Laying a Strong Foundation: How to Overcome Barriers to Circularity in Construction

Circular economy approaches are being discussed across different economic sectors in Canada as one of the ways to reach net-zero targets, reduce environmental impacts, strengthen resiliency, and extend the value of resources.

The construction industry is no exception. Terms like zero waste on site, durability, refurbishing, disassembly, material upcycling, and reuse are entering mainstream conversations. The opportunities that broader adoption of circular economy methods can unlock for various construction industry participants are significant. Although many barriers hinder the adoption of these methods, outlining a strategic framework for a circular built environment (CBE) in Canada can serve as a first step in the transition toward more sustainable construction practices. CSA Group has released two new research reports that offer ideas on how to help overcome barriers and mobilize the industry to further embrace circularity.

Steel girders support the brick facade of a building that is being preserved.
The compelling case for a circular economy model

The construction industry is a major consumer of increasingly limited natural resources. At the same time, the sector generates a substantial amount of waste. In Canada, 12% of solid waste comes from construction activities1, including renovations and demolitions.

Often, construction materials and products destined for landfills carry considerable value. The global market for construction waste recycling was valued at almost US$29 billion in 20222. Reuse of wood, concrete, steel, and other structural materials in building applications can also reduce embodied carbon emissions associated with manufacturing, transportation, installation, maintenance, and disposal of these materials.

Strategies that focus on reusing buildings for a different purpose than what they were originally designed for can also help reduce embodied carbon emissions and bring other benefits.

Overall, businesses moving toward circular models can benefit from cost reductions, energy savings, and improved consumer and investor relationships3. A circular built environment model envisions a future where buildings and materials that go into them are designed and produced to be more durable, used at their highest value, repaired, refurbished, and deconstructed so that any waste can be reused rather than discarded in landfills.

Overcoming barriers to circularity in construction

CBE is at an early stage of adoption in Canada. Its successful implementation will require not only collaboration of many different participants but also a significant shift in mindset and behaviour across the industry.

A recent CSA Group research project, The Circular Built Environment in Canada: A Review of the Current State, Gaps, and Opportunities, explores the existing barriers to circularity in Canada. The study recommends several solutions to help remove these obstacles, illustrated by examples of successful domestic and international CBE initiatives.

Standardizing terminology

The research highlights inconsistency in circularity-related terminology as one of the most prominent barriers to implementing circular practices in the industry. Terms such as recycling, renovating, adaptive reuse, up/downcycling, and reverse logistics may mean different things to different people. That can lead to misunderstandings about the effort required and the benefits gained from circularity.

Standardizing circularity terminology can help align perceptions, policies, regulations, and technical specifications.

Standardizing data collection and reporting

Another challenge in implementing CBE lies with data. Many jurisdictions measure and report material use, embodied emissions, waste generation, and diversion; however, their approaches vary and, as such, are not easily comparable. Further, even where metrics for these categories exist, they are not fully aligned with the National Building Code.

There is also a lack of data on building renovation, retrofit, and life cycle costing for owners to plan upgrade and renewal projects.

Again, the research calls on standards to help establish consistent collection and reporting of circularity-related data across the industry and jurisdictions.

Underpinning regulatory tools through standards

Proposed updates to the National Building Code aim to address circularity by incorporating definitions of building retrofits and setting limits for operational and embodied carbon. However, there are several other areas that require further attention and development. Industry participants suggest including considerations for building renovations, the use of salvaged materials, and their testing and verification, which can help remove a barrier to the reuse of construction materials after the end of their first life.

Further, Canada needs national strategies, policies, and frameworks for construction waste management and life cycle carbon assessment, with more alignment across all levels of government, different ministries, and departments.

The research highlights how standards can support regulatory tools. They can provide consistent guidance and best practices to help encourage the use of reclaimed materials and limit embodied carbon.

Addressing technical challenges through standardization

The study highlights several technical challenges that can prevent building designers from specifying reused materials or products incorporating recycled materials. Environmental product declarations (EPD) could provide necessary information, but they are often not clear enough to support informed decision-making. There is also a lack of data on the long-term performance of reused materials.

In other instances, technical solutions that can simplify future renovation or adaptation of a building, such as reversible connections, fastening methods for deconstructing tall buildings, and modular construction, are not considered standard practices, which can impact the cost and schedule of a project.

Standards can help improve access to information on reused or recycled materials and products and provide requirements and guidelines to create alternate compliance pathways for circular construction methods and components.

A strategic framework for future action

While examples of initiatives and programs that help remove obstacles on the path toward circularity are encouraging, a broad, industry-wide transition to CBE remains a complex challenge. The traditional linear ‘take-make-waste’ model is deeply embedded in industry supply chains, construction techniques, and mindsets. A well-coordinated action is needed to move the needle. This action should involve all industry participants – from owners, developers, and builders who contribute directly by making building decisions (direct actors) to those who can help enable change (enabling actors), such as architects, engineers, investors, governments, insurance companies, and standards development organizations.

A strategic framework can serve as a first step toward developing a more specific action plan. A subsequent CSA Group research report, The Circular Built Environment in Canada: A Strategic Framework for Future Action, aims to formulate such a framework. The study outlines a three-stage approach, inspiring industry participants to implement the elements of CBE.

Stage 1: Preconditions

In the first stage, the focus is on reducing frictions and barriers that can be caused by the lack of familiarity with CBE concepts, and various regulatory and technical misalignments. The enabling actors are expected to play a big role in these efforts, as they can help reduce the systemic barriers and make it easier for direct actors to create change. Enabling actors are in a position to update building codes to address adaptive design and material reuse, revise municipal zoning laws to allow site change between commercial and residential uses, and provide incentives for circular building projects.

Stage 2: Project Activities

The second stage provides an opportunity to test circular methods and approaches in pilot projects. In this stage, owners and developers can gain more knowledge about circular buildings. At the same time, architects and engineers can learn how to design buildings that meet circularity standards and communicate their design qualities and values.

Stage 3: Post Activities

Celebrating and promoting circular building projects is central to the third stage. This can motivate more actors to replicate circular practices and innovations.

Repeating these stages quickly over time will allow the construction sector to build incrementally on past successes, bring in more and more actors, and, ultimately, lead to the emergence of a broadly adopted CBE.

The process for mobilizing systems changes for a circular built environment
Image source: CSA Group
Prioritizing a sustainable future

Prioritizing a circular built environment is key to reducing the carbon impacts of the construction industry. Many barriers that currently slow down the adoption of CBE in Canada can be mitigated through standardization, regulations, and market incentives. Building awareness about circular construction methods, educating industry participants about the benefits they can gain by using them, and sharing and celebrating successful projects can also encourage more organizations and industry professionals to shift their practices towards circularity.

CSA Group is actively supporting these initiatives through its research, standards development, education, and advocacy. By standardizing terminology for circular construction practices and built environment and providing guidance and best practices for implementing circularity in practice, CSA Group helps lay strong foundations for a more sustainable future for the industry and the world. To learn more, visit CSA Group’s web page Standards for circularity in construction.



[1]          Reducing municipal solid waste, Environment and Climate Change Canada, 2021
[2]          Construction Waste Recycling Market Comprehensive Analysis, Historical Data, and Forecasts 2023-2030, Zion Market Research, 2023
[3]          How closing the supply chain loop opens the door to long-term value, Ernst & Young, 2021