Why circularity matters in construction

26th April 2024

Authors: Dr Patricia Kio, an Assistant Professor at the Engineering Technology Department, Fitchburg State University

Dr Patricia Kio photo

The Ellen MacArthur Foundation describes Circular Economy (CE) as being designed to eliminate waste and pollution, circulate products and materials, and regenerate nature thereby creating an economy that benefits people, business and the natural world.

The Foundation further demands for regeneration of natural ecosystems; addressing the needs and aspirations of local stakeholders and increasing local human knowledge and capacity around CE practices. The waste and pollution that abound are results of anthropocentric design choices and construction methods. Likewise, the destruction of wildlife to extract resources occurs due to the way we make and use products and materials. Emerging principles of CE can improve the ways that the economy works for people, business and nature.

The current principles and definitions of CE are numerous and ever changing. Some recurring themes in these principles include the Rs – reduce, reuse, recycle. CE also demands greater efficiency in production processes and a focus on looking to reduce the environmental and social impact of production, for example, through more sustainable sourcing and the promotion of innovative industrial processes.

What is circular construction?

CE seeks to change linear processes of taking, making and wasting to circular loops. In applying the principles of CE to the construction industry (resulting in ‘circular construction’), the targets include eliminating waste in new projects, and improving initial infrastructure and products by providing for future usefulness and cascades of options for disassembling parts or wholes.

Construction consumes more than 3 billion tonnes of raw materials globally each year and is responsible for over 30% of the extraction of natural resources, as well as 25% of solid waste generated in the world. In the construction industry, CE integration has led to innovative and experimental initiatives. However, the widespread adoption of the CE concept is at an intermediate stage and facing challenges. In addition, the world is becoming less circular, moving from 8.6% in 2019 to 7.2% in 2023 as reported by the circularity gap report (Fraser et al., 2023).

Some areas of research in CE in construction include: the development of CE models, reuse of materials, material stocks, CE in the built environment, life cycle analysis, and material passports. Among the circular business models, ‘waste as a resource’ is highly adopted while the ‘product as a service’ CE business model has not thrived. In the construction sector, younger and smaller companies are driving the adoption of CE (Guerra et al., 2021).

Is the circular economy the route to sustainability?

Current research shows trends towards topics that address energy, sustainability, impacts, water, buildings, cities, production and tourism. However, concerns have been raised regarding some CE practices that have been promoted as ‘sustainable’ while resulting in detrimental impacts on the environment and society.  In addition, studies on CE in construction have evolved from a reliance on the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to systems investigations combining strategies from other concepts including Net Zero Energy (NZE).

Although the exploration of innovative design and construction ideas for CE in academia have resulted in novel solutions, more efforts are required to increase global circularity.

CE relies on resource efficiency and sustainable consumption and production, which are central concepts to achieving sustainable development. Although the exploration of innovative design and construction ideas for CE in academia have resulted in novel solutions, more efforts are required to increase global circularity. Researchers could consider CE initiatives from a supply and demand scenario and provide interventions to eliminate waste in existing processes. The question around sustainable CE urges researchers to contribute to circular construction as thought leaders focusing on defining value for different generations while measuring environmental emissions through the use of quality and reliable data. This echoes Austrian economist Peter Drucker’s theory, that to manage and improve a system, it must be measured (Maciariello, 2006).

How can we advance circularity?

One drawback towards achieving circularity is commercial sensitivity and limited access to manufacturing and production processes to quantify the level of waste with the goal of designing it out and adding value to previously discarded materials. Secondly, researchers have the task of determining the tools for education in sustainable CE and construction, engaging students in CE activities, quantifying the impacts of innovative strategies and optimising new processes from the solutions. Circularity could be improved by applying set-based designs through scalable case studies, providing climate responsive solutions, incorporating construction systems perspective, and technological advancements. CE evaluation systems and their methodology are still developing and require analysis in the context of sustainable development. Also, evaluation systems have led to new and more complex evaluation systems that provide information for decision makers on further strategy formulation.

Researchers who have CE interests are invited to showcase their work; policymakers, practitioners and organisations who would like to help advance progress in CE are invited to share their thoughts and experiences with circular construction in the areas of design, construction methods and applications, decision-making, technological innovations and data analysis.

With growing climate change impacts and the constraints of evolving codes and policies; researchers and industry practitioners need to contribute to scalable CE principles, education for CE, new digital CE strategies, lifecycle assessment tools and processes, material flows, new natural connections and data transparency. The outcomes could result in novel tools and workflows for more efficient applications of CE leading to more natural sustainable circular solutions, and reduce the exploitation of our finite resources.


  • Fraser M., Haigh L., & Soria A. C. (2023), “The circularity gap report 2023”
  • Guerra, B. C., Shahi, S., Mollaei, A., Skaf, N., Weber, O., Leite, F., & Haas, C. (2021). Circular economy applications in the construction industry: A global scan of trends and opportunities. Journal of Cleaner Production, 324, 129125.
  • Maciariello, J. A. (2006). Peter F. Drucker on executive leadership and effectiveness. The leader of the future, 2, 3-27.
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