The built environment contributes to approximately 39% of all carbon emissions, with this figure rising to 80% in urban London. Therefore, real estate has a fundamental role in achieving our Net Zero targets as we transition from a linear economy into a circular economy.
Within a linear economy, a distinctly siloed process exists where we buy or, in the case of the built environment, build before the life of the product abruptly ends. Under a circular economy, three key principles work in collaboration – reuse, recycle and repurpose.
Last Thursday, I attended EA Project's London Build event, which brought together a series of speakers who highlighted opportunities within the circular economy through the medium of real estate. Here are my key takeaways.
The real estate profession has seen a growing focus on the fabric of buildings, driven through sustainability credentials such as BREEAM and WELL, through to the topic of embodied carbon which is often neglected. However, internal fitouts typically happen 30 times during the life cycle of a building. Aleksandra Smith-Kozlowska, Director at JustOne UK, highlighted the gap within the landlord and tenant relationship to connect the in-bound with the out-bound. With ever-shortening lease terms, the reuse of shop fit-out or office furniture, even partly, plays to the fundamentals of the circular economy.
Historically, buildings have lacked long-term flexibility, and alternative approaches are only recently coming to light. From the initial design stage, enabling flexibility throughout the whole lifetime of a building provides the opportunity to increase the useful life of space and will encourage repurposing.
The land also presents significant opportunities, forming the key building block for development. Whilst the development process, in effect, follows the theme of repurposing, the interim between old and new is inefficiently utilised. Crate to Plate, an urban vertical farming operation, has successfully broken into this space, catering to the needs of a 15-minute city whilst providing a renewed offering for development land. Utilising land in limbo, Crate to Plate, has helped to maximise the long-term social and economic value within local centres.
The process of recycling is under-utilised within real estate – an aspect which Coreus Group provided their view on from a sustainability perspective. With the overwhelming majority of new build projects utilising materials that are sourced and procured 'new', the opportunity to reclaim and recycle the existing built stock is usually missed. Ingrained within the embodied carbon argument, all materials contain a given amount of CO2, driven by the raw product, construction process, maintenance, and use. End-of-life and beyond presents the opportunity to recycle and feed back into the start of the process, ultimately limiting the additional carbon that will fall into the next generation of real estate.
Our understanding of the provenance of existing materials is generally limited. What materials are actually present within an existing building and what their context is are common questions. Surveys provide an element of context; however, this question needs a clear-cut answer to enable the efficient recycling of materials. Ultimately, buy-in from the market through concepts such as 'material passports' is clearly necessary to face a fundamental issue with real estate's input into the circular economy.
Addressing new perspectives and the need for change in the built environment is critical if we are to have a meaningful chance of limiting human impact on the climate. It's incumbent on all of us in the industry to push and challenge, hence why we're embedding ever greater levels of knowledge in our teams to empower them to give better advice to clients with complex planning and development challenges and to help the City of Tomorrow.