How to close the circular construction skills gap

One of the barriers to the circular economy has been a perceived skills gap. But surveyors already have the skills, they just need to adapt them and, if they do, the opportunities could be huge


  • Adam Branson

12 October 2020

From left to right: Diane Marshall, Kevin O’Grady MRICS, Alastair Mant MRICS, Andrew Waugh, Christopher Seymour MRICS

The idea of what circular economy is, and why it’s important for the construction industry to move towards it, is becoming widespread. Perhaps it even has become widespread.” That’s the view of Alastair Mant MRICS, head of business transformation at the UK Green Building Council. “So, that’s looking at the amount of materials used, the waste created and the strong connection with climate change through the embodied carbon of the materials used.”

Mant isn’t alone. Many professionals believe that the construction industry has taken positive steps forward in understanding circular economy principles in recent years. However, there is also broad agreement that that the gap between understanding and implementing is still very wide indeed. And for that gap to be closed, there needs to be not just a different mindset but also a different skillset. So what new or adapted skills are required?

Repurposing buildings

Of course, the best outcome for the environment is that buildings are reused rather than being torn down and replaced, something that requires a new approach from both clients and design teams. “The issue of COVID-19 has only drawn that out more,” says Mant. “We might have to repurpose whole swathes of buildings as society has different expectations of where we’re going to live, work and play. So, have we designed those in buildings in that way and if not, can we start doing it from now?”

Such thinking doesn’t just apply to the UK. According to Christopher Seymour MRICS, managing director, Middle East, at Mott MacDonald, demolition in his region isn’t really the focus; rather people are thinking hard about how to reuse buildings. “I don’t think the demolition specialist has been much of a factor in the Middle East because most of the past 15 to 20 years the region has been in an asset creation cycle,” he says. 

“We’re now seeing repurposing coming in. We’ve stepped over that regeneration phase you see elsewhere where swathes of cities were demolished and then regenerated. But what we are seeing is the repurposing of assets, and that will require different skills. We’re seeing asset management becoming much prevalent and with that comes skills around repurposing and respecting the embedded energy in those assets.”

View of Abu Dhabi city, United Arab Emirates by sunset time; Shutterstock ID 455307778; Purchase Order: -

“COVID-19 means we might have to repurpose whole swathes of buildings. Have we designed those buildings in such a way and, if not, can we start doing it from now?” Alastair Mant MRICS, UK Green Building Council

The opportunity for quantity surveyors

In reality, there will always be circumstances when new buildings are required, either to replace genuinely redundant structures or to accommodate growth. And in terms of where in the development cycle new skills are needed most, many commentators point to the role of the quantity surveyor at the start of the design cycle. “I think there is a real opportunity here for QSs,” says Andrew Waugh, co-founder of architect Waugh Thistleton. 

“They quantify the value of everything on a site, and the processes. So this should be a real opportunity for QSs to properly quantify the amount of carbon, opportunities for re-use – everything – into their assessment of the construction process. I don’t think that there are new disciplines that are needed, but I do think that there are opportunities to be grabbed by disciplines within the consultant team.”

According to Kevin O’Grady MRICS, a QS and associate director at Arup, the opportunity has been recognised and the wheels are already in motion. For instance, QSs work to the International Construction Measurement Standards (ICMS), which are rapidly evolving. ICMS1 covers capital costs, while ICMS2 considers lifetime costs of projects. O’Grady says that move is already helpful in pressing the case for the use of higher quality materials that won’t end up just being dumped in landfill as they become obsolete. He provides an example.

“We did a very simple lifecycle costs evaluation recently, on the rubber mats in the entrances to stations” he says. “We said you could put in cheap rubber mats as the lowest cost option, but after two and a half years you will need to turn the mat over, and after that, it’s landfill.” 

Instead, O’Grady put forward an alternative option that would cost more up front but that would pay for itself over time and would be capable of being reused. “We compared it to a tile with a rain gully underneath,” he says. “If that is a sought-after Italian tile, that has residual value. After 15 years you could skim it and resell it. You’ve reduced landfill and kept materials in the system as long as possible. That is the circular economy.”

“This should be a real opportunity for quantity surveyors to properly quantify the amount of carbon, opportunities for re-use – everything – in the construction process” Andrew Waugh, Waugh Thistleton Architects

Bring on the blockchain

What the current ICMS standards do not do is make explicit the link between lifecycle costs and carbon. That is about to change, however. ICMS3 is due out imminently and will look at the carbon impact of projects in a holistic manner, including the embodied carbon in the materials used and their potential for reuse. According to O’Grady, this is important in and of itself in terms of embracing circular economy principles, but coupled with other emerging trends and technologies it could be revolutionary. 

Specifically, the ability to digitally tag and trace materials using blockchain technology means that the marketisation of materials is now on the cards. And if construction materials can be turned into a new asset class, there will be a major financial incentive for their value to be exploited for as long as possible, potentially forever.

“If you’re constructing a new airport terminal, you may never actually own the steel in that building,” says O’Grady. “You may get an investor to buy that steel for you, you pay them a fee over a 20- to 30-year period and at the end of that period because they know that asset is there and because it’s in a blockchain it’s transparent, when the building is decommissioned, the owner of the steel takes it back and loans it out again.”

That, of course, will take a level of expertise in the investment community, as well as among construction disciplines. New deconstruction – as opposed to demolition – skills will be particularly important. 

“We need to be putting a reverse Ikea manual into the specifications,” says O’Grady. “Once you get to the end, you need to be able to break a building down into its individual parts. Some bits will have to go to landfill and some recycled, but a lot of things can be reused. The best thing is to keep on reusing things. If you have to reshape or bend it, that’s still good. But if you get to the point where you have to smelt it down and recast it, that takes energy.” 

In order to optimise the re-use of materials and minimise the need to melt down material such as steel, which is incredibly carbon intensive, greater standardisation of building components is necessary. “The best you can do with that new airport terminal is make the steel frame in such standard components that at the end of building’s life they can be broken down to make different-shaped buildings,” says O’Grady. “I think we will get into more standardisation of parts.”




“We need to be putting a ‘reverse Ikea manual’ into specifications. Once you get to the end, you need to be able to break a building down into its individual parts" Kevin O’Grady MRICS, Arup

Using only what we need

Fortunately, that is the way the industry is moving anyway with the ever-increasing interest in offsite construction. That move is motivated by far more than environmental concerns, but it does have the potential to reduce waste and support the transition to a circular economy. “Around 40% of the UK’s landfill is construction. It’s insane,” says Waugh. 

“I’ve seen great pallets of plasterboard, unused, just dumped in skips. That’s why prefabrication is so important. It’s better for the environment because you get more efficient use of materials. Efficient use of materials has to be paramount while we work out some of the building regulation and transportation issues.”

Indeed, building regulations will need to be updated, but Diane Marshall, operations director at the National House-Building Council (NHBC) doesn’t believe that the industry will find it difficult to adapt. “The housebuilding industry has successfully adapted to change and risen to new challenges for many years, and I have no doubt that it will do so again in order to wholeheartedly embrace the principles of a circular economy,” she says. “Legislative change, such as reforms to building regulations, is a key driver of behaviour and NHBC’s training team continually produces new courses and content to help the industry remain in step.”

CGI street of Legal & General Modular Houses

So, a great deal can be done to maximise re-use and, where not possible, recycling, as well as to minimise waste. But in order for it to happen, the impetus has to come from the top – from clients with the requisite knowledge and skills and from the teams of consultants that advise them. “Unless you ask for this to be a requirement you probably won’t get it,” says O’Grady, bluntly. 

“It’s probably upon the bigger consultancy firms to specify how the different parts of the team will come together. If it is specified at tender stage that you need environmental product data from the contractor, you will award the contract on more than whether it is cheap or not. So, you ask how much product goes to landfill, how much can be re-used, how much do you want back so that you can re-use it.”

Happily, it is becoming clearer that investors – and consequently developers and consultants – are taking their environmental responsibilities seriously. “I think for lots of developers, where they get their money from and how much they pay for their money are their principle concerns,” says Waugh. 

“And if they are able to demonstrate well-established values in terms of the circular economy, then they’re able to appeal to a broader range of investment. The demands that are being made of our clients by investors are really driving them towards sustainability.”

Perhaps more importantly, it appears that in the UK at least, the government is leading the charge. Both government and industry are currently working on what is called a ‘value toolkit’, which will allow public sector commissioners to tender for projects based on five ‘pillars’, including cost but also environmental factors.

It is understood that pressure is being applied to have the toolkit in place by Christmas and that if it is shown to be working well that it will then be applied to all public projects. Given that the government is by far biggest client in the country, that would be a huge incentive for contractors to step up to the plate. “All the big consultancies are working on what should be in the value toolkit,” says one source.

“The housebuilding industry has successfully adapted to change for many years, and I have no doubt that it will do so again to embrace the principles of a circular economy” Diane Marshall, National House-Building Council

The need for transparency

The government is also getting into the detail on how scenarios such as O’Grady’s airport terminal project could be realised to best effect, partly due to environmental concerns but also down to the need for greater accountability following the Grenfell Tower tragedy. Clearly, such projects require the use of building information modelling (BIM) systems but how exactly that could be fused with blockchain technology is, as yet, unclear. 

“We’re working with Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy looking at linking BIM and blockchain,” says O’Grady. “If everything is locked into a blockchain, then if somebody says they didn’t put the right cladding in, you could go back over the fingerprints of an item and check how it went from design to selection to construction to installation. That thinking is coming down the line.”

Similar ideas are starting to emerge elsewhere in the world. “I think from a regional perspective what’s got to happen is for the government [in Dubai] to push a bit harder – and they’re already pushing quite hard,” says Seymour. “I think that most of the construction industry is ready for a firmer push behind those things.”

Such ideas require greater understanding at a leadership level, but may not actually require new skills at the coalface. “Upskilling may not be needed if these things become automated,” says O’Grady. “The specification documents can be linked to a digital fingerprint and any changes are automatically recorded. And then when somebody goes to disassemble it, it’s already in a digital format. Once the processes are in place, I think it can be automated.”

“What we are seeing is the repurposing of assets, and that will require different skills. Asset management is becoming much prevalent, for example” Christopher Seymour MRICS, Mott MacDonald