23 October 2020

Time to open the throttle on the circular economy

Véronique Dufour is manager of the Ville et Aménagement Durable (town and sustainable planning) association. She considers the reuse of materials to be an excellent concept from a great many points of view, but it has to fit into a more widespread mindset on the circular economy, driven by committed project initiators. We do a round-up of progress and of the roadblocks that need lifting.

The France Relance economic restart plan doesn't make much provision for circular economy in the building sector. Does that disappoint you?

The France Relance plan can't cover every single detail. It has chosen to support waste recycling, repurposing, and reuse in the plastics sector. The financial package dedicated to building energy renovation has been enlarged, but it leaves several questions unanswered. The focus continues to be on aiding energy savings while avoiding over-ambitious targets that can exhaust the energy-saving potential of the country's building inventory. What's more, although further funding has been added, it is on a more widespread basis at the risk of disfavouring a wider scope for each renovation. The “renovation” approach should not just concentrate solely on energy but also address comfort, health, and actual use. For example, nothing is planned in respect of summer comfort. We are seeing more and bigger heatwaves, in which energy is consumed to produce cooling thus contributing to the formation of “heat islands”. Such periods are a big source of discomfort for households. The question that needs asking about the funding of these aids is “what's the best way to improve the overall use and comfort of housing in summer and winter alike while keeping energy bills down?”  While it's surely commendable to have a budget for funding renovation, the essential question is how do you maximize its effectiveness to produce good end results. The means are of course needed, but above all we need relevant organization in the districts and regions.

What's your current take on the circular economy as applied to buildings?

That’s another emerging subject. And the sector is shaping up to tackle it and getting more professional. Many businesses are invading this market. They might be stakeholders looking to assist project owners, or collection and storage platforms, or networking structures for companies in search of materials, or else architects who have built this reflex into their design. Nowadays you hear people talk about resource diagnosis projects that seek out sources of materials for recycling, repurpose, or reuse. The development of reuse is strategic, as it is a virtuous circle that limits resource consumption and CO2 production. But a more global reasoning is needed on the circular economy, one that incorporates local materials, the development of specialities, urban greenery expansion, and social intensity. The whole issue is to think about buildings in a context of evolving needs and ways of doing: the notions of upgradability, modularity, demonstrability, even reversibility thus come to the fore. Local authorities and promoters are beginning to seize on the subject, initiating experimental or shop-window projects; but it's a struggle to make these attitudes widespread. 

What roadblocks need lifting to make these reuse practices more common?

There are still plenty of those. The first is part legal, part insurance. To progress, the whole sector must dare to experiment and leave the beaten path, getting the insurers on board by involving the inspection agencies as early as possible in projects.  The second roadblock is poor knowledge of the offering not to speak of its inadequacy. Lifting this obstacle means working on a regional scale, having a strategy, taking stock of the available resources and their storage places and updating them dynamically. And lastly there's the economic and cultural aspect. 

In this context, what are your priorities for furthering the cause of reuse?

First, not to reduce the question of reuse to buildings only but extend it to public spaces. The next priority is to convince, to demonstrate by example that it's not only possible but also relevant.  The circular economy mindset must become a reflex for project initiators, a systematic issue, an approach highlighted in tender operations. We have high hopes that this modern generation of elected representatives, more aware of climate issues, will bring vitality to this sector.

Crédit photo : Teknê Architectes 

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