The circular economy is based on three principles: the elimination of waste and pollution, the circulation of products and materials, and the regeneration of nature.

Despite sustainability being a priority in engineering design for decades, efforts have typically targeted improvements in pollution, energy efficiency and renewable energy.

This means that the construction industry’s traditionally linear model of material extraction, manufacturing, construction, and demolition has remained the dominant lifecycle. However, the European Green Deal targets climate neutrality by 2050. This is far more ambitious than the previous percentage improvements of the EU 20-20-20.  

The transition to a circular economy is a prerequisite to achieve net zero, as outlined in the circular economy action plan. According to the European Commission, the built environment is responsible for 50% of all extracted material and the construction sector is responsible for more than 35% of the EU’s total waste generation.

It is therefore certain that we will see many further efforts and more detailed legislation in this sector over the coming years to facilitate the transition to a circular built environment.

Opportunities in engineering education

The built environment has two key challenge areas: how to deal with redundant, linearly designed buildings and infrastructure at their end of life now, and second, how to embed circularity principles in future designs. However, we are somewhat in the dark regarding best practice, and are closer to the demonstration or pilot project stage of the transition with many legal, procedural, knowledge and informational barriers to widescale adoption.

Furthermore, the transition to a circular economy requires a pressing need for new skills and competences. Undergraduate engineers should be equipped with the key skills and knowledge to apply circular thinking in their future careers. However, to date there is very limited literature disseminating the lessons learnt introducing the concept of the circular economy in the engineering curriculum.  

So where can we turn for guidance? The Ellen MacArthur Foundation provides general teaching resources, as well as construction-specific reports such as ‘Accelerating the circular economy through commercial deconstruction and reuse’ and ‘First Steps Towards a Circular Built Environment’. The latter document lists areas where a circular built environment will differ to today, including the critical design considerations of:

  1. Human health and wellbeing
  2. Systems thinking
  3. Digital technology
  4. Holistic urban planning
  5. Continuous material cycles
  6. Design for maintenance and deconstruction
  7. Flexible productive buildings, and
  8. Integrated infrastructure systems.

It is from this list that opportunities in education can emerge, such as material selection and design for reuse, repair, remanufacturing and recycling.

Circularity in existing teaching

Many important tools that aid in achieving circularity are already being taught in engineering and built environment programmes, such as retrofit, and digitisation. However, as identified in the TU Dublin Structural Engineering Le Cheile project, students are not necessarily aware of how course content or learning outcomes relate to sustainability.

Therefore, as a first step, educators can examine their programmes to identify circular economy content and ensure that they explain the association to students.

Of course, circular design is likely to have already trickled down into the curriculum to some degree via industry collaboration, and research which lecturing staff may be involved in.

TU Dublin’s new Bio- and Circular Economies Research Group (Bio-CERG)(1) was initiated out of civil and structural engineering in early 2022, and has already grown into a collaborative interdisciplinary group with almost 40 staff members across the university.  

Final-year projects in civil and structural programmes are becoming more sustainability focused year on year. Timber, recycled aggregate, and hempcrete projects are starting to outnumber traditional concrete or steel. This is largely due to supervisor involvement in research in these areas.

For example, the DAFM funded SAOLWood project examines Irish wood construction products and has directly influenced the design of four undergraduate projects this year.

Engineers Ireland introduced ‘Sustainability’ as one of the seven necessary accreditation programme areas in 2021, specifically suggesting that students be taught about the circular economy. This has resulted in many programmes undergoing a review of how the new criteria is, or could be, addressed.

At TU Dublin we introduced a new sustainability module into the Civil and Structural degree programmes this year. It includes circularity-based topics of design for reuse, timber design, biodiversity, and circularity principals for buildings.

Because circularity has not yet been fully incorporated into engineering practice, it can be particularly challenging for educators to find ideal examples. This is why the sustainability module makes use of experts in the field to present several case studies and workshops.

Engineers of the future

There remains the question, should engineering educators really impart all knowledge that students might need far into their future careers? Skill based competencies can set graduates up for a variety of future challenges.

One TU Dublin EU Erasmus+ project(2) has identified several key competencies to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals, much of which are also required to achieve a circular economy, including holistic thinking, social responsibility and collaboration. Another of our EU Erasmus+ projects, TRAINengPDP(3), aims to prepare students for lifelong learning in their future career. 

Given the uncertainty of what a circular future might look like, lifelong learning skills will allow the graduate to continuously update and upskill their competencies, to keep pace with changing technology and shifting requirements.

Lastly, it is not a question of who should lead the transition, but rather how can we all contribute. It has been commonly agreed that a triple-helix model should be applied in the implementation of transformative policy such as this.

It requires multilevel collaboration between industry, academia and government to ensure saturation of principals into every facet of society. Education is critical for fostering the change not just in knowledge and skills, but also in values required to achieve such a paradigm shift.

Author: Dr Aimee Byrne is a lecturer in civil and structural engineering and head of the Bio- and Circular Economies Research Group (Bio-CERG) at TU Dublin. 



2) BEAGON, U.  et al. Preparing engineering students for the challenges of the SDGs: what competences are required? European Journal of Engineering Education, p. 1-23, 2022.