February 22, 2021

By Sonia Cyrus Patel

Smart Prosperity Institute, in collaboration with L’Institut EDDEC, has catalogued real-world strategies and practices supporting the transition to a circular economy for seven key sectors in the Canadian economy. This research, which is being released one sector at a time in a series entitled Circular Economy Global Sector Best Practices, aims to provide a starting point in the journey towards building Canadian sector roadmaps to a circular economy.

In the coming forty years, a projected 230 billion square meters of new construction will double current global floor area, adding the equivalent of the built area of Paris to the planet every week. [1]

This may come with a large environmental footprint. Globally the engineering and construction sector is the largest consumer of raw materials and other resources; consuming 3 billion tonnes of raw materials, and around 50% of all steel produced.[2] It is also responsible for a high level of energy consumption and resulting GHG emissions. In 2018, the buildings and construction sector represented 36% of final energy use and 39% of energy and process-related CO2 emissions.[3] Finally, building construction and demolition represent about 40% of urban solid waste[4] of global waste production with only 20-30% recycled or re-used. [5]

Since much of a building’s environmental footprint is determined by how it is designed and built, integrating circularity principles at the design/build stage is one of the most effective ways to reduce waste during its lifetime. ‘Design for Deconstruction (DfD)’ is an approach where buildings are designed intentionally for material recovery, value retention, and meaningful next use. The building, components and materials are designed to be easily assembled and disassembled, enabling higher re-use or recycling, ease of maintenance and operation, and better adaptability and flexibility of function.

This design practice was front and center in The Circular Building designed by Arup Associated for the 2016 London Design Festival. Architects and engineers who worked on this project applied prefabricated construction techniques to create a low-waste, self-supporting, and demountable structurally integrated panel (SIPs) wall system with reusable clamp connections between the wall and recycled steel frame elements. They also used sustainably sourced, heat treated timber for the cladding and decking. Because of the extensive materials research and testing required to ensure circularity, Arup was also able to create a materials database and exhibition catalog which collated information on the production, material substance, and next use of each asset, trackable via QR code.[6]

Another application of DfD can be seen in temporary accommodation built for athletes participating in London’s 2012 Olympics and Paralympics Games. These structures featured kitchen, facades, bathrooms, and balconies that were manufactured off-site and were designed to have interchangeable cladding panels and movable partitions so that space could be reconfigured.[7]

Given the relatively long lifespan of built infrastructure, and the volume of new builds projected for 2050, it is crucial for the construction sector to accelerate reducing its environmental footprint. Integrating circular economy thinking into design, construction, maintenance and end-of-life management practices can help reduce the sector’s raw material consumption, prolong the life of materials used in existing structures and recover valuable construction material at the end of an asset’s life. If you’re interested in learning more about circular strategies and practices currently being employed in the construction sector, you can find them in the fourth part of the Circular Economy Global Sector Best Practices. 

The series will also be covering circular economy best practices in six other sectors of the Canadian economy. Stay tuned for the fifth part of the series, profiling the plastics sector, which will be published in March 2021.


READ THE INTRODUCTION: Background Materials for Circular Economy Sectoral Roadmaps

READ PART ONE: Minerals and Metals

READ PART TWO: Electronics


READ PART FOUR: Construction

[1] United Nations Environment Programme & International Energy Agency. (2017). Towards a zero-emission, efficient, and resilient buildings and construction sector: Global Status Report 2017.

[3] United Nations Environment Programme & International Energy Agency. (2019). 2019 Global Status Report for Buildings and Construction.

[7] Rethinking The Future (n.d). Designing For Deconstruction.