects – and architectural glass.

3. The best things really might come in small packages.

A consistent theme at the event was the need to adopt “modular” building techniques which will see buildings effectively constructed by fitting together small, uniform sections in a manner to suit the needs and purpose of each project. Such an approach means materials are more easily recovered and reused should the use of the building change over time, or it need to be demolished. Pierre Wassenaar, a director at architectural practice Stride Treglown said the guiding principle at the outset of a new project should be: “How can this be built in such a way that it wouldn’t matter if it was taken down – because it would be fine to reuse all of the componentry in a sensible way.” In future, Wales could follow the lead of pioneering projects in the Netherlands which have seen prefabricated buildings used for a particular purpose before being taken apart, stored and eventually re-used – in one instance a pre-fabricated museum was later moved and rebuilt elsewhere as a school.  “What I thought was interesting about that is that it means we have buildings potentially as an asset in their own right,” explained Cheshire. “They are not actually connected to the value of their site. If you buy a building it is usually the site which ends up being key.”

4. Get ready for the “Amazon of building materials”

Standing in front of some of the key figures in the Welsh construction and project industry, AECOM director David Cheshire displayed a slide of a JCB sat atop the chaotic debris of a demolished building. “Sorry everyone, this is what is going to happen to all of the beautiful buildings you are designing, building and maintaining – almost inevitably the majority of them get trashed,” he said. “Surely,” he added, “there is just a better way of doing this that would actually save people time, effort, money and resources.” Stride Treglown’s Wassenaar has an idea for just such an alternative. He would like to see Building Information Modelling (BIM) – the data-led process which uses computer software to digitally map every aspect of a building – employed to “essentially create a passport for each component of your building” so that it can be entered into a UK-wide materials bank allowing the sharing of second-hand components over time – “like the Amazon of materials.”

5. A new way of buying

AECOM’s Cheshire even provided a worked example of achieving ‘value for money’ with a circular economy – a question on the mind of every attendee involved with procurement. David cited a Delta Developments project in Amsterdam where there was a call for complete transparency over the contractor’s supply chain. A maximum budget per material was set and, rather than purchasing the cheapest option, suppliers were asked ‘what is the best product we can get for the price?’. The levels of innovation this generated completely changed the value of the building – where previously demolition contractors had quoted how much the building would cost to pull down at the end of its life, they were now offering to pay to demolish the building provided that they could keep all of the materials. 

6. The time to act is now.

Amec Foster Wheeler director Colin Carter noted that infrastructure growth in Wales between 2016 and 2020 is set to outpace that of the UK average – by 7.1 per cent to 2.5 per cent. The number of jobs in the Welsh construction sector is set to exceed its previous 2008 pre-financial crisis peak employment by 5,000 jobs by 2020. And the Welsh construction sector accounts for about £3.5 billion of the Welsh economy each year – or about 6 per cent of GDP. Carter suggested that now is the time for the industry to come together to adopt circular economy practices where economies of scale may be more easily possible. Nevertheless, he warned, it won’t be easy. “It is a complicated thing, the circular economy, and it is going to be more complicated.” However, the final slide of CEW’s opening presentation spelled out the potential result of not embracing these challenges. Quoting famed US engineer W Edwards Deming, it simply read: “You don’t have to do any of this – survival is not mandatory”. 

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