Why circular construction is becoming the new industry standard

08/01/2021

Circular construction – the selective demolition of buildings to recover as many materials as possible and reuse them as raw manufacturing inputs – is on the rise. Despite many existing challenges, circular construction will become the de facto way of working within the next few years. What will the path to a circular approach look like? We asked two knowledgeable people: Sven De Meuter, soil and demolition expert, and Kristof Van Hoye, our own Category Manager of Circular Economy, Waste & Trading Goods.


What is circular construction?

“Circular building is the practice of consciously choosing to work with materials made of local raw materials and residual products”, Kristof explains. “At the end of the cycle, these materials are carefully sorted and recycled, completing the circle. The result? The same build quality, but with less pollution and waste.”


Dismantling old Allianz offices in Brussels

“If a collected material isn’t reusable, the best option is sustainable incineration. Burning low-quality residual wood is an excellent source of green energy, which in turn fuels the production process.”

Circularity at UNILIN Panels

UNILIN Panels has been a supporter of the circularity principle for over 60 years. “Today, our board material is made of 100% residual wood. Demolition waste and sustainable forest management both contribute to our high-quality products”, Kristof elaborates. “What isn’t usable is incinerated at our own power plant. The steam we produce there is used in to generate electricity. Some of that power is also used in our manufacturing processes, which run entirely on self-generated green energy. The rest goes back to the grid.”

Learn more about the circular approach of UNILIN Panels >

A tried and tested concept with a new look

It’s crystal clear: circular construction is the way forward. So, why isn’t the entire building industry jumping on the bandwagon? According to Sven, that process is currently underway, but has yet to mature. Sven: “Selective demolition and the reuse of certain materials isn’t itself a new concept. In the case of stone-based materials, this has been normal practice for 40 years. But extending the approach to other materials like wood or glass is innovative, and we are seeing it happen more and more often now.

“There is also a downside: because the approach isn’t mainstream yet, we often encounter limits or unreasonable expectations of the system. Sector and government stakeholders are still looking for the best ways to make circular construction realistic, efficient and worthwhile.”

The better we inform our partners, the more widespread the circular approach. Collective awareness is growing: the status quo simply can’t continue.

- Sven De Meuter

“As a society, we are beginning to realise that the current way can’t continue”, Sven goes on to say. “We have to change the way we work. Over the years, industry has always done so: legacy legislation and the obligation to carry out archaeological research in Flanders are good examples of the increased awareness surrounding building projects. There, too, a period of adjustment was needed – and I think that period has now also arrived for circular construction. That’s why we also put a lot of effort into informing our partners correctly: we notice that there is a great deal of willingness on the parts of people at the site if they know what impact their sorting work has.”


Everything depends on a good inventory of the building to be demolished

The challenges of circular construction

A building contractor who wants to work in a circular way doesn’t only run into the growing pains of circular regulations. Those who opt for a circular approach often face a series of other challenges.

1. Insufficient time for inventorying

“Everything depends on a good inventory of the building to be demolished”, Sven asserts. “But that’s where the problem lies; often, there just isn’t enough time to carry out an in-depth inventory. Demolition work is usually subcontracted out, which means that we only get involved at the very end of the process when everything has gained momentum and must move forward. Postponing the project for another two months in order to perform a thorough inventory is often not an option.
A good inventory of the building to be demolished is crucial for a circular construction approach, but there is often not enough time.

- Sven De Meuter

2. Extra costs

The cost base is sometimes also a stumbling block, Sven notes. “In the past, buildings consisted mainly of basic products and there were more valuable recuperation materials, such as marble, blue stone or panelling. Nowadays, recent buildings tend to contain less valuable waste streams, such as false ceilings, interior walls and floor and wall coverings. Selective demolition for this category of products often increases the price of a project, which is why burning everything in the nearest incinerator is often the path chosen.

“That’s exactly why we focus on informing and raising awareness among industry stakeholders”, adds Kristof. “Architects, builders, contractors – the more people that understand the impact that circular building has on our society and planet, the less that extra cost is an issue. What’s more, non-circular building is on its way out; it will no longer be a viable approach in just a handful of years.”
Non-circular building is on its way out; it will no longer be a viable approach in just a handful of years.

- Kristof Van Hoye

3. The logistics puzzle

Last but not least, a circular approach to construction is also a logistical challenge. Space is limited on a building site, which means that once the material has been sorted, it must be transported to a separate warehouse as quickly as possible. From such sites, containers of materials depart for UNILIN Panels or another processing point. Kristof: “The greatest efficiency gains are at the source of the production inputs. The purer the material resulting from the demolition, the fewer the steps needed later on in the production chain. But ensuring an efficient chain requires logistics preparation and clear communication between all parties.”


Walls and furniture are recovered

The advantages of circular construction

Nevertheless, both Kristof and Sven are convinced that circular building is the way of the future. “We all have to look for sustainable ways to maintain and strengthen our businesses – there’s no doubt about that”, says Sven. “Circularity offers that opportunity while also providing extra benefits. Of course, it’s a big improvement when it comes to environmental impacts, but it also leads to new and stronger partnerships between like-minded parties.”

Kristof: “Another advantage of circular construction is that it reduces demand pressure on finite resources. Instead of having to search further and further afield for possible sources of wood, UNILIN Panels now obtains 100% of its raw materials from recovered wood that is sourced relatively locally. This approach eliminates the need to exploit increasingly scarce resources.”

Want to know more about the circular approach of UNILIN Panels? Find out all about it and #JoinTheCircle!

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