Toulouse reconstructs circular construction

Everything was rosy for Simon Desrumaux before the deal collapsed. For the founder of Metamo, a company in Toulouse that repurposes used metal, the airport warehouse was an irresistible proposition: “The warehouse was about 200 square metres, entirely made of metal and only 20 years old. They had to get rid of it because their lease on the land was up, and the contract said that they would leave the site empty, as they had received it.”

As negotiations began, Desrumaux moved his team in to conduct scans of the building and construct a 3D digital replica, which they used to plan and analyse the deconstruction technique. They had to account for every rivet and beam and consider the order and method of removing each piece of the warehouse to avoid causing damage and ensure that the building didn’t collapse on their heads while they were working on it. “The team needs to know exactly what part to dismantle, one before the other – it’s extremely technical,” Desrumaux emphasises.

Potential… and failure

At the same time, Metamo met with buyers interested in using the metal for new buildings. “The warehouse was so big and so new, you could easily make four new buildings from the material,” Desrumaux recalls. Manufacturing metal is an extremely environmentally intensive process – emitting something like 12.95 tonnes of CO2 for a structure of that size, without even counting the emissions from mining and transport of the raw materials, as well as many other hazardous chemicals. Four brand new steel buildings constructed without smelting any metal would represent an enormous win for the environment.

You could easily make four new buildings from the material
— Simon Desrumaux

That is why it was so heart-wrenching when the deal fell through. “It’s much more difficult, legally speaking, to reuse materials than it is to scrap and recycle them,” Desrumaux says, “the legal and administrative framework is just much more complex.” In this case, a lack of documentation retained from the initial construction of the building meant that it would be impossible to guarantee its integrity for reuse.

“It had such a huge potential, but in the end, we couldn’t do anything. It was such a pity,” Desrumaux laments. Instead, the metal was sent for recycling, a process of re-melting and re-casting that, while certainly better than landfill, still emits more than half the amount of CO2 that making the metal brand new would require. “Yeah, that was really a pity…” Desrumaux repeats once more.

Local government on the case

Toulouse Metropole, the local government of Toulouse Metropolitan Area, recognizes the enormous environmental potential of the circular economy, in particular, the reuse of building materials. For that reason, it is working with local companies like Metamo to learn from incidents like the one described above and spearhead a regulatory and cultural shift towards reuse. To achieve this, Toulouse Metropole is coordinating the EU-funded Life Waste2Build project to address the pressing need for sustainability in construction.

Historically burdened by a linear “take, make, dispose” model, the construction industry has faced increasing scrutiny over its environmental footprint, characterized by substantial waste production, resource consumption, and greenhouse gas emissions. The project’s genesis was an experimental deconstruction of the Toulouse Exhibition Centre, embodying a decisive shift towards sustainable practices.

If successful, Life Waste2Build could dramatically transform the construction sector’s impact on the planet. Its goals include a 20% reduction in the sector’s resource consumption and waste production and recycling 85% of waste within the Toulouse Metropolitan Area. One of the resources that Toulouse Metropole will employ is its public procurement, ensuring that 80% of the contracts it issues incorporate circular economy criteria. That means that if your company wants to do construction work for the city, you must figure out how to incorporate reused material into your work. This is intended not only to slash greenhouse gas emissions but also to create significant employment opportunities in the green construction sector.

It would be better to have a more circular economy, both for environmental impact and for creating jobs as well.
— Jérémie Bernard

Jérémie Bernard, Project Coordinator of Life Waste2Build for Toulouse Metropole’s Department of Economic Action, underscores the initiative’s foundational ethos: “An initial study clearly demonstrated that it would be better to have a more circular economy, both for environmental impact and for creating jobs as well.” Toulouse’s vision crystallised into a strategy that fosters circular interactions among enterprises, leverages local resources for metropolitan construction, and champions eco-design, repair, and reuse.

Collaborative effort

As noted, the project uses public procurement as a catalyst for promoting the use of second-life materials in construction, renovation, and landscaping. Construction companies that take on municipal contracts must undergo a rigorous process of cataloguing available materials, followed by classifying them according to potential reuse.

“We’ve got six partners…and Toulouse Metropole is the coordinator,” Bernard explains. This ensemble includes a diverse array of stakeholders, from scientific and educational institutions to industry organisations, pooling a total budget of €2,757,841 with 55% co-financing from the EU. By engaging all these different types of organisations, Toulouse ensures that its approach is workable from an industry point of view, rigorous from a scientific perspective, and beneficial for the civic community.

It is not easy, a lot of barriers exist every day and on everything.
— Jérémie Bernard

As Desrumaux’s experience demonstrates, engaging the circular economy comes with plenty of challenges, which Life Waste2Build seeks to confront. These range from navigating regulatory landscapes to the practicalities of material reuse. Indeed, the city has been beset by challenges in its own circularity efforts. “It is not easy,” Bernard candidly confesses, “a lot of barriers exist every day and on everything.”

Nonetheless, experimenting with this approach has also given the metropolitan administration crucial insights and allowed it to circumvent obstacles with creative solutions, such as a digital platform to facilitate resource exchange. It has also highlighted a skills gap that has the potential to unlock green jobs locally.

As such, Toulouse is working with its academic and industry partners to launch comprehensive training programmes designed to equip professionals and students with the necessary skills for this new paradigm. “We’re even training students to build a tiny house with 100% reused materials, which is quite exciting,” Bernard says.

Proof and possibility

A mere two and a half years into its journey, Life Waste2Build has already made great strides, engaging 58 work sites in circular economy activities. “We’ve already demonstrated a clear business case for the reuse of roofing materials – there’s a proven gain there for both buyer and seller, and we can share this evidence with local companies,” Bernard says.  Toulouse Metropole is carefully tracking the environmental and economic savings, as well as related metrics like job creation, for each of these sites.

These new practices generate new jobs and require new skills
— Juliette Simonnetto

Central to the project’s ethos is the belief in empowering a new generation through education, says Juliette Simonnetto, General Secretary at the French Institute of Circular Economy, “These new practices generate new jobs and require new skills to control the materials that will be reused.” The training component of Life Waste2Build does not just focus on students and construction sector employees but also targets local unemployed people seeking to reorient their career paths towards a growing industry.

Industry insight

Desrumaux’s experience with Metamo, including the company’s many successful operations, has plenty of lessons he shares with the municipal administration and other stakeholders. The first is something that Toulouse is already keenly aware of the importance of collaboration for success. “Our partnership with a local demolition company has been a game-changer,” he explains. “It allows us to pinpoint in advance valuable metal pieces for repurposing, ensuring that these resources are given a second life in new industrial processes.”

I could see we had a lot of reusable building materials, especially metal, but a lack of specialised buyers.
— Simon Desrumaux

There is also no shame in gaining insight and inspiration from elsewhere. Desrumaux says his idea for the company first came from learning about how metal is reused in Northern Europe. “I was motivated to advance these practices in our region,” he says, “as I could see we had a lot of reusable building materials, especially metal, but a lack of specialised buyers.”

Together with Toulouse Metropole, Desrumaux believes that the central challenges can be identified and overcome. Looking at the regulatory landscape, Desrumaux emphasises the importance of stringent regulations and enforcement to encourage the reuse of materials. “While regulatory initiatives, guidelines and regulations are steps in the right direction, enforcement and compliance remain challenges,” he points out, “at the moment, though there are regulations on reuse, there is not enough effort to check if people are really following these.”

A new old approach

However, despite these teething issues, Bernard sees the future as bright. “Local companies are becoming more interested, especially when we talk about local examples where it has been successful,” he says. “They are eager to try it themselves, knowing that this project will support them in this new approach.”

Every site is a new adventure
— Jérémie Bernard

With keen insight, Bernard notes that the circular economy is not just about old materials but also old methods: “We’re not used to this approach of reuse,” he says, “but in the past, it was a common practice.” He is convinced that Toulouse will successfully inculcate this ‘new old practice’ across its sectors and stakeholders. “It will become easier over time;” he says, assuredly, “for now, every site is a new adventure because every material has its history.”

Anthony Colclough Eurocities Writer