What is the future of reuse in construction ?

On February 10 2020, France enacted the law on the circular economy and on its fight against waste (la loi relative à la lutte contre le gaspillage et à l’économie circulaire). This law aims to promote reuse in the construction sector, which today represents 14% of waste production in France.

Why do we urge to accelerate the development of reuse in the building sector ? What are the obstacles and opportunities for the reuse of construction materials? What are successful examples of buildings constructed through reuse? Find ou in this article!

Among the measures, two new very concrete provisions are included :

  • The obligation to carry out a “waste diagnosis before demolition” for lighter rehabilitation projects, giving priority to the reuse of materials rather than its recovery.
  • The facilitation of the storage and the reuse of materials, products from rehabilitation or demolition projects by no longer giving them a waste status if an operator has previously checked them.


Recycling, reuse or reutilisation[1]?

In order to understand the relevance of reuse in the circular economy, it is important to define what this concept means, as it may be confusing.

  • According to article L541-1-1 of the Environment Code, the term “reuse” refers to an operation whereby used materials are directly given to a structure whose purpose is reuse and are used again for a use identical to the use that they were designed.
  • “Reutilisation” refers to used materials that are disposed of by the holder without going directly to a structure for reuse and are used again, with or without diversion from their original purpose. It may therefore involve a light processing operation on the product (e.g. checking, cleaning or repairing it).

Reuse and reutilisation therefore have the advantage of extending the lifespan of products and consequently reducing its ecological footprint. In fact, they do not involve any heavy transformation of the product, unlike recycling, which require a reprocessing of the product in substance. But in practice, what is the situation in the building sector in terms of reuse in France?

The slow development of the reuse of building materials

By adopting the law on the transition to green growth (la loi relative à la transition pour la croissance verte: LTECV) in July 2015, France has set itself the objective of recovering 70% of construction and public works waste by 2020. Still, today’s results are not satisfying : material recovery in the building and public works sector varies greatly depending on the activities, and the building sector is less advanced on this subject, with 67% of waste recovered. Moreover, material recovery covers methods of waste treatment that are unequally considered as a virtuous process for the environment, among which the most sober are still the least developed today. In fact, when 32% of inert waste from buildings was recycled or used for backfilling, only 14.3% was reused or reutilised, according to the reportentitled Wastes key-figures from the ADEME published in March 2019 (see figure below).

Reuse barriers and opportunities

A major consultation was carried out at the beginning of 2019 with project owners and architects working in the PACA region (South of France) to identify their practices and perceptions in terms of eco-design, reuse and waste reduction. This report, entitled BATIFLUX3, identifies the 3 major obstacles perceived by architects in this field:

  • The lack of knowledge of the project owners on the concepts and methods of implementation of materials resulting from reuse and eco-design.
  • The problem of insurability and the regulatory constraints due, in particular, to the heterogeneous and non-standard nature of the products resulting from reuse and reutilisation.
  • The additional costs of materials due to the absence of a structured economic sector on the territory and that the clients do not want to assume.

Nevertheless, the same report also described the motivations of the actors of the building industry in this region to turn to reuse. This study underlines the many advantages of reuse:

  • The economic benefit related to the lower cost of certain reusable materials or savings in waste reprocessing.
  • The heritage or aesthetic value of the reused materials.
  • Ecological convictions.

There is also a deep willingness to engage the actors in this niche of reuse. Indeed, 77% of architects say they are ready to position themselves on markets that include circular economy clauses. The opportunities for reuse are therefore real. Let us now look at examples of projects where they have been tried and tested.


Focus on construction projects that are precursors in terms of reuse and reutilisation

Innovative reuse building projects have been launched in France by pioneering players in the field. The ActLab, designed and carried by the Bellastock experimental architecture firm, is a project of four buildings co-constructed by Plaine Commune and Plaine Commune Développement over the period 2012-2017, then demolished in 2019. Actlab was a platform for experimentation, a demonstrator of reuse architecture and equipment but also the research centre supported the publication of the two Bellastock REPAR reports on the circular economy in design and construction of building.

One of the four buildings coming out (again) of the ground, called La Base Vie, was built using more than 70% reused materials. Among other things, fire doors from surplus stocks were reused for the floor, and plywood from Parisian exhibition stands was used for the walls and partitions.

Although the Actlab buildings were ephemeral, the project shows that reuse can be technically reliable and architecturally insurable.

Public procurement can be a powerful lever being forward-looking in terms of reuse and reutilisation. The construction project of a nursery in the 20th arrondissement of Paris perfectly illustrates this precursory role. The building, designed by the architectural firm BFV Architects, is made of solid oak facades entirely composed of recovered and transformed landing doors. In this particular case, the reutilisation made it possible to integrate solid oak into the project, an expensive material that could not have been used otherwise.

These projects highlight the fact that reuse and reutilisation are first and foremost a matter of opportunity, availability and local outlets for second-hand materials. Actors must therefore change their paradigm and design projects according to the resources available in a perimeter around the reuse or reutilisation project. Green Soluce, committed to the circular economy applied to construction and aware of the latest practices in this field, is ready to support you in all your reuse and reutilisation projects.

[1] In French, there are two different words to translate reuse. For the needs of this article, we will use “reuse” as the translated term of “réemploi” and “reutilisation” as the translated term of “réutilisation”.


Written by Samuel Remy for Urban Chronicles™.

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