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  • Byron Chan

Circular Series: RIBA Stage 1

Following the huge success of the ACAN Circular Series RIBA Stage 0, the next session tackled RIBA Stage 1. We looked at how to embed circular economy principles in briefs for UK construction projects. Presenting this week: Dan Epstein, Consultant Director of Sustainability at Useful Projects, and Nick Fishlock, Project Manager in the Regeneration Team at Brighton & Hove Council.


Held on 28th January 2021, our virtual event Circular Series: RIBA Stage 1 is available to watch in full above. Here in this blog post, we unpack the key takeaways from the session including how circularity can be measured against ambitions, as well as tools and metrics, to influence clients. Plus additional resources below.

Influencing the client

While the case for circular economy is becoming increasingly important, there are still relatively few clients adopting circular economy principles into projects. One of the questions raised during the talk was how the built environment professional could influence the client or developer to adopt circular economy principles into a project at briefing stage.

To guide clients towards circular economy, Dan Epstein’s suggestion was to do your homework and sell it as a proposition. Start having the conversation where you bring forward a narrative for integrating circular economy that is backed up by research. You need a position to risk, cost, time, 'buildability' and programme. Also have in mind an approach and process.

Try to frame circular economy strategies in terms of the benefits to the client – for instance, how it can save cost, improve the programme and quality and so on. Using a case study from Expedition (see Useful Projects, 2020, page 11), Epstein discussed how the firm worked with a developer client who wanted to create a new mixed-use development by knocking down an old 1950s office block. Approaching the problem with an engineered-led solution, they demonstrated that a targeted demolition approach could provide a more cost effective design solution, reusing 70% of the building structure while adding an additional 30% floor space and reducing the programme to 3 years.

55 Baker Street case study: reusing 70% of the existing building structure

“The architect holds the pen. In the end, you are much more powerful than you imagine.” – Dan Epstein

Translating theory into practice

Another key challenge facing interested stakeholders and professionals in adopting circular economy is how to translate a neat theory into practice.

Working for Brighton and Hove Council, Fishlock described as the client how they went about incorporating the circular economy into the council’s affordable housing strategy. While there was a clear aspiration for a circular economy approach, what was unclear was how to define this into clear and deliverable outcomes in the project brief, what good practice looked like and how to set measurable targets which could meet climate change targets.

To gain a practical understanding of the circular economy, Fishlock highlighted the usefulness of the guidance document by UKGBC titled Circular economy guidance for construction clients. The document breaks down the specific principles under the circular economy covering the benefits, questions to ask in project briefs and recommended actions to take (see UKGBC, 2019, page 21). It also helped the council challenge the perceived risks of circular economy strategies as the document presented a list of perceived problems and solutions to explain the feasibility of different circular economy strategies.

Left: RIBA 2030 Climate Challenge metrics (source: RIBA)

Right: Embodied carbon emission targets (source: LETI)

To define and measure what is good practice, the council looked at the RIBA 2030 Climate Challenge and LETI Climate Emergency Design Guide which provided metrics and targets for operational energy and embodied carbon to meet climate change goals. The LETI guide sets slightly more ambitious targets where they recommend all new buildings to be net zero carbon by 2025. It also provides percentage targets for material reuse and material recovery for both domestic and non-domestic projects (see LETI, 2020, page 54).

Tools for developing circular economy requirements

Epstein stressed the importance of developing overarching circular economy requirements to inform the project brief.

When working with developer clients on projects, Epstein developed a series of worksheets at Useful Projects to start the process of addressing circular economy strategies at briefing stage. This involved generating and prioritising broad circular economy strategies with the client. Following this, the design team could explore opportunities to apply strategies to the building layers like site, substructure and services. After analysing various options in terms of risk, cost and benefits, initial propositions can be drilled down into a few key ideas.

Briefing worksheets (source: Useful Projects)

In Epstein's experience, this exercise improved the client's understanding of the circular economy and how it can be applied to the project brief. It is also valuable to the design team as it provides a set of criteria from which they can design from. This whole process can feed into the requirements of circular economy outline statements which are to be included as part of planning for certain developments under London Plan Policy SI7 (see GLA, 2020).

So at the briefing stage, initial design strategies for maintenance, adaptability and waste need consideration rather than becoming an afterthought.

After all, as Epstein succinctly put,

“Waste is just bad design” – Dan Epstein


Speakers Bios

Dan Epstein

Consultant Director of Sustainability at Useful Projects

Before founding Useful Projects, Dan was the Head of Sustainable Development and Regeneration for the London 2012 London Olympic Delivery Authority. Dan Epstein has spent 30 years thinking, designing and delivering sustainable development in the UK and overseas, working in large and complex project structures with government and private sector clients to deliver sustainable development. A recognised thought leader in this arena he regularly speaks on major platforms around the world.

Nick Fishlock

Project Manager in the Regeneration Team, Brighton & Hove Council

Nick Fishlock, is a Project Manager in the Regeneration team at Brighton & Hove City Council, one of the first local authorities to declare a climate and biodiversity emergency. Nick leads the effort to undertake sustainable construction in new build housing projects, and sits on the council’s Circular Economy Working Group and Oversight Board. Their Circular Economy Routemap for the city focusses on the built environment, and is to be published imminently.



Get involved

The ACAN Circular Economy Group is working to push for a radical shift in the construction industry so that all buildings in the UK are designed and built in line with circular economy principles. It is our mission to reimagine current building practices to enable regenerative design at all scales and stages of a project, and for the construction industry to have a positive impact on human and planetary health.

Interested in contributing to the ACAN Circular Economy Group?

Please contact us for details on how to join.

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