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Bringing ‘circular economy’ efforts to Canada’s construction industry is a worthy challenge

In British Columbia, the experience over the past year with extreme and devastating weather linke...

Sarah Bingham, Director of Development and Sustainability, Adera

Sarah Bingham is director of development and sustainability at Adera Developments in Vancouver (Courtesy Adera Developments).

In British Columbia, the experience over the past year with extreme and devastating weather linked to human-caused climate change has never been more obvious.

The deadly heat dome of the past summer, followed by the ongoing devastation and flooding wrought by a series of unprecedented atmospheric rivers, has made it crystal clear that we are living with the consequences of climate change, and has also revealed to us the need for a stable and local supply chain.

Flooding and landslides severed highways, key transport links and cut communities like Abbotsford and Chilliwack off from the rest of the province and the country. Since its completion in the mid-1980s, the Coquihalla Highway has been the busiest link between the Lower Mainland and the Interior of B.C.  Sections of the highway were destroyed in November and it’s unclear when this passage will reopen for normal use.

Vancouver is home to Canada’s busiest port so Canadians should be aware that this most crucial of cross-country supply chains is more vulnerable than many of us ever realized.

This national disaster should serve as a wake-up call for those of us in the building and construction industry. As an industry, many have been flirting with notions of generating a sustainable, localized, value-driven circular economy, but have shied away from efforts that would result in true progress. While generating a meaningful circular economy won’t be easy, there are areas of low hanging fruit that we can focus on to push us in the right direction.

Embracing the circular economy in development and construction

The concept of the circular economy continues to evolve. A circular economy is anchored to concepts of regeneration, waste reduction, and respecting the life cycles of our materials and resources. It’s important for us in the building industry to seek ways to add value and economic vitality at each step along the resourcing, development and construction path in Canada. This could result in improved sustainability and a healthier, more secure local, regional or national supply chain.

Let’s not forget about housing prices

Developing a circular economy is easier said than done and should be approached in stages. Prioritizing locally-produced or sourced materials powered by Canadian talent and expertise, will result in some things costing more, but will also have benefits to our communities and economies. It’s up to us to find a balanced path forward.

Housing prices in Canada are already high and climbing higher, so sacrificing cost efficiency to create a circular building industry cannot be a zero sum game. There is a housing ecosystem at play in Canada involving financing, interest rates, and fixed salaries that make it crucial to build homes that are as affordable for buyers as possible. It’s challenging enough to get financing to buy a home and the proformas for multi-family projects must make sense within our housing context.

A home that epitomizes the circular economy, but is so costly that nobody can live in it, is not really a solution, so we must be selective in our approach to engaging with a circular construction economy as our national supply chain evolves and improves.

Let’s choose the right battles to get started 

To achieve balance, it’s important to choose our battles effectively at this early stage of transition. We can’t do everything at once, but we can prioritize the low hanging fruit, or initiatives that have a meaningful benefit to our communities.

A good place to start is to nurture the circular economy that is emerging in our Canadian mass timber industry.

Wood products, including timber, can be sustainable if harvested responsibly, with oversight and certification to ensure we’re milling timber from second and third growth forests. In the case of mass timber, or Cross Laminated Timber products, local manufacturing plants in communities like Castlegar and Okanagan Falls ensure local workers have their place in the loop of production.

These mass timber panels sequester carbon throughout the life cycle of the building and dramatically reduce carbon pollution in the construction process when compared to similar-sized steel and concrete buildings.

These are homes resourced, designed, manufactured and constructed by Canadians for Canadians. B.C. is already on the path to becoming a global hub for mass timber, milling, design, manufacturing and construction excellence — and we need to keep pressing.

Other feasible options to reduce waste in our circular economy include timber repurposing and material recycling and diversion to keep old buildings out of our landfills during the demolition process.

We should also prioritize bringing new and available technology to the planning and construction process. For instance, software modeling can ensure drawings are well coordinated to avoid the need for delays and redesign later, which can lead to material waste, additional deliveries and labour.

Even small steps are worth it 

We can find motivation to embrace the circular economy on a large, existential scale, but also on a small, personal scale.

In a recent conversation, my mother asked me where the glue for mass timber panels typically comes from. I told her I would look into that (we found the answer: they are also regionally sourced). That’s a small, anecdotal snapshot of the types of questions more people are starting to ask about where things come from and how they are used.

That’s a sensibility that is likely to expand, given our various crises: climate change, supply chain disruptions, natural disasters, urbanization.

It’s time to find ways to improve as a building industry, even if it’s small steps to get us started.

Sarah Bingham is the Director of Development & Sustainability at Adera Development Corporation

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