Circular building materials
Circular building design
A Swan takes shape
A childcare centre in Gladsaxe is the first building that is constructed according to circular principles to be Nordic Swan Ecolabel certified. Reutilising materials from a demolished primary school, the construction of the circular childcare centre provides valuable learnings and inspiration for the Danish building sector as a whole on how to become more circular, sustainable and resource efficient.
A spiralling population and an inexorable rise in growth means the planet is building the equivalent of New York City every single month. Given that the construction sector is responsible for approximately half of all resource extraction on a global scale, and buildings account for 40 per cent of the total energy use of European countries and roughly 30 percent of the waste they produce, transforming the building sector and the built environment to one that operates according to circular economy principles is imperative.
However, while consensus may reign about the need to make the built environment circular, the challenge is how to achieve this. Not only do very few large-scale circular buildings exist, but there is also a lack of knowledge and experience regarding the design process for circular buildings and how architects and authorities can navigate the challenge of implementing circular economy principles in the building sector without the inclusion of hazardous chemicals.
The Danish city of Gladsaxe, which is part of the Greater Copenhagen area, is pioneering the use of environmentally certified buildings in its municipality as part of its strategy to implement the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). A key tool in their strategy is the use of green public procurement, where the municipality seeks to promote the SDGs in all municipal projects. As part of this, all future childcare centres are to be environmentally certified using the Nordic countries’ official environmental certification system for products and services known as EcoLabel.
Consisting of two types of certifications (the Nordic Swan EcoLabel and the EU EcoLabel), the overall objective of the EcoLabel is to reduce environmental impacts stemming from the production and consumption of goods and services, where a product’s entire life cycle – from raw materials to production, use, disposal, and recycling – is assessed. In this sense, EcoLabel is an important tool for advancing the circular economy in the Nordic countries.
To obtain Nordic Swan EcoLabel certification, buildings must adhere to the following criteria:
- Low energy consumption
- A good indoor environment
- Strict requirements regarding the use of chemicals, so that elements can be reused
- Strict requirements for the use of sustainable wood which require at least 70 per cent of the wood used is sourced from sustainably managed forests
- High civil engineering standards via checks conducted by an independent third party
- Strong possibilities to reuse and recycle parts of the building
Two EcoLabel certified childcare centres already exist in Gladsaxe municipality. However, the construction of a new childcare centre, known as ‘The Swan’, is ground-breaking in the sense that not only is it certified with the Nordic Swan EcoLabel, but it is the world’s first childcare centre constructed according to circular principles to be awarded this certification.
Designing, constructing, and adhering to the strict environmental and circular requirements has meant that the project has involved many actors, including turnkey contractors, materials consultants, lead consultants, lead contractors, consulting engineers, architects, and EcoLabel.
Located on the site of the Gladsaxe School, which was demolished in 2020, the new childcare centre, which is set to open in April 2022, reuses many of the materials from the old primary school, including bricks, roofing tiles, wooden rafters, steel bike racks, concrete, lamps and even the school’s old clock, – all of which drastically reduces the building’s amount of waste and its CO2 footprint.
In collaboration with Gladsaxe Municipality’s Department of Property, the architect firm Lendager has selected and assembled materials from the old school to be used in the new Swan childcare centre. An environmental mapping and the type, amount, and quality of materials from the old school have helped shape the architectural choices and gives the building character.
The Swan childcare centre, which gets its name from the fact that the building resembles a flying swan when looking down from above, also offers places for children with special needs. The building has been designed to reflect this and includes breakout areas for small groups as well as a common space, a workshop, and sports facilities. Organic food will be served for the children, who will also learn about how to minimise food waste and grow herbs and vegetables in the centre’s garden.
The resulting childcare centre will assist Gladsaxe municipality in fulfilling its SDG ambitions and provide optimal surroundings for the children attending the centre. Most significantly, the combined demolition and construction project has created valuable new knowledge, insights, and experience regarding how to design and construct in a circular manner.
The Swan childcare centre has been such an innovative project that the Danish Environmental Protection Agency has written a report that describes the instruments and prerequisites needed in order to succeed in constructing an
environmentally certified, circular building. The report details key learnings and experiences from the project in order to inspire and guide actors interested in embarking on a similar project. The report, which is written in Danish, can be accessed here.
The many actors involved in the project highlights the need for good dialogue between the actors and strong project management skills – not only to ensure the circular ambitions were fulfilled, but also to transfer knowledge and insights between the actors and take responsibility for the quality and safety of the recirculated materials. Robust framework conditions, including the sense of working towards a common goal amongst all actors, and political support has made it possible to overcome challenges along the way.
Preventing the recirculation of hazardous chemicals has been a large obstacle for making the construction sector and the built environment more circular, given that many older buildings contain so-called legacy chemicals such as asbestos, which were legal to use when the building was constructed or renovated, but are now forbidden, meaning that demolishing older buildings and reusing or recycling some of the building materials is no easy task. By pursuing Nordic Swan Eco Label certification, with its strict rules regarding chemicals, the Swan childcare centre has demonstrated that it is indeed possible to recycle materials from old buildings without including hazardous chemicals. It is the first example of a project EcoLabel Denmark has certified that contains such large amounts of recirculated materials. This makes it in many ways a flagship project that both EcoLabel Denmark and the rest of the construction industry can gain valuable learnings from. A direct impact of the project is that the guidelines for EcoLabel certified new buildings will now be revised by the middle of 2022, so they are also relevant for circular buildings.
It is estimated that Europeans spend up to 90 per cent of their lives in buildings. We therefore need to ensure they are pleasant places to be. The Nordic Swan Eco Label’s criteria, which includes a focus on the indoor climate and lack of hazardous chemicals, will accrue significant societal benefits in addition to lowered greenhouse gas emissions and preservation of scarce resources in the form of improved health and well-being for the children who attend the childcare centre. By making the built environment more circular, resource efficiency is promoted, and new business models and innovative solutions are created, thereby ensuring maximum value for society