Report: Building the future through circular data – Tools for mining the ‘green gold’
The latest IPCC report is a call to action. Our rate of consumption is a major cause of the increase in greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. A growing population means that fewer resources need to stretch further. Managing our resources responsibly is more critical than ever before.
A possible light at the end of the tunnel is the implementation of a circular economy, where waste is eliminated. The potential is huge, as the global economy is calculated as being only 8.6% circular.
In a new Urban Insight report, “Building the future through circular data”, Sweco experts offer the latest on circularity in the built environment, a sector behind roughly 40% of global emissions. On top of that, 400 million tonnes of construction and demolition waste is produced in Europe every year, which is 36% of all European waste. Expert calculations show that every square metre of floor space you demolish in a building could be worth up to EUR 750 in direct and indirect costs.
In order to act responsibly, we need to understand what we’ve got and which resources are available to us. To do this, we need data-driven intelligence, regardless of whether you are a developer, an investor, a designer, a planner, a municipality or are involved in any other way in planning buildings.
Using data and smart tools, like Twinfinity, Cost Carbon Compass, Matchmaking for demolition or Revelop, an e-commerce for building materials, we can understand our options more accurately and make better decisions.
With better knowledge and intelligence, we will be able to make decisions at all levels that will allow us to optimise resource use in a circular economy. This is important, especially at an early stage of a project, where we are able to make the greatest impact and get the ‘biggest bang for our buck’. Talking about money, better data-driven intelligence will also help property developers attract green financing through loans and investments in the wake of new regulations such as the EU Taxonomy framework, where the circular economy is one of six key areas, and the European Green Deal. Circularity also makes the data more attractive to the financial sector.
Mining Circular Values in Existing Buildings
90% of today’s building stock will exist in 2050. This means we have to become better at design, maintenance and reuse of the existing stock. This has to start with the education of our future stakeholders, according to Erik Stenberg, associate professor, School of Architecture, KTH – Royal Institute of Technology.
Under the goals of the Renovation Wave Strategy from the EU, 35 million building units will be renovated by 2030. This marks a renovation wave for Europe – greening our buildings, creating jobs, improving lives.
With the help of tools, we can transform them from buildings into material banks which have a lot of embedded value. Let’s take a look at some tools that could enable this value to be understood and utilised, how different resources could benefit different players and, how these knowledge-enhancing tools could aid compliance with regulations and climate targets.
European policymaking and the taxonomy´s recent focus on circularity emphasise the need to reduce building and construction waste. The European goal is to achieve a 70% reduction of non-contaminated building waste. Certain countries, such as Sweden, aim to become zero-waste societies by 2050, and the Netherlands aims to achieve 50% circularity of construction by 2030 and 100% by 2050. Achieving these goals requires better data and information through digitalisation.
Whoever is in control of their sustainability data and can understand, analyse and visualise it is better equipped to attract green funding and mine the ‘green gold’.
There are tools for bridging the gap between the inherent yet unquantified value within buildings and decisions that key players need to make in order to extract maximum value and to comply with requirements such as the EU Taxonomy Regulations and net-zero targets.
To meet net-zero challenges, one central mission is to reduce energy-operation costs, as well as to reduce carbon emissions from materials.
Energy prices, the EU taxonomy and policies such as the European Commission’s Fit for 55 mission emphasise the need for energy refurbishment across Europe. However, in many cases, energy refurbishment means replacing building materials, which can produce more waste and increase carbon emissions. The importance of embodied carbon will only increase as more and more buildings are constructed or renovated to higher energy efficiency standards, which will greatly reduce the share of operational emissions. So there can be a trade-off between embedded and operational carbon which must be navigated and understood.
New Currencies to Describe Circular Resources
Carbon emissions from the production of a steel beam as short as 40 cm or of 30 square metres of recycled brick – the size of a normal bathroom – are equivalent to the annual emissions created by the average Swede. New standards for calculating carbon emissions from used materials are being developed.
The benefits of the circular economy for new builds and existing property are based on a deeper understanding of the value that can be extracted by the circular economy and the different currencies that describe that value, such as monetary, environmental, socio-economic and circular indexes. One way to understand the circular index is through the proportion of a building´s components that can be disassembled and reused. Another is a value gap diagram, which illustrates interconnected indicators against which circular values can be identified.
“New regulations and laws put increasing demands for reducing climate impact in construction projects. At the same time, property owners should take into account the project’s economic aspects. Projects with circularity at their heart connect financial and environmental sustainability”, says Karin Hurtig, Architect at Sweco.
CO2e as the New Currency in Budgeting
Carbon can be used as a way to describe the value of taking a circular approach. One tool for doing so, developed by Sweco, is called the Carbon Cost Compass, or C3 for short. C3 supports strategic decisions at very early stages of construction development, assessing both the carbon emissions as well as the cost impact of design choices in the first stages of life-cycle analysis.
With the tool, a property owner is able to estimate the amount of embedded carbon for a certain building, which could then guide decisions regarding demolition or retrofit strategies. Such early-stage estimations could help developers decide whether to save buildings from demolition or to save parts of buildings depending on their embedded carbon levels.
Moreover, the tool guides material design choices, both for retrofitting and for new construction. It immediately illustrates the different carbon and cost impacts between, for example, wood, concrete or steel for structural frames, foundations, façades or roofing.
“New digital services give building and property developers the opportunity to make the most optimal design choices for environmentally and economically sustainable buildings”, says Elise Grosse, Head of Sustainability, Sweco Architects.
New build or refurbishment?
Complexity lies behind the decision of whether to refurbish or rebuild. Analysis tools are needed, coupled with an understanding of each project to guide decision-making. Although the individual circumstances, lifetime and optimal outcome of each project are of course unique, trends can be identified.
The following diagram summarises whole life carbon – the interplay between operational and embodied carbon emissions – of 35 Sweco projects in the UK. Project categories range from light renovation to market-leading new builds. The assessment is in accordance with the UK Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors (RICS) Whole Life Carbon Assessment methodology.
Data gathering is key. It is important to prioritise surveys at the earliest stage, such as structural surveys, architectural surveys, current energy performance surveys – what are typically called ‘condition surveys’. This information indicates what can be kept and what needs replacing. The quantification of existing materials, for example through Sweco’s C3 tool, is vital as it quantifies the materials and carbon that can be saved. It also facilitates the recycling and reuse of materials.
- Blue line. Light refurbishment with a lifetime of approximately 10 years. Although initial embodied carbon is low, operational energy emissions increase rapidly from Year 1 to Year 10. At Year 10 a complete overhaul is needed if the building lifetime is to be extended, and the embodied emissions subsequently increase.
- Yellow line. Major refurbishment with a lifetime of approximately 30 years. Although this analysis projects demolition at Year 30, if there was a comprehensive refurbishment, such as that carried out on the Blique hotel, the building should not need demolishing and the spike after Year 30 might decrease significantly. It is therefore possible for whole life carbon to perform better than a best-practice new build.
- Green line. Market-leading new build. New builds in the future are possible yet must achieve exceptional carbon performance. In this scenario, there is complete access to the most energy-efficient solutions. There may often be a higher initial embodied carbon, but with exceptional performance the whole life performance could work out to be a robust solution.
A key conclusion from this analysis is that the future of construction lies in high-quality refurbishment and market-leading new builds. Refurbishment could become the default assumption for any project looking to achieve strong whole life carbon performance, and only when you have exhausted the reasonable achievability of a refurbishment that meets both embodied and operational requirements should a new-build development be progressed. The opportunity may not always exist for market-leading new builds, so the role of refurbishment, such as the Blique hotel, is critical. To understand the optimal outcome for any given project, however, it is necessary to undertake analyses using tools like the Whole Life Cycle Assessment or Sweco’s C3 tool. By collating, analysing and contextualising such data, better decisions and outcomes can be achieved.
Herein also lies an additional challenge for property owners, designers and data analysts: if you can not only build with ultra-low-carbon materials, but also design buildings that employ the circular principles of future flexibility, adaptability and deconstructability, and use tools that demonstrate this, why shouldn’t a new building last nearly 200 years and be continually adaptable over time?
An Entire Building Could be transformed by circularity – the Blique Hotel Case
The Blique Hotel is an example of how to extract and upcycle the resources contained in an existing building. Originally, it was an old warehouse and office building from the 19th century in central Stockholm, Sweden. Due to the low ceiling heights, demolition was likely.
However, because of its cultural and historical value, a competition was held to transform the building. Through the vision of a multi-disciplinary team from Sweco consisting of an architect, a cultural heritage specialist, a structural engineer and a material broker, the warehouse was transformed into a fashionable hotel providing new social benefits and a stronger identity for the neighborhood.
Due to a lack of building documentation, a laser scan inventory was carried out to model it in 3D. The team then assessed the values of existing materials.
Using the digital model of the building and the tools, it was easy for us to calculate the total savings of embodied carbon in materials reused in the Blique Hotel case. In total, 3,600 tonnes of carbon emissions were saved.
In order to translate that into monetary values, we used the so-called ‘shadow cost’, which in Sweden means that every kilo of CO2e costs society at large 0.7 euros. Multiplying 3,600 tonnes by 0.7 EUR/kg, we concluded that the Blique Hotel had saved EUR 2.5 million. Moreover, the savings gained from reusing materials were worth EUR 8.6 million in new materials that did not have to be purchased. The savings for reducing waste totalled EUR 63/sqm.
So the take home message from this is that for every square metre of floor space we demolish, we can be effectively destroying a value of EUR 750.
What if we Upcycled Entire Buildings in all of Europe?
What if we had an overview of buildings and available material assets across all of Europe? In that way, we could match demolition projects with construction and save a huge amount of carbon emissions by the increased reuse of building materials.
If we extrapolate the results of the Blique Hotel project, assuming they were applied to just 100 European buildings with the same size and characteristics, we could avoid total costs of more than EUR 1.1 billion. That result, which is based on Swedish carbon factors, includes embedded carbon savings, new material cost savings and the avoided costs of carbon emissions to society.
Applying the method of reuse to 1,000 similar buildings with a heavy core foundation and structure, such as Germany´s plattenbau, Sweden´s miljonprogram, or 1990´s commercial buildings, we could avoid costs of more than EUR 11.5 billion.
Imagine what you could do with that amount of money. Investments in clean tech and renewable energy. As an example, EUR 11.5 billion would cover the investment needed to construct the world’s largest offshore wind farm, Dogger Bank, in the North Sea.
From Demolition to Design for Reuse
In order for digital ools to have the maximum impact and to actually realise the benefits they identify, it is crucial that key processes in projects and developments play their part in paving the way for greater circularity.
Gain more time to incorporate recovered materials into design
Municipalities and property owners play an important role as owners and developers of both land and buildings. By developing procurement routines for construction and demolition, as well as through their blueprints, installations and groundwork, they can have a profound impact on the transition towards circularity.
Sweco is currently working with the municipality of Malmö Stad on circular procurement and design instructions, linked to the EU Circular Builders project.
However, the gap in time between the planning and the actual demolition could disrupt the best laid plans. It often takes years to plan, design and construct a building, going through building permits and procuring contractors.
At the other end of the life cycle, demolition could be decided upon with very short notice, sometimes as little as two months before the actual demolition takes place. Even if the demolition itself was planned several years ago, property owners typically postpone publishing this information for as long as possible in order to avoid negative reactions to the change from local actors. The timely matchmaking of supply and demand of reused materials is an interesting challenge.
In order for digital tools to have the maximum impact and to realise the benefits they identify, it is crucial that key processes in projects and developments play their part in paving the way for greater circularity.
Reclaim – how to predict what will be demolished
Reclaim (recovery and long-term asset inventory management) is a prototype tool developed by Sweco that aims to predict which buildings will be demolished in the future. The purpose is not simply to identify exactly when a particular building will be demolished and when, but it also enables us to visualise a future material bank within a wider area, with a degree of confidence that some of those materials will soon become available following demolition. It wins time to investigate the potential use of the materials in new projects.
The predictions from Reclaim are based on machine learning from historical government data, such as the year of construction, asset value, address or the history of permits for demolition, refurbishment, owner relations and function. The algorithm recognises patterns in the data for demolished buildings, returning suggestions for buildings that are likely to follow that pattern as a result.
Different cities have different patterns of demolition. For example, some cities were reconstructed after the war, whereas some cities remained intact. The tool provides a forecast setting out which demolitions to expect in the next 10 years.
Matchmaking for demolition
Matchmaking for demolition is another prototype tool from Sweco aimed at bridging the time gap between planning and demolition and better matching supply and demand for the reuse of materials in design and construction. This software tool scans the internet in Sweden for official municipality documents, targeting words like demolition, land allocation and exploitation/development.
The software generates a link to any municipality document mentioning these words and informs architects in advance of plans for demolition and construction in any specific location, enabling them to match this with their own design plans for construction within the same area.
Minimising risks with material passports
The purpose of material passports is to link and store circular data of buildings or infrastructure projects for the purpose of asset management, maintenance or reuse decisions. The passport contains data about objects, making it easier to estimate their circular value and to take strategic decisions. Sweco Netherlands developed Obsurv, a web-based management system that visualises materials in public spaces and enables the user to input details about materials so that it becomes a material passport.
The passport contains information including, for instance, which material or substance an object is made of, its qualities and estimated life cycle, geodata to make it easy to locate it and estimate its transportation costs, economic parameters, such as what it would cost to upcycle it, environmental parameters, such as embedded carbon already invested in the material, and cultural and aesthetic values.
Material passports address a significant barrier in the circular reuse of recovered materials, as documentation and information about origins are often crucial prerequisites for reuse. They reduce the perceived or actual risk associated with the unknowns of recovered materials and play a major role in reducing scepticism. It should be noted that human behaviour is also a major factor in circularity. Risk-averse attitudes are normal, so tools that address such concerns are critical.
Digital Platforms as Circular Marketplaces for Reuse
Even after identifying the value of existing buildings and finding direct and indirect ways of unlocking that value, much of this value cannot be converted without a marketplace for materials.
How to increase the reuse of building components?
The development of digital platforms for the reuse of building components, which is occurring simultaneously in several European countries, is one way to reduce building waste. The purpose here is to create a market for reuse and to better match need and supply. Digital platforms allow interested parties to share information, meeting the need for new circular services and creating a resource-efficient management of material resources. By digitising the material inventories and entering them into a digital marketplace, resources that can be reused, upcycled and rebuilt are made visible.
The CC Build platform is an open digital platform where all parties can publish and view available building materials. Sweco consultants are so-called ‘super users’, active on the platform several times a day, harvesting circular resources for their clients. There are also commercial platforms, for example Loopfront and Madaster.
With these applications, a property owner or municipality could easily create a database with the necessary information about the products and materials and classify them efficiently in order to know which products could be reused in a cost-efficient way, freeing up more time for creativity.
Recent developments include the combination of recycling services and digital platforms. Through the digital platform, objects for reuse as well as multi-disciplinary expertise in recycling at Sweco can easily be accessed.
Working with reused material in design requires more effort to find a circular option, as the fragmentation of information makes it inconvenient. In the Netherlands, a lot of groups have their own marketplace for reused materials, selling their own things. With the Sweco tool Revelop, the intention is to create a more efficient digital platform where all parties can see available materials and create a link to designer tools as well, for example, BIM (building information modeling).
Using the link between the digital marketplace and BIM design tools, the designer can connect data on what is available and add an artificial intelligence program to match demand with supply – a reverse design process. In the event of there being no available matching materials for parts of the construction, the designer can adapt the design to match the available supply – a reversed design process with a starting point in available materials.
Data Ecosystems – Avoiding Silos
In order to better guide decision-making and extract circular value, different sources of data can be combined into an ecosystem of data, avoiding silos and enabling cross-functional and cross-border collaborations.
One example could be different resources linked to a certain value chain, while another example is the material flow within a city. It is crucial that both corporate and governmental structures enable this on a systemic level in order for a whole value chain to operate in a circular manner. We need to look at the interconnection of resources, in order for the whole ecosystem to function. It should be possible to excel at data and information management even with different organisational systems and structures. In many cases, it is a question of raising awareness that some tools exist.
Unfortunately, that is not always the case today, as we still have silos regarding how data is organised and how accessible it is. Sometimes, it is also hard to convince organisations to share their data, for example, to get a municipality to share climate data with a private company. Another challenge is multiple data formats. The discussion about standardised formats has been going on for several years, but the complexity, diversity and pace of change all make it difficult.
Digital twins – an ecosystem of data for a building
For property portfolios, one way to organise and create smart access to all necessary data for strategic decision making and reporting on buildings is to create a digital twin. For new buildings, 3D modeling is becoming more of an everyday practice for managing the complexity of information. It creates a good foundation for transitioning to a digital twin for the facility management phase and building operation. Existing buildings often lack adequate or up-to-date documentation.
A digital twin allows for the more resourceful use of a building’s assets from construction throughout its life, such as documenting its materials and properties, smarter operation, or creating the foundation for new business models that share resources between stakeholders.
The data is all there. The challenge is to make different data sets and standards fit into a consolidated platform, kind of like square pegs and round holes.
Steven Brown, Head of Digital Twin, Sweco.
Twinfinity is a digital twin tool, developed by Sweco, which is used mainly by commercial clients. Twinfinity combines building data with other data such as live sensor data (humidity, temperature, user behaviour), operational data (energy, occupancy), financial data (tenant leases) or any kind of data available. This creates circular value on several levels, for example, circular asset management when making strategic decisions regarding renovation or smarter use of space.
The term “digital twin” was originally coined by Dr. Michael Grieves back in 2002, and NASA was one of the first to use this technology in its space research projects.
The digital twin can be a virtual copy of a piece of equipment but also of a larger object such as a building, a factory and even an entire city. Sustainable operation and sustainable maintenance provide both financial gain and a climate gain. Here, the concept of digital twins can function as an enabler to achieve the set goals.
Ask the development project, how could you use a digital twin to lower carbon impact?
Digi M.A.P. – an ecosystem of data on an urban scale
Digi M.A.P. is a method developed by Sweco that puts the geographic information system (GIS) into the hands of the users. Today, a lot of data, especially GIS, is handled by GIS engineers who do not fully grasp which data is useful in the process, how to use it, and when.
The complexity of a city model is difficult to understand. However, with Digi M.A.P. we combine different datasets into a digital map. A multidisciplinary team can hold a strategic discussion and gain new insights about complex urban situations by filtering out the different datasets and layers of information.
Digi M.A.P. can also serve as a platform to increase gig economy services. Envision a sort of digital map for circular services with real-time data such as material flows with geographic location, prognoses for which buildings will be scheduled for renovation and demolition (Reclaim) and new building plans projecting scenarios onto a Digi M.A.P. With another tool developed by Sweco, Revelop, designers can shop for reusable objects for their planned construction projects, for example, by using a QR code. The system matches what they need with the products available on the marketplace.
Other gig economy-oriented services could add offerings to the marketplace, such as a digital service for storage. It identifies suitable storage options, such as underused ware-housing, with the option to store materials in transit from an old building to a new project. Matchmaking for demolition is another such example.
To illustrate the potential of sharing resources for circular transportation, LogTrade is software that cities can use to move goods using gig services. For example, if windows from a demolition site need to be transported to a building site, they will be labelled with a QR code and the gig service will match the goods with a suitable hauler. Anyone passing by could offer to move materials and goods, thereby contributing to the circular transportation system within the city.
“It is critical that organisations are able to adapt to the fast changing data landscape and should take interest in the rapid development of tools. New methods can disrupt whole value-chain logistics and business models, leading to increased circular value creation”, says Alastair Carruth, senior consultant within waste and resource management at Sweco.
While the benefits of a circular-based society are becoming increasingly familiar, the journey to get there is less understood. By leveraging rapid advances in technology, Sweco has created best practice and next practice tools for generating value in the property and construction sectors.
We hope that the snapshots in this report have inspired you to reflect on your own circular value creation and that we have helped you understand how to use data, knowledge and information to make better decisions and drive the circular transformation of the construction industry.
What can you do?
- STOP DEMOLISHING VALUE For every square metre of floor space we demolish, we can effectively be destroying a value of EUR 750. Stop demolishing circular values and start exploring renovation and retrofitting as an alternative to rebuilding.
- CREATE VALUE FROM EXISTING BUILDINGS Use what you have and avoid emissions, costs and waste in line with EU requirements. Data tools are crucial in providing the overview of resources and the intelligence needed to illustrate ‘embedded values’ and make smarter circular decisions.
- CREATE THE BIGGEST BANG FOR YOUR BUCK Circular decisions at an early stage of a project, in the design phase, will make the greatest environmental impact and lead to the ‘biggest bang for your buck’. Use data-driven design tools in combination with multi-disciplinary experts to design products and buildings that function within closed-loop resource systems.
- DESCRIBE VALUES WITH NEW CURRENCIES Circular value creation requires us to handle different types of values, not only financial ones. They are described in different units: € for monetary values, kWh for energy, CO2e for climate impact, Circularity Index for adaptivity, assembly and disassembly, and so forth.
- AVOID RISK WITH CIRCULARITY Circularity is an instrument for achieving a portfolio of net-zero carbon buildings, or even carbon positive ones. A carbon fee or tax is likely to become reality also for the property and construction sectors. Closed-loop, resourceful and effective systems are also less exposed to outside risks such as price shocks and material scarcity.
- EXTRACT THE ‘GREEN GOLD’ Those actors in control of their sustainability data and who can make sense of it, analyse and visualise it, are better equipped to attract green funding and harvest the ‘green gold’.
- MANAGE YOUR BUILDINGS AND WORK SMARTER Digital twins can support a more efficient use of spaces and areas. Review whether you can adapt layouts and spaces, or change the use to better optimise the space.
- COMBINE DATA WITH EXPERTISE Data alone is not enough. Complexity demands both data-driven tools and expert dialogue to support strategic decision making.
- STOP WASTING TIME Save up to 80% of your time by improving data management. Different formats of data, concepts, measurements and systems pose a challenge, so striving for a common lexicon is vital. Database structures, such as BIM, are needed with a ’dictionary’ flexible enough to bridge the various terms in use.
- BE FORWARD-LOOKING AND COLLABORATE Current best practice is not enough in a changing world. The ongoing development of tools is rapid and disruptive. Organisations and businesses should look to the future and move from copying best practices to creating next practices for sharing knowledge, tools and reference projects. Collaboration and access to existing information encourages value creation. Irrespective of how powerful the tools are, a siloed organisation risks missing out on the creative added value that collaboration brings.
Building the future through circular data – Tools for mining the ‘green gold’
About the authors
Elise Grosse is Head of Sustainability at Sweco Architects in Sweden.
She holds a Master’s degree in architecture, is a certified IBN Building Biologist, and is currently a part-time PhD student in co-creation. In her research, she develops approaches to collective intelligence processes to increase sustainability in projects. Elise has an international background (Dominica, Berlin and Los Angeles) and an extensive international network of people sharing her interests.Her ingenuity, great initiative and strong belief in working for a more sustainable world have made her an expert at facilitating teams to develop new partnerships for a sustainable built environment and innovative solutions through co-creation among consultants with different perspectives. She has a special interest in the interaction between digital tools and a group´s creativity and is convinced that such approaches can solve our common existential challenges. She works at the forefront of business development for the sustainable built environment, initiating R&D projects, supporting next practices, leading organisational development, giving keynote speeches and moderating conferences.
Alastair Carruth works in Sweco’s Environment and Planning Division in Malmö, Sweden.
He has contributed to a range of projects aimed at the acceleration of the circular economy, including support to small and medium-sized businesses and public sector organisations in the implementation of new business models, development of municipal and regional strategies for the circular economy, and the quantification and mapping of existing resources for the improved application of circular models. He has also provided help to organisations in the practical aspects of resource management such as transport and storage, understanding waste management regulatory requirements, standards and certification requirements and creating markets and services for reused and recycled materials. He has also worked in infrastructure construction with environmental management.