Restored exterior of Shrewsbury Flaxmill Maltings
Restored exterior of Shrewsbury Flaxmill Maltings (Grade I listed Main Mill and Grade II listed Kiln) © Historic England Archive DP325209
Restored exterior of Shrewsbury Flaxmill Maltings (Grade I listed Main Mill and Grade II listed Kiln) © Historic England Archive DP325209

Heritage in a Circular Economy

Part of the Heritage Counts series. Over 10 minute read. 

Today, the UK has one of the oldest housing stocks in Europe (Nicol et al, 2016). In England, 21% of all domestic buildings and 32% of all non-domestic buildings were constructed prior to 1919 (VOA, 2023; Whitman et al, 2016).

Historic assets were built largely from locally sourced natural materials, that underwent minimal processing compared to their modern counterparts (Heritage Counts, 2020; The Conservation, 2017). This historic environment also embodies significant amounts of carbon, often expended centuries ago, in pre-industrial, low energy environments (Pender et al, 2020), and this feature needs to be taken into consideration when discussing carbon emissions and energy efficiency. Their continued existence attests to the quality and durability of their materials and methods of construction.

They also bear witness to the adaptability of heritage and the value of regular repair, maintenance and restoration. This type of work enables these assets to remain in productive use, continuing to serve the evolving needs of past, present and future generations.

The circular economy reinforces the core principles of heritage conservation

Conservation is defined as the process of maintaining and managing change in a way that sustains and (where appropriate) enhances the significance of the heritage asset (Historic England, 2019).

  • Heritage conservation involves the careful consideration of the opportunities for renewal, repair, restoration, alteration, and reversibility; while also focusing on reconciling the protection of the historic environment with the economic and social needs and aspirations of the people who live in it (Historic England, 2008)

While there is no single accepted definition of a circular economy, McCarthy et al (2018) suggest that:

  • A circular economy may be described through its characteristics, which are: an emphasis on increased product repair and remanufacturing, increased material recycling, waste minimisation, a drive to design for longevity,  an upsurge in product re-use and repair, augmented material productivity, optimised asset utilisation, and a shift in consumer behaviour (Ekins et al, 2019)
  • A circular economy emphasises the use of renewable, non-toxic, non-polluting and biodegradable materials with the least life-cycle impacts. These key features of a circular economy resonate with the guiding principles of heritage conservation

Nevertheless, the circular economy and conservation are often seen as problematic and difficult to reconcile with the prevailing approaches to the built environment.

In a linear economic system, limited resources are allocated with the aim of satisfying limitless preferences justifying the unlimited expansion of production. While most economic models recognise that Nature is capable only of producing a finite flow of goods and services, the core focus has been on how technological advancements can, in principle, overcome that exhaustibility (Dasgupta, 2021). It assumes that all types of capital, including natural capital, can be substituted by one another (Martins, 2016) and that, ultimately, humanity is ‘external’ to Nature (Dasgupta, 2021).

In a linear economy the pursuit of economic prosperity is almost exclusively associated with economic growth and accumulating produced and human capital. Indeed, estimates show that between 1992 and 2014, produced capital per person doubled while human capital per person increased by about 13% globally (Dasgupta, 2021). However, in this same period, the stock of natural capital per person declined by nearly 40% (Dasgupta, 2021). Evidence increasingly indicates that the global economy is bounded (there are fixed limits), and inclusive wealth can only increase if and only if aggregate consumption is less than net domestic product (NDP), that is, GDP less the depreciation of all capital assets (Dasgupta, 2021).

“… [we] need to contemplate Earth as a closed economic system: one in which the economy and environment are not characterised by linear interlinkages, but by a circular relationship. Everything is an input into everything else.” (Pearce and Turner, 1990)

The linear economic paradigm was called into question, however, it was not until 1990 that it was first is fully defined and described in economic terms by Pearce and Turner, who conceptualised a circular rather than a linear model. (Ekins et al, 2019). Over subsequent decades, a growing body of literature from various disciplines has emerged developing the concept and influencing our present understanding and interpretation of the circular economy (Rizos et al, 2017).

The Ellen MacAuthur Foundation offers perhaps the most cited definition of the circular economy: “A circular economy is an industrial system that is restorative or regenerative by intention and design. … It replaces the 'end-of-life’ concept with restoration, shifts towards the use of renewable energy, eliminates the use of toxic chemicals, which impair reuse, and aims for the elimination of waste through the superior design of materials, products, systems, and, within this, business models.” (Ellen MacArthur Foundation, 2013). This school of thought begins with the observation that the linear economy is hugely wasteful: most of the value in materials we produce is lost to landfills, and the things we make are consistently under-utilised (Ellen MacArthur Foundation, 2017). The 3 core principles of this circular system are:

  • Eliminate waste and pollution
  • Circulate products and materials
  • Regenerate nature

Heritage conservation delivers to each of these principles.

Our current economic approach to the built environment is linear

Construction contributes to resource depletion through the vast consumption of natural resources and the generation of immense waste (Eberhardt et al, 2019).  These practices contribute to a considerable portion of the environmental impacts induced by the demands of a growing world population (Eberhardt et al, 2019).

Progress remains broadly insufficient to ensure that the buildings sector reaches zero emissions by 2050.

Climate Change Committee (CCC), 2023
  • Buildings remain the UK’s second highest carbon emitting sector, accounting for 76 MtCO2e or 17% of total UK emissions in 2022 (CCC, 2023). These exclude emissions from construction, transportation or waste – the so-called embodied carbon emissions, and materials manufactured outside the UK. Including these emissions vastly increases the extent of emissions from the built environment. UKGBC estimate that embodied carbon from the construction and refurbishment of buildings constitutes 20% of built environment emissions (UKGBC, 2021). If surface transport is added to the greenhouse gases emissions from buildings and infrastructure, the UK carbon footprint from the built environment reaches 42% (UKGBC, 2021)
  • Manufacturing of most building materials demands vast material and energy resources (Eberhardt et al, 2019). Post-demolition, these materials are largely either down-cycled or end up as waste. For example, construction, demolition and excavation generated over half (54%) of total UK waste in 2020 (DEFRA, 2023). Consequently, only a minimal fraction of the potential economic value and durability of building materials are exploited. For example, more than 83% of the cement produced in the UK is used in buildings (Moncaster et al, 2022), yet cement production is a highly carbon-intensive process responsible for 5% to 7% of global greenhouse gas emissions (Sizirici et al, 2021)

It is widely recognised in both the linear and circular economy that there is a pressing need to improve resource efficiency, and this need will increase in parallel with the escalating demands of a growing population (Eberhardt et al, 2019).

Parallel efforts must be made to both reduce demand for new buildings and new materials, through improved material efficiency, judicious material choices, re-use and circularity; and accelerate industrial decarbonisation of key construction material supply chains (UKGBC, 2021).

In 2022, for example, 2.5 Gt CO2 were associated with buildings construction, which included the processing and manufacturing of cement, steel, and aluminium for buildings construction (IEA, 2023).

Towards a circular economy for the built environment

The precise meaning of a “transition to a circular economy” varies across the current literature but tends to involve reduced demand for certain natural resources, and the materials that are derived from them (McCarthy, 2018). 

The built environment has been identified as 1 of 5 key areas where there are significant opportunities to reduce carbon emissions by implementing the principles of the circular economy (Ellen MacArthur Foundation, 2017; Gravagnuolo et al, 2019). A circular built environment is one where waste is designed out of the building’s lifecycle, materials are kept in use at their highest value for as long as possible, and natural systems are integrated into buildings (and are regenerated) (Ellen MacArthur Foundation, 2022). 

Development of the UK building stock requires a focus on driving the circular economy, developing the second second-hand materials markets and increasing re-use.

UKGBC, 2021

In the context of the built historic environment, a circular economy, in its most basic form, would seek to prioritise historic and existing assets, to capitalise on their inherent embodied energy and existing materials (Foster and Kreinin, 2020). This approach would decrease demand for new goods (and virgin materials), endorse the use of secondary raw materials in production, expand/develop a secondary sector, encourage durability and repair and maintenance, and expand a sharing and service economy (McCarthy et al, 2018).

According to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation:

European GDP could increase as much as 11% by 2030 and 27% by 2050 in a circular scenario, compared with 4% and 15% in the current development scenario, driven by increased consumption due largely to correcting market and regulatory lock-ins that prevent many inherently profitable circular opportunities from materialising. Thus, in a circular scenario, GDP could grow with 7 percentage points more by 2030 than the current development path and could increase the difference to 12 percentage points by 2050 (Ellen MacArthur Foundation, 2015: 33).

Implementing the principles of the circular economy in the built environment

The principles of the circular economy can be positioned within existing frameworks used to assess emissions from the built environment.

The British Standards Institution publishes standards and provides a range of books, self-assessment tools, conferences and training services for multiple sectors including construction and buildings.

British Standard (BS) publications are technical specifications or practices that can be used as guidance for the production of a product, carrying out a process or providing a service.

Publicly available specifications (PAS) are fast-tracking standards, specifications, codes of practice or guidelines developed by sponsoring organisations, under the guidance of BSI, to meet an immediate market need. Within 2 years, they are reviewed to assess whether they should be revised, withdrawn, or whether they should become formal British Standards or international standards.

ISO’s (International Standard Organisation) are international standards intended to be used throughout the world. EN-ISO’s are intended to be used throughout the European Union. BS-EN-ISO’s are published as Britain adopts EN-ISO’s. Sustainability standards, with a specific focus on a circular economy, are being developed at the country and global levels by a number of organizations including ISO, through its technical committee ISO/TC 323. The first drafts of the standards of the 59000 series are available here:

Source: BSI; ISO

British and European standards BS EN 15978 (2011) (for buildings) and BS EN 15804+A2 (2019) (for products) specify the calculation methods, to assess the environmental performance for whole life carbon assessments and the generation of Environmental Product Declarations (EPD)2 [1]. EN 17472 (2022) support impact assessments at the infrastructure level.

These standards divide the building lifecycle into modules that share common characteristics used to estimate the performance of buildings and building components and they define what is to be measured and included:

  • Modules A0-A5: upfront carbon emissions -making the products and constructing buildings
  • Modules B1-B8: in-use carbon emissions - operating, maintaining and refurbishing buildings
  • Modules C1-C4: end-of-life impact, including deconstruction, demolition or reuse
  • Module D1-D2: the recovery potential benefits and loads of buildings & products via reuse and recycling

(RICS, 2023)

Module D (in combination with module C3) is essentially the ‘circular economy’ module (GLA, 2020). Since July 2022, module D is mandated under European Standard BS EN 15804 (2019).

The principles of the circular economy require that the emissions from buildings be tackled over the whole life of those buildings (including demolition and reuse) meaning:

  • A shift from the linear ‘cradle to gate’ (modules A0-A3) or ‘cradle to grave’ (modules A0-C4) towards ‘cradle to cradle’ approaches
  • A ‘cradle-to-cradle’ approach aims to recover and regenerate all building materials and structures at the end of their lives [2], products to use in new production (Gravagnuolo et al, 2019)

Today, much of the focus on climate change mitigation in the built environment follows a traditional sustainability approach, which focuses on reducing or eliminating the negative environmental impact of human activity (Hansen et al, 2018). In buildings, this has meant focusing almost entirely on in-use energy consumption and emissions (the so-called operational emissions) from stages B6, B7 (and B8), with the remaining modules largely ignored (Environmental Audit Committee, 2022). In this approach, the priority is on fabric energy efficiency measures (for example, insulation) and heat decarbonisation technologies (for example, heat pumps) to reduce tackle emissions from buildings.

There remains a lack of focus on the in-use emissions of the building lifecycle (Modules B2 maintenance, B2 repair, B4 replacement and B5 refurbishment). Yet timely repair and maintenance of buildings can generate substantial energy and emission savings and should be considered as a resource (Sullivan et al, 2010). The lifespans of buildings need to be underpinned by regular and continued maintenance (Hertwich et al, 2019). Unlike embodied emissions, repair and maintenance remain a low priority/undervalued in the broader conversation of climate change mitigation, even within the circular economy literature (Rizos et al, 2017).

A ‘whole building approach’ is the most effective approach to a circular economy

A ‘whole building approach’ identifies the overall best combined opportunities for reducing lifetime emissions from buildings by seeking to understand the building in its context and taking into account all the factors affecting energy use (Historic England, 2018). This includes the building’s location and orientation; design and fabric; services and equipment; and the building occupants.

  • A ‘whole building approach’ can meet the combined objectives of increasing energy efficiency and sustaining significance in heritage assets, while avoiding unintended consequences that can arise when focusing on operational emissions alone (Historic England, 2020; RICS, 2023). It ensures improvements are suitable, proportionate, timely, well-integrated, properly coordinated, effective and sustainable. 'PAS 2080:2023 Carbon Management in Buildings and Infrastructure' includes revised guidance setting out how the sector can transition to net zero by 2050 by managing and reducing whole life carbon in buildings and infrastructure
  • A whole building approach acknowledges that improving the energy efficiency of a historic building relies not only on technical application but also on building owners, managers and occupants, and their engagement and communication (Historic England,2020). Evidence indicates that occupant centred interventions aimed at reducing energy waste and carbon emissions can result in energy savings ranging from 5% to 45% (Raslan et al, 2020)

In addition, a whole building approach considers the importance of adequate human resources (knowledge, skills and experience) and timescales required to implement energy efficiency measures. Read more about this in our Heritage and Carbon skills report.

A whole building approach is also better suited to considering a more holistic response to climate change for buildings that takes into account both climate change mitigation [3] and climate change adaptation, which is outside the scope of this edition of Heritage Counts but will feature in future editions.


  1. An Environmental Product Declaration, or EPD, is a document which transparently communicates the environmental performance or impact of any product or material over its lifetime. EPDs are a type of environmental label which provide is independently verified environmental information about a product.
  2. The “waste hierarchy” ranks waste management options according to what is best for the environment. It gives top priority to preventing waste in the first place. When waste is created, it gives priority to preparing it for re-use, then recycling, then recovery, and last of all disposals (e.g. landfill).
  3. Climate change mitigation involves taking action to increase energy efficiency and sustainability. Improving these will reduce the emission of greenhouse gases and heighten our ability to manage additional mean global temperature rise. Adaptation means anticipating the adverse effects of climate change and taking appropriate action to prevent or minimise the damage they can cause. Early action will build in safeguards that will help to protect heritage around the country.


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