Circular economy: role of facilities manager

Virtuous circle

19 March 2018

Facilities managers have a vital role to play in implementing a circular economy in the built environment, suggests Sara Wilkinson

The circular economy has the potential to change the way we design, build and manage our built environment. Compared to the existing, extractive industrial model, the circular economy is restorative and regenerative.

Relying on system-wide innovation, it aims to redefine products and services to design waste out while minimising negative impacts. Underpinned by a transition to renewable energy sources, the circular model builds economic, natural and social capital. The question is, how might this approach manifest itself in facilities management?

The circular economy

The 2013 report Towards the Circular Economy: Economic and business rationale for an accelerated transition, from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and McKinsey, sets out 6 principles for a regenerative and waste-free economy:

  1. all materials are recycled infinitely in technical or biological cycles;
  2. all energy is derived from renewable or sustainable sources;
  3. human activities should support ecosystems and rebuilding natural capital;
  4. human activities should support a healthy and cohesive society and culture;
  5. human activities should support human health and happiness; and
  6. resources are used to generate financial and other forms of value.

Applying the principles

Facilities managers coordinate space, infrastructure, people and administration. Their role is to control the physical resources that flow through a location and the services for the people who work there. By overseeing the system, facilities managers have considerable influence.

Current approaches estimate the average life cycle of commercial property to be 50 years, with refurbishment every 10 years and a major refurbishment between years 20 and 30.

As an example of typical use of resources, the Dutch office market totals 50m square metres, energy in use is 61.2bn MJ a year, 60% of which is used in heating, and a total of 88m litres of water is consumed for kitchen and cleaning uses and toilet flushing, sourced from municipal drinking water.

Figure 1 compares construction and operational figures for heat, emissions, electricity, and materials and waste in Dutch commercial property; operational use exceeds construction use in all cases.

Figure 1

Figure 1: Resource use in construction and operational phase in Dutch commercial property

Leverage points

Facilities managers need to reduce costs and create value in core business areas, and increasing the circularity of resource flows during operation enables both. Three key leverage points are:

  • working in a broader way with stakeholders in the design phase;
  • making interventions during the operational phase; and
  • encouraging behavioural change and usage patterns in the operational phase.

Working with stakeholders

Facilities managers should work with architects during the design phase to ensure the building can be adapted and upgraded, and that it is easy to access internal infrastructure such as wiring and ventilation. UK businesses spend £2bn a year moving people within buildings, so collaboration between facilities managers and architects can reduce this cost and increase competitiveness and profitability.

Where possible, demand for heating and lighting should be limited by maximising the potential to use solar energy through building orientation, window size and heat recovery ventilation systems; this can reduce energy demand by 90%.

Digital technologies such as building information modelling (BIM) can be used for planning, designing, constructing and managing property. Through more direct collaboration with stakeholders, facilities managers can use BIM to identify performance and use patterns and the costs of maintenance and retrofits.


The cost of repair is between five and 15 times the cost of avoiding a defect

The technology is evolving, and parametric modelling – with spreadsheet-like databases for integrating and interconnecting buildings – allows facilities managers to make real-time changes for multiple users. Different models can be discussed with the design team.

Design can also be optimised for the total cost of ownership. Typically, the cost of repair is between 5 and 15 times the cost of avoiding a defect. Better planning, forecasting, and speed and quality of maintenance when hardware has been designed to be easy to upgrade, together with long-term collaborations between stakeholders, can reduce total cost by between 10% and 20%.

Operational phase interventions

The aim is to make resource flows circular and generate new kinds of value. This can be done by energy and waste reduction programmes, monitoring and continuous improvement of resource and energy use, and closing systemic loops.

Energy reduction programmes can include the following:

  • offering building occupiers incentives to use public and green transport;
  • allowing adjustment of heating and lighting on a decentralised basis;
  • incorporating sensors and user interfaces to collect feedback; smart building monitoring with user feedback can reduce energy by 15–30%; and
  • involving employees, because they can share their experience of actual working conditions.

The following waste reduction programmes are important:

  • source separation of waste to derive maximum value;
  • infrastructure for waste reduction and education of occupants;
  • use of local digestors and clean technologies for organic waste streams, including black and grey water;
  • collecting and re-using rainwater locally; and
  • making buildings biodiversity-friendly.

Monitoring and continuous improvement can entail:

  • smart meters and smart buildings, to ensure data is transparent and easily accessible and enable users to assess performance; this reduces energy consumption by 15–30%; and
  • BIM to monitor building health throughout its lifecycle.

Closing the following loops on site, where possible, will also help:

  • organic waste typically comprises 20–30% of total waste, and can be dealt with by biodigestion, heat recovery, mineral extraction, using compost as input for on-site food production or general soil amendment; on-site food production improves user engagement and education;
  • greywater can be recycled for toilets or landscaping;
  • heat recovery through geothermal heat pumps and extracting heat from waste and cooking, as well as building insulation and orientation;
  • sorting and pre-processing waste on the site to maximise recycling and educate users;
  • landscaping for biodiversity and species protection reduces need to use commercial fertilisers;
  • using renewables where possible, such as combined photovoltaics and solar hot water, small-scale biodigestion and battery storage of electricity for emergency back-up, reduces the need to use other fuels, which are typically fossil fuel-based; and
  • 3D printing for on-site manufacturing or re-manufacturing will be possible in the future, cutting down on transport costs and emissions.

Behavioural changes

Wellbeing at work is vital for productivity and staff retention. Current trends include changes in space use such as activity-based work (ABW) stations and decreasing the space per person, which reduces the amount of physical resources required per staff member, thereby reducing environmental footprint. However, ABW layouts can at the same time reduce opportunities for social interaction and collegiality, thereby reducing social sustainability.

Commercial space providers should also consider access to childcare and other user amenities; further measures may include the following:

  • Decentralised access to heating and lighting controls increases productivity as users manage their own environments.
  • Natural ventilation and access to green space is related to good indoor air quality and wellbeing, improving productivity by more than 11%.
  • Natural daylight and views result in productivity increases of 23%, and having windows that can be opened, 18%.
  • A warm greeting for new staff increases productivity by 15% in the first 9 months.
  • Collective goals and incentives to achieve performance targets result in greater levels of teamwork and outputs.
  • Designing for function by focusing lights on working areas is more economic than ambient lighting.
  • Behavioural incentives can be offered, such as shower facilities for cyclists.

Facility Management in a Circular Economy provides more information on these.

Beyond the building

At a district scale, waste management can be integrated into the circular economy; for example, waste collection companies can specialise in processing waste such as textiles, plastics, paper and organic materials, and van Gansewinkel in Rotterdam operates a circularity centre collecting waste for re-use and recycling. Combined heat and power plants can also distribute hot water for heat energy to several buildings.


Compared to the existing, extractive industrial model, the circular economy is restorative and regenerative

Blockchain could also play its part in the circular economy by stamping materials at the point of extraction, and on through production, distribution, use and disposal. For example, plastics used for soft drinks could be tracked from production through filling and vending and then disposal. In the circular economy, these plastics would then be recycled into office furniture, trays, pallets and other products, which can be traced until their final disposal.

Blockchain would thus allow facilities managers to measure and record waste streams in a property, and the data can inform reporting of corporate social responsibility. Other technological innovation that could help promote the circular economy is buildings’ or components’ ability to self-diagnose some maintenance requirements by using sensor technology integrated into BIM.

To wrap up

The benefits of circularity are economic savings, lower greenhouse gas emissions and less waste. To create a circular economy, we need to learn new ways of designing, constructing, retrofitting, maintaining and operating buildings. Facilities management has a key role to play in educating other stakeholders, and blueprints are emerging that will enable facilities managers to operate on a sharing paradigm. It’s time for facilities managers to consider the benefits of going round in circles.

Sara Wilkinson is Associate Professor in the School of Built Environment at the University of Technology Sydney

Further information