BLOG: Collaboration and early engagement to enable a Circular Economy: opportunities and barriers

The Circular Economy forum reflect on the System Enabler: Collaboration and Early Engagement and what that should mean for practitioners in the built environment.
Architects working on blueprints

Published on

March 8, 2023





The construction process has always been a collaborative effort – its complex delivery requires cross-disciplinary approach. Bringing social value, community engagement, access to amenities, health and well-being and tackling fuel poverty meant that good design stayed at the heart of this process. What do we mean by ‘early engagement’ then? 

An Introduction to Early Engagement and Town Planning 

Before we focus on the types of engagement with the procurement process, we ought to zoom out of the discussion from a project level to a city wide level. Big landowners treat their building stock in terms of economic activity, business investment in particular, and the city’s planning system is heavily influenced by that, incentivising any opportunities for placemaking and job creation. However, town planning has another more fundamental role – safeguarding people, their environments, their resilience. Engagement with various departments on a town planning level includes (amongst many others) – highways, parks, trees, environmental impact, climate change, waste, energy, amenities, and more recently biodiversity and circular economy knowledge sharing. 

Therefore, engagement amongst the involved parties is triggered  as soon as land-use dialog has started. Each group’s involvement is parallel from the very beginning, with no single subject prioritised over another while each theme is engaged in an actor-network scenario, going beyond the boundaries of the site. Public authorities can play an important role in providing a working model of what ‘early engagement’ looks like, collaboration becoming the ‘low-hanging fruit’ of all the identified system enablers. There are many ways with which public authorities can also foster collaborative dynamics by supporting networks of sectorial organisations involved in reuse, and restrict unnecessary demolition. 

So, what is Early Engagement? 

Therefore, ‘early engagement’ is defined by the Circular Economy Forum as the simultaneous, parallel, and collaborative effort of every actor (human or non-human) aimed at complete resource reuse as soon as there is an intention to change the socio-material relation of a habitat. 

At its essence, simultaneous engagement of all parties involved in extracting, manufacturing, transporting, assembling, disassembling, disposing, measuring, specifying and procuring any type of resources creates a pool of competence needed to create a closed loop across the re-use, re-manufacture, re-cycle hierarchy. 

Barriers to this process 

Time constraints due to tight programmes are one of the biggest obstacles to implementation. In a circular loop, for instance, salvaged and crushed clear glass will produce recycled cullet which melts at a lower temperature, reducing the energy use, bringing the cost of new glazing down through re-manufacture. The incentive, however, is not felt by the contractor unless the programme is extended to allow for circularity to happen. 

The legacy of WWII’s prefabricated and linear construction is another major obstacle which can only be addressed through collaborative efforts. Demolition specialists suggest retrieving all recycled concrete aggregates from a building is feasible, but the carbon savings might be outweighed by the emissions associated with transporting them out of the site, the energy for crushing the aggregate and cement in the production of the new concrete product. Keeping concrete structures at their highest value requires additional technology including renewables and, if possible, direct re-use. In the future, carbon capture, which still requires further research may also be an interesting alternative. 

In fact, concerning research, while the stakeholders that are key for effective collaboration are those directly involved in projects (e.g., clients, architects, engineers, developers, owners, contractors), involvement with researchers can be key to (1) assess the impacts of circular solutions and (2) to support the development of new technologies that adapt well to the real needs in industry. 

Enabling circularity for key stakeholders through Collaboration & Early Engagement 

It is the linear approach to projects and procurement that often restricts what feels possible when it comes to applying circular economy principles. We survey, we design, we fine-tune, we price, we procure, we enter contracts, we demolish and then we build.  

Of course, some of this ‘linearity’ is unavoidable – it would be rather bold to demolish (or deconstruct) a building before designing the replacement, or to sign a contract without knowing the materials that are going to be used to build something. 

But there are discrete aspects of this linear process that we can ‘break’ so that decisions, findings or operations can occur earlier, potentially affecting a different project outcome. There could also be changes to some of the approaches we take on projects, for example the amount of risk clients are willing to hold onto or the relaxation of programme pressure to facilitate a better outcome. 

  1. At the outset of a project, be clear with the entire team that ambitions are to ‘do things differently’ and to adopt circular principles. This alone should lead to challenges when reviewing a typical programme and sequencing of design activities and procurement. Identify opportunities, as it is easier and more effective to find opportunities for circular design at early stage of the project. Decisions made at this stage would help establish the necessary processes in subsequent stages. Be mindful that once the design team is fully involved in the design process, circularity objectives can fall through if not fully integrated into the brief.  
  2. Consider how circular the project aspires to be. What level of expertise is required? Should every piece of material be second-hand or are there specific elements to target in an emerging design? Is there an existing building and if so, should the material within be salvaged for this project or another? If you are a buyer of materials, do you know what is available, and when? What are the opportunities within a project to use recycled components? 
  3. Surveys are critical in any project. But if you want to extract material from an existing building (potentially embedding it into the new design) then these are needed very early as they can help with identifying opportunities, challenges and best way to overcome them. This would help the project team create a robust circularity plan. Furthermore, ensure clients budgets, approvals and access into the existing building can facilitate the required surveys. 
  4. When on the ‘linear project treadmill’ that teams are familiar with, it’s easy to commit to deliverables against short programmes which do not allow for much creative thinking. In a circular economy scenario, designers, demolition contractors and manufacturers need time to analyse the existing building blocks/materials from the existing asset and embed it their specification. To maximise reuse opportunities, teams need to plan and assess how much time it takes to do things differently, ensuring that objectives are included in the contract. 
  5. Search for value. Not everything is going to be worth extracting or salvaging, especially as we explore new territory in the world of the circular economy. Seek out the low hanging fruit – high carbon, high value, easy to grade/test, non-complex, good availability, easy to extract. You won’t be able to reuse everything in its present state – some things will be reused, albeit downgraded (recycled) – accept this, don’t be distracted and spend time according to the value. 
  6. Ask questions. Most designers are aware of the circular economy but have limited or no experience of actually designing for it. Understand how a design and spec for reused material will change procurement. Discuss the new challenges this presents across the project disciplines. If waste is taken off site, understand how the waste management facilities are treating the waste and where it is being re-processed.  
  7. It is also important to share lessons learnt  successes and failures, is fundamental in accelerating the shift towards a circular process. Knowledge sharing can be on a team, company, or industry level. It is the most effective way of creating resilience in the process of re-use, allowing clients to take further risks if the practice has proven to be successful. 
  8. Review procurement and how a Contractor will engage their supply chain. Typically projects are broken up into a number of work packages. This means lots of briefing about your circularity ambitions and establishing what is possible, but also represents an opportunity to focus on key work packages, where you’ve spotted value. Within your procurement parameters, engage with key package sub-contractors early to best align designs with what is achievable and their level of comfort, and explore how to push those boundaries together. To minimise risk and ensure that circular economy principles are followed, it is important to select contractors that have prior experience of delivering aspirational outcomes. Also, ensure supply chain is involved at the earliest possible stage to work closely with the team in developing the program and, to certain extent, manage expectations. 

By following some of the above recommendations, Collaboration and Early Engagement can be embraced in a project, which in turn enables the project to embrace circular economy principles.  

Collaboration and Engagement is one of the eight system enablers for a circular economy investigated in a recent UK report. Read the report here. 

This blog was written by members of the Circular Economy Forum. To learn more about the work they do and get involved, go here 

Real World Examples to Explore: 

CS 2022 (  

The Entopia Building , 

Repurposed Excavated Arising Loop (REAL) project