The next time you have a spare five minutes, type ‘world population clock’ into your web browser. In a few clicks you can be watching a live counter that increases in number faster than every second as it tracks the world’s population. Once you’ve got your personal reaction – likely to be any combination of horror, motivation, or awe – under control, it’s hard not to think about what will happen as the number on that counter hurtles towards 10 billion…

Our established models – for everything from communication, education, healthcare and food production, to energy supply, government and the economy – are already creaking under the weight of modern challenges. Even the optimists among us can agree that a few decades from now could see a combined environmental, economic, and humanitarian challenge of unprecedented proportions.

The solution that currently seems best placed to redirect our course away from this future? The circular economy. In the last few years, key players across the world have woken up to the need for a different model that can supercede our current linear economy of making, using, and disposing of materials.

The new cool

The circular economy addresses this great challenge of our age by pursuing that sweet spot: where altruism collides with return on investment. It also aligns perfectly with the principle of creating value from sustainability – something the built environment has been striving towards for years.

   The concept and its realisation are actually becoming quite... well, cool. The out-of-touch ‘hippy’ eco warrior stereotype is dead: there’s now an undeniable social status to be gained from buying the Adidas trainers made from ocean plastics, or driving around in the latest electric car model.

Inevitable change

Like any paradigm shift, it’s when the mammoth corporations of the world get on board that people start to take note: Google, Nike and Unilever are just some of the nine global partners working with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation to accelerate the move to a circular economy. The real turning point came when the United Nations actively put the circular economy on the global agenda: in 2017, PACE, the Platform for Accelerating the Circular Economy – hosted by The World Economic Forum – was launched. Most significantly? It’s co-chaired by the heads of the Global Environment Facility, UN Environment, and the CEO of Philips, making it a public-private collaboration.

While China has had circular economy legislation for many years, this year the EU released a new version of its circular economy package, and France launched a national circular economy roadmap... It’s clear change is coming to Europe.

2 minutes to understand:

the circular economy concept.

“A linear economy makes, uses and disposes of materials. The circular economy looks at all the options across the chain to use as few resources as possible in the first place, keep resources in circulation for as long as possible, extract the maximum value from them while in use, then recover and regenerate products at the end of service life.”

The fundamental argument for circular economy business models is that they align both environmental and profit-making gains in four ways:

1. Design thinking.

Processes using as few resources as possible.

2. System thinking.

Keeping resources in circulation for as long as possible.

3. Product life extension.

Extracting the maximum value from materials while in use.

4. Recycling.

Recovering and regenerating products instead of creating ‘waste’.

Despite all of this, when it comes to the circular economy in the built environment, there’s not been the wholescale shift you’d expect. The impact of this slow adoption hits home when we consider that the construction and operation of the built environment consumes 60 percent of all materials in the UK.

   Partly, of course, it’s because of the complexity. It’s no understatement to say that, relative to the consumer goods industry for example, the built environment is a beast… but are there other contributing factors we need to challenge?

   “Collectively across our industry, there’s perhaps been an unconscious (and incorrect!) assumption that the responsibility for enabling a circular economy predominantly lies with manufacturers,” says James Ford, Hoare Lea Partner, Sustainability. “So much of the discussion involves the word ‘materials’ – so it’s easy to see how this has engendered that perception.”

   However, in the much-lauded vision of a ‘service-led’ future, the need to design buildings using the least amount of resources, or indeed the most easily recycled or reusable resources, is vital... and it involves all parties.

A new scale

This new kind of thinking needs us to focus on the entire built environment value chain. As James explains: “It

requires every single party to be on board – the hurdle is cross-discipline teams working together to act as a support system that ensures these materials can, and are, used in buildings,prove their viability from concept to construction. It’s about systems thinking on a much bigger scale than the industry has ever seen.

“Westgate, Oxford is a great example of collaboration between client, contractor and specialists focused on minimising waste (construction and operational) and advancing the industry’s approach to the reduction of carbon emissions in manufacturing and construction. We’re starting to plan and assess the circularity of materials in all the designs we propose – essentially being a facilitator that proves the benefits of these design approaches to stakeholders and embeds them in the design.”

The centre of it all

So how else can we change our thinking? One answer might be in choosing not to view the circular economy as a revolutionary new approach and, instead, acknowledging that it’s both the culmination and epicentre of almost every trend and development our industry has seen over the past few decades: cross-collaborative design pitches; Government targets for construction efficiency; offsite manufacturing; sustainable accreditation; the challenges of urbanisation; health and wellbeing; the decarbonisation of the grid; the end of single-use buildings; service-led offerings; assessing flexibility vs durability; the user-centred digital revolution; rethinking building operation… every single one of these topics contribute to, and would be benefited by, a circular economy approach. So this move to the circular economy is just our next challenge. The true success? When we no longer distinguish between the words waste and resource; when sustainable design is just design; and – indeed – when the circular economy becomes the economy.

Motivated by profit? Innovate UK claims resource efficiency measures could add $2.9tr to the economy by 2030, with returns on investment of more than 10%.

Seven circular


1 Prioritise regenerative resources

2 Use waste as a resource

3 Design for the future

4 Preserve and extend what’s already made

5 Collaborate to create joint value

6 Incorporate digital technology

7 Rethink the business model


the material revolution.

A circular economy challenges us to rethink waste. Instead of being something we just throw away, waste can be viewed as any material that is momentarily worthless, superfluous, or unwanted. The key is finding ways to make waste into meaningful volumes that allow for profitable business and the creation of an efficient supply chain. Here are some of the latest innovations:

Urban mining:

Reusing waste sand and gravel from our urban environment to create building materials.

Aluminium reuse:

Recycling aluminium from buildings. Amazingly, this requires only 5% of the energy originally needed for its production.


Pulverising recycled building materials from demolition sites to create a new type of stone that can be turned into surface materials and tiles.

Beverage-carton shredding:

Turning beverage cartons into a material that can serve as both an interior wall cladding and a structural building material, all without using any water.


Taking agricultural byproducts and mushroom mycelium, and inhibiting their growth (with reduced light and heat) to turn them into a material comparable to stone and concrete.

Post-consumer glass:

Turning postconsumer glass into a powder and using it as an additional substitute material in concrete. This not only reduces carbon footprint but also minimises toxic exposure.