Is it time to ReSOLVE the built environment?

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Government Europa discusses the ReSOLVE framework and making the built environment circular with Carol Lemmens, director of Arup

The situation of the European built environment is that of a complex nature, particularly when we are discussing the sustainability of European infrastructure and construction. The engineering and construction industry is the world’s largest consumer of materials, making it one of the most important sectors to tackle, and to successfully drive a reduction in resource use, waste and carbon. Government Europa speaks to Carol Lemmens, Global Advisory Services leader and director of Arup – one of Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s knowledge partners – about how we can make the circular economy a reality across the built environment

The revolutionary framework aiding change within industries 

The Ellen MacArthur Foundation is one of the biggest global leaders working towards accelerating the world’s transition to a circular economy. In the successful presentation of this aim, the circular economy experts of the foundation promote the ReSOLVE framework, which sets out six actions that businesses – and countries – can incorporate into their current models for the enablement of a smooth transition towards a circular economy, these are:

  • Regenerate
  • Share
  • Optimise
  • Loop
  • Virtualise
  • Exchange

Many businesses follow the framework which has been beneficial in transforming business models and benefitting industries. Arup is one of the businesses which believes that the ReSOLVE framework is one of the best tools in aiding transition Lemmens explains: “The framework develops a repertoire to rethink almost every industry or every organisation, in respect to the way they work or drive their business. The built environment sector and its operations are in many ways similar to any other industry, however there are some differentiating specifics that may slow some developments down.

“At Arup we have applied this framework to every aspect of the work we do and it has helped us to drive a circular mindset, enabling us to create a circular design and operations. To achieve this, we rethought every step of each process in order to define unprecedented ways of working rather than just focusing on incremental changes.”

Having a global framework in place is the first step to creating a circular world and can only make the shift smoother for the majority of industries. Lemmens explains the importance of the circular economy and how this framework is benefitting everyone during an interview with GE: “Circular economy is often thought of as just specifying sustainable materials, however it is more than that, it brings together all of the relevant aspects; it is not just about developing sustainable buildings or a sustainable road – from a resources perspective – but the concept also attempts to address how we should operate our roads and buildings. It allows us to think, in terms of the economic benefits for all parties involved, such as investors, construction firms or operators, if we shift a focus on circular solutions rather than maintaining traditional processes.

“The ReSOLVE framework forces the industry as a whole to look at what they have built and designed, whilst placing focus on the operational logistics from an economic perspective as well as from a technical outlook. This is where the ReSOLVE framework is instrumental: innovation and alteration across the industry, illuminating a systemic thought process behind how we produce everyday items that we usually take for granted.”

Government vs. corporate: who are the enablers?

The burning question relating to the implementation of the circular economy surfaces around responsibility; where does responsibility lie and are government entities doing enough to supplement change? Lemmens stands by the idea that working towards a circular economy is all about taking an inclusive approach, ensuring that responsibility is shared along each part of the value chain, and that change is being encouraged at all levels. This approach is more applicable to the European industry as a whole and Lemmens explains the differences in approach with regard to the built environment at the city level:

“At city level there is more direct power to influence the built environment and its transition to a circular economy, whereas at the European level there is a requirement for a much more indirect approach.

“I do believe that consumers are very important to the production chain; if a new generation of people begin to say “no” to the traditional materials and request that they only live in a house which has been designed with the circular economy in mind, then this will of course have a great effect on how construction companies are building and designing. This is an example of how consumers can drive the behaviour of industries and governments. It is an inclusive responsibility and it should not be placed solely on one industry or one government to drive the shift.”

Lemmens expresses the positive efforts of the European Commission and the World Economic Forum in incentivising and encouraging the movement towards a circular mode of operation within the built environment: “Circular economy is not a solution in itself, it is an outcome and I believe that the circular economy is a mindset to help us achieve other things. The European Commission and the World Economic Forum are doing very well at addressing the importance of circular approaches, however the main element where we are lacking derives from finding a way to unlock the potential. We constantly hear about the potential economic and societal benefits from working within the circular economy, however industries are still failing to achieve this at scale and turn it into real value.

“Governments can play a role in making things mandatory, however we should not allow polluting industries, and subsequently we should not allow the production of non-renewable energies or those that only contribute to further exhaustion of natural resources. On the other hand, if governments are expecting that everything will magically happen and change with little or no intervention, then that is not going to be effective in encouraging companies and businesses in the built environment to be more circular. It is a fine line between regulation and implementation.”

It is clear that if we are to enable industries to be more circular across Europe, we cannot rely on one overarching body to make all of the decisions for us. Consumers, businesses and governmental bodies must all place some focus on making the change happen, Lemmens explains: “We must now focus on taking a systemic approach to this and ensure we are not shifting the responsibility of designing and producing circular constructions onto one party. A government who demands a circular approach cannot expect the industry to then lead the change and provide the solutions, and an industry cannot dictate that the government are responsible purely because they have laid down a regulation. The systemic approach demands an inclusive mindset which means we cannot shift responsibility anymore, it is time to embrace these responsibilities and evaluate a way to make this happen.”

Is the built environment falling behind on sustainability?

The built environment is one of the more difficult industries to make sustainable and it is no secret that it is slightly behind other types of manufacturing industries in terms of circularity. GE questions Carol Lemmens on the speed at which the industry is changing, focusing on how feasible it is to actually push the change at a faster rate. Lemmens concludes: “Within the manufacturing and construction elements of the built environment, there is no single group who can control the whole supply chain. If you look to a car manufacturer, they have sole control over this chain; if the company wishes to make electric cars, they can easily change all the necessary parts hassle free. However, in the built environment, investors often define the project and therefore the industry usually lacks a sole leader to influence a change in the whole supply chain. Construction firms and designers do not have enough influence in the early stages.

“The nature of the industry means that change often happens very slowly – particularly in terms of sustainability – and this is because every building is essentially a prototype. The majority of the time, development and design of every building is different; every building is tailored to the owners needs and has specific elements within its structure, depending on what is required. If we think about a building’s reusable elements, it is critical that we know everything about that building and the components which can be reproduced, otherwise with every building using different structures and materials, it is very difficult to apply this principle.

“Every step towards circularity is positive and therefore I think it is hard to be judgemental on the pace at which change is happening. Of course, it is important that we are making steps – no matter how small – as the rate at which we have utilised natural resources across the globe is a lot faster than the rate we are moving in terms of working towards circular modes of operation. However, the circular economy has the potential to be a large disrupter for industries and there are disadvantages to this structure if it moves too quickly; it can lead to many companies failing to keep up and struggling to meet the pressures and demands of circularity so quickly.”

The built environment has all the attributes to become one of the major circular industries and has the potential to be sustainable, however this cannot happen without innovation and change in the standardisation and operation of the industry. Lemmens evaluates that the best way to change the mindset of the industry is through ensuring there is a centralised set of incentives for all parties involved to encourage a smarter way of producing the asset: “I do believe that given the complexity and interlinking with other agendas, more public private collaboration will take place. We will develop new ways of public private collaboration that will drive a joint agenda, I believe this will engender an organisational shift in the way we work together.”

Carol Lemmens


Director, Global Advisory

Services Leader

Tweet @ArupGroup


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