Experiments and pilots kick off the circular economy of renovation

2020-08-03 Kati Pitkänen and Jaana Kolehmainen

Taking into account the principles of the circular economy in the construction sector can be enhanced by experiments and pilots. The public sector must lead the way in implementing the pilots. Even small-scale experiments can have far-reaching effects if they provide good experiences and insights and lead to genuinely new ways of working.

The circular economy is one of the strategic priorities of the research carried out at the Finnish Environment Institute, SYKE. In the change of business premises implemented as SYKE's circular economy pilot in Joensuu, we have been able to test in practice what construction in accordance with the principles of circular economy could really mean. For this one pilot, we gathered together the experiences of designers who had worked in renovation construction projects implemented in accordance with the principles of the circular economy.

Circular economy already taken into account in construction planning

The circular economy materialises into solutions in various plans for demolition and construction contracts, such as architecture, structural design, HVAC and electrical design, building automation, interior design and cost accounting. In addition, the plans are influenced by the needs and wishes of the project's customers and users.

Through planning, our pilot found ways to utilise used structures and building materials, plumbing and electrical structures as well as fixed and loose furniture in the renovated premises. If necessary, the design has been adapted to take advantage of the older facilities, fixtures and other useful things. For example, the location of the break room’s kitchen was changed from the original plan to take advantage of existing plumbing and electricity connections. The interior design has made use of products made from recycled materials and recycled furniture, and the premises have been planned so that furniture from the old premises can be used.

According to the designers' experience, taking the circular economy into account in the design process did not add major changes to the traditional design work. Many similar solutions have been applied in the past when economically viable. Now, however, these solutions were considered more systematically. More time was spent on figuring out what can be saved and reused and where to get recycled materials or materials made from recycled materials.

Challenges and new insights

The biggest barrier to recycling materials and utilising recycled materials is the cost. At the moment, it is often cheaper to get something new than to repair or reuse something old. In addition, new materials and equipment are often of higher quality and also more energy-efficient, adjustable and functional. For some areas of construction, such as plumbing and electrical engineering, the pilot did not find alternatives to the circular economy. Stricter construction guidelines were also met when usable walls and partition doors that no longer met the limit values for sound insulation in office premises had to be dismantled.

According to our pilot, designers from different fields were open-minded and enthusiastically willing to try new ways of doing things. New insights have already emerged during the project. In particular, the utilisation of the decommissioning plan and the obligation to recycle have emerged as good practices. The sorting and material recovery rate of the demolition waste were improved in the pilot by including an additional incentive premium in the demolition contract, which will be paid if the demolition contract exceeds a certain recycling rate. Another good practice highlighted by the designers was the utilisation and recycling of recycled furniture, for which a lot of business and services are already available.

Progress through cooperation

Our circular economy pilot has shown that building according to the circular economy requires careful planning and constant communication and cooperation between the experts involved in the construction project. It is also important for users to commit themselves to recycle old materials and utilise recycled materials instead of new ones. Attention must be paid to all stages of the change: planning, demolition work, construction of new, abandonment of old premises and commissioning of new premises.

For the first time, many of the designers of our circular economy pilot were involved in a renovation project based on the principles of the circular economy. However, the ideas and methods of the circular economy generated during the pilot have been promised to be used in future projects as well. Our small pilot can thus be scaled to wider circular economy activities as lessons are put into practice by designers representing different companies involved in new projects.

Kati Pitkänen

Senior Researcher Kati Pitkänen, Finnish Environment Institute

Jaana Kolehmainen

Chemist Jaana Kolehmainen, Finnish Environment Institute

The authors are experts at SYKE's Joensuu office and work on various research and development projects in the circular economy. They have been involved in the circular economy pilot as representatives of the site and the users.

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