Quantity Surveying and the Circular Built Environment

by Vince Foker, Quantity Surveyor

The circular economy is a model that aims to alter the established trend of “purchase, consumption and dispose”, which is placing a tremendous strain on the Earth and its environmental capability. This philosophy involves the sharing, leasing, reusing, repairing, refurbishing, and recycling of existing materials and products for as long as possible, typically achieved by extending the life cycle of products and reducing waste to a minimum. 

As a product reaches the end of its use, its constituent parts are preferably kept within the economy, thus creating further value by being used repeatedly. By contrast, a linear economy is based on a take-make-waste model, where natural resources are used to make products which are in time disposed of as waste. The aim of the circular economy is to counter this approach by creating a closed loop system, reducing the use of resource inputs and the creation of waste, pollution, and the emission of carbon.

The core principles of the circular economy can be summarised as;

  • the elimination of waste and pollution
  • circulation of products and materials to achieve maximum value
  • regeneration of nature

Minimising waste is central to the circular economy and it is important to acknowledge the core contributors to waste reduction. Improved design principles, alternative service models, durable products and repairability all contribute to achieving this objective and should be considered in the shift to a more circular business model.

The benefits offer a broad range of social, economic, and environmental improvements. According to the World Bank, approximately 2 billion tonnes of municipal solid waste is generated annually, with at least 33% of that not managed in an environmentally safe manner. Incorporating circular design principles and extending the lifetime of products and materials can reduce the burden on the environment. Products can be made last longer thereby reducing costs.

With correct management, the circular economy can decrease harmful activities such as carbon emissions, air pollution and toxicity exposure while also boosting positive behaviours such as habitat restoration and renewable energy. The circular economy also offers significant economic benefits from expanding industries such as recycling, repair and reuse. Research shows that the circular economy offers a potential $4.5 trillion of additional economic output by 2030, and as much as $25 trillion by 2050.

Substantial social benefits can also be achieved. With an estimated 9 million premature deaths due to air, water, and soil pollution, working towards a circular economy will help protect human health. It is also important to recognise the unequal production of waste and the consequent impacts, as high-income countries, which account for 16% of the world’s population, disproportionately generate 34% (683 million tonnes) of the world’s waste.

The role of the Quantity Surveyor

The role of the quantity surveyor and cost consultant in construction includes influencing key decisions relating to time, cost and quality, managing finances and contracts  and managing the design, procurement and construction process.

We have an integral role in the Design Team at the early stages of a project and have a unique influence in relation to the cost of a project as they undertake feasibility cost estimates, establish an authorised budget, conduct cost appraisals, whole life costs and value engineering exercises. These activities offer the potential of including circular construction; either to suggest the inclusion of circularity or ensuring it remains within the design and cost parameters of the project and not to be removed due to being cost prohibitive.

The following steps can be taken to incorporate circular principles into projects:

  1. Exploration of alternative circular business models

First, buildings must be affordable and constructed at an economic cost which is acceptable to the client. Sustainable development is vital but must be balanced against longer-term economic issues. These are challenges faced by the Quantity Surveyor, therefore highlighting the economic benefits of alternative circular models on the project’s lifecycle and operational expenditure costs is crucial.

Supporting the use of circular business models can also include incorporating alternative models of procurement which can reduce initial capital expenses and transfer these costs into the operations over a longer period through supply, maintenance and replacement contracts.

  1. Analysis of the life cycle of products

The Quantity Surveyor is integral to the property life cycle and can use this influence for example to match the procurement of materials to the objectives of stakeholders who are concerned about the sustainability of the components that make up their property. The Quantity Surveyor should be able to use his experience to identify the cost of more durable alternatives, and the return of investment of it. Having this analysis, it is possible to expand the life of the product chosen in the design, not focusing this choice purely on its initial capital costs.

The lifetime positive and negative impacts of a building on society and the environment from its construction, use, maintenance and repairs, decommissioning and disposal need to be recognised and accounted for.

  1. Maximising product recycled content and reusability

Waste materials can be mitigated by either reusing materials before they become waste or create higher value uses through upcycling into new products or closing the loop by re-incorporating waste into the original product, therefore increasing the recycled content.

These approaches can help to reduce primary material demand, avoid inefficient waste disposal and can often provide localised community benefits in many cases. An example of this would be working with waste management companies to secure supplies of materials which can be turned into new products, and providing reusable packaging instead of single use such as reusable pallets instead of the wooden ones.

  1. Aiding the development of robust tender allowances for waste based on forecasts

Emphasis on waste prevention can be given from the outset to establish a robust, transparent financial forecast in relation to the volume of waste predicted. This initial forecast can be developed at the design stage and designing out waste activities should be undertaken to minimise the forecast.

Comparisons of actual waste produced against forecast waste can be collated to help inform future forecast and to determine best practice levels which should be aimed for. The true cost of wasted materials is considered to be on average 10 times that of the waste disposal costs.

  1. Use of recycled materials

Quantity Surveyors can use their influence to use more recycled materials from buildings which are being demolished, such as steel beams, and old brick and concrete crushed for use in new concrete. This has already been demonstrated to save money as well as reduce environmental costs.

Products and materials which were once considered waste and have now been converted into new or remanufactured goods are examples of circular construction. Waste in one industry or one project could be a supply source in other industries or project, helping to reduce cost of disposal, supply, CO2 emission, and to optimise the lifespan of products.

A quantity surveyor displaying an ability to support the construction sector in evaluating circular opportunities and bringing ideas to the client’s table will be a necessary skill for future projects and could be a work winning differentiator, providing innovation and boosting brand reputation.

Sustainable construction is a critical approach in the current era and the role of the QS has expanded to accommodate the requirements of our environment and the safeguarding of current and future generations.

For more information please contact our Quantity Surveyor, Vince Foker on +44 (0)207 280 8000.

Vince Foker
Quantity Surveyor

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