Building Towards a Circular Economy 

Accounting for each stage of a building’s lifecycle can help save money and reduce waste

Generating a staggering $141 billion in GDP for Canada in 2020, the construction sector is integral to Canada’s economy, but the benefits of construction go far beyond just dollars. Construction creates the infrastructure that connects us, the buildings where we gather, and the places we call home. Today, most construction in North America is linear in nature. Resources are extracted and processed, products are manufactured, and the parts are assembled into the structures we use. In the end, demolition has been the final stage at the end of the useful life of the structure. In other words, it is a ‘take-make-waste’ economy where we build with a single use in mind, with little thought about the end of life.  

This way of building represents a growing problem. Generating 4 million tonnes of waste each year or about one-third of Canada’s total solid waste annually (according to the Delphi Group’s Circular Economy & The Built Environment Sector in Canada), the construction sector is a source of significant greenhouse gas emissions and waste. Simply put, traditional linear thinking for the construction sector is not sustainable.  

There is opportunity to shift our way of thinking though. Changes to government policy or regulations can certainly move the needle, but there are other important actions that the construction sector can take more immediately to move towards a circular economy. A new generation of designers, manufacturers, builders and municipalities are showcasing ways to tackle material waste and create structures with lower embodied and operational carbon. It is time to begin looking at circular economy principles that can be applied when designing, constructing, operating and deconstructing at a larger scale, so we have comprehensive strategy for the full lifecycle. 

At CSA Group, we have been focused on helping realize circularity in construction through standard development, collaboration, research, education, and advocacy. Currently, there are several standards that the construction sector can use as they transition to a circular, net-zero and low-carbon economy. They are not abstract ideas or theories, but rather tangible solutions that can be put into practice immediately. 

CSA Group’s standards and guidelines are designed to maximize impact of three important principles: durability in buildings, design for disassembly and adaptability in buildings, as well as the deconstruction of buildings. There are several case studies, domestically and internationally, that demonstrate the benefits of using these circular construction principles, in buildings and beyond. 

Let’s start with durability, where standards can help to ensure that we use materials and elements selected to prevent premature degradation throughout the intended life of the building. In Straubenhardt Germany, they have applied this principle not just to a single building, but to their entire community, with the Straubenhardt’s fire station serving as the pilot project. Designed for durability, the glulam hybrid structure was made with concrete that remains unsealed and was purposely selected for its high durability. The large wooden V-shaped glulam supports were also intentionally oversized in order to be more fire resistant. Thinking through the entire lifecycle of the building, the designers knew this fire station needed to be able to adapt to technological advancements. With this in mind, the designers made all building technology visible so it can easily be repaired or replaced, making it easier to adapt and update. 

Designing buildings with adaptability and disassembly in mind is key to help reduce the economic, environmental and social impacts of building construction. It is also key to helping to ensure that what is built today will meet the needs of the future; and if not, the components can be recovered and repurposed when needed. The Platform and Innovation Centre Parkade in Calgary, Alberta is a world class example of the principles of adaptability in action. Utilizing flat floor slabs, floor-to-ceiling heights and a central atrium, the design of this unique seven storey building allows for its space to be converted into commercial or residential purposes depending on the evolving needs of the community. 

Platform-and-Innovation-Centre-Parkade-in-Calgary.

While it may seem counterintuitive to spend time and effort planning to take down what was just built, disassembly is an important moment in the lifecycle of a building. In fact, NASA’s sustainability base located in Moffett Field, California is a prime example of a building that was built to be disassembled, dismantled and repaired. Utilizing high recycled content and rapidly renewable materials, great efforts were taken to minimize its carbon footprint, not just in its construction, but throughout its lifecycle.  

When a building reaches the end of its life, we are often quick to demolish it and send the materials to the landfill, but there is a much better alternative: deconstruction. While it may be a slower process than demolition, deconstruction saves materials and reduces emissions, as well as the amount of dust and noise that comes with demolishing buildings.  

Although there may be more upfront costs associated with deconstruction, the benefits are substantial, not only for our environment but for our economy as well. In Vancouver, the Unbuilders transitioned from construction contractors to becoming one of Canada’s first commercial deconstruction companies. Through their work in the Metro Vancouver area, the Unbuilders have reported that deconstruction has diverted 38 per cent more materials than the current average for traditional demolition. They also report that by using a deconstruction model, 30 per cent of the wood used in traditional construction and demolition can be salvaged compared to the current regional average of 1 per cent. This doesn’t just help their bottom line; it also helps Vancouver meet its waste diversion targets.  

Similar to the problem we face with single use plastics, we must begin to design and plan for the entire lifecycle of buildings and not just for their immediate use. Whether we look internationally, or in our own backyard, there are so many inspiring examples of circularity in construction. As we collectively strive to make the three principles described in this piece more mainstream, standards for circularity in construction will play a pivotal role in supporting Canada’s transition by providing guidance developed by some of the country’s best technical experts.   


Dwayne Torrey is Director of Construction and Infrastructure Standards at CSA Group

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