Circular transition of affordable housing: Generating Social, Environmental and Economic Value by Design

Research output: ThesisPh.D. thesis

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Extreme weather conditions with significant social consequences are increasingly being experienced worldwide. There is no longer any doubt that they can be traced back to man-made climate change, stemming from the prevailing linear paradigm. Transitioning to a circular economy (CE) is necessary to ensure a sustainable society for future generations.

Within the building and refurbishment industry, CE focuses on achieving economic growth without harming the environment, rather than prioritizing the social aspects, such as inclusion, health, and well-being throughout the lifecycle of buildings. This has become evident in recent years and has led to alternative narratives of 'absolute sustainability' and 'regenerative transition' within which the earth's boundaries are considered in conjunction with social components, emphasizing that a
sustainable society must be environmentally secure as well as socially robust.

Expanding the mindset in the CE is therefore necessary to ensure a coherent transition that does not neglect the social aspects for those who will be living with and off the earth’s resources. The quality of Social Value Creation (SVC) is crucial to ensuring the actual quality for users of the built environment in both environmental and economic respects, provided intra- and interdimensional load-shifting is avoided.

The affordable housing sector is large, publicly supported and an essential part of Denmark's welfare policy, with an inherent social agenda to ensure affordable housing for all. The sector's transition to a CE could bring significant social, environmental, and economic benefits to society, given that the sector comprises 20% of Denmark's homes and houses a million people out of a population of 5.8 million. The affordable housing sector thus constitutes a significant part of the building and refurbishment industry, which is directly and indirectly responsible for approximately 40% of Denmark's greenhouse gas emissions, potentially serving as a driver for a societal transition from a linear economy to a CE.

The fact that affordable-housing organizations build, renovate, and manage their properties is a driving force promoting the shift toward a CE. Such a fundamental understanding of the cyclical dynamics within building and refurbishment processes is crucial for the successful transition of the affordable housing sector to a CE.

Conducting evaluations of social value is also crucial in supporting the transition to a CE within the sector. It is necessary to develop practical tools and methods to assess value creation across the value chain. The architectural profession is playing a crucial role in this effort to transition through its ability to rethink existing systems and ensure social value in the built environment. It is doing this through the design, collection, and management of this knowledge in order to achieve the best possible results and to design a building quality that lasts in the eyes of society, customers, and end-users when quality, time, and economy are crucial.

Nevertheless, the industry still largely adheres to linear paradigms.

This research project charts a course for the transition based on a comprehensive examination of the contextual conditions for the necessary systemic change from a linear economy to a CE for building and refurbishment in Denmark’s affordable housing sector.

The project includes four scientific articles assessing contemporary tools and methods to facilitate the transition that reveal fundamental insights into the challenges and driving forces of the transition.

The conclusion of Article 1, which is a literature review, is that there are still many aspects of the building and refurbishment industry that need to mature for CE to scale up, industrialize, and truly gain momentum. This involves considering the three dimensions of sustainable development in context rather than in silos, thus maturing the understanding and management of the social components of sustainability and adopting a long-term life-cycle perspective. This will entail moving
away from exclusively focusing on the initial costs in the economy of building and refurbishment projects to develop manageable methods and tools to support the transition. Article 1 introduces a circular conceptual model as a framework for considering the life-cycle of the built environment.

The circular process model is discussed in Article 2, which establishes a design for the research project as a whole. Common and applicable phase descriptions of decision-making in the affordable housing sector are integrated into the process model to identify gaps and the efforts needed to support the transition. Perspectives on the challenges of necessary actions and ways to address and develop these are outlined with a focus on preparing practices for CE within the affordable housing sector.

Article 3 explores the architectural profession through questionnaires, looking at its role in supporting the affordable housing sector's transition to a CE. The article concludes that there is a particular need to establish how sustainable value chains play a role in CE and how SVC can be managed for the benefit of environmental and economic value creation in building and refurbishment projects. The article is based on data from dialogues with stakeholders in the construction value chain. The study highlights the architectural profession as a potentially central player in this context, proposes methods for handling SVC, and identifies possible roles for architectural services in the circular process model.

Article 4 discusses existing models of linear processes and their shortcomings compared to the circular process model. Insights from the three previous studies are integrated and contextualized through a series of interviews with affordable housing organizations, organizations within the affordable housing sector, housing architects, and CE specialists. The study concludes that a crucial aspect of supporting a transition to CE (and thus to an ‘absolute sustainable’ and/or ‘regenerative’ economy) in the Danish building and refurbishment industry is to examine how the structural framework currently governing contractual relationships in building and refurbishment projects can alternatively be considered from a circular life-cycle perspective. For example, a circular framework could become a systemic foundation for promoting the industrialization and scaling up of CE practices within the building and refurbishment industry. Social Commissioning, understood as a process that supports SVC through inclusion, dialogue, and reflection throughout a project's entire lifespan, and Post-Occupancy Evaluation are introduced as tools to support the building and refurbishment industry and the transition of the affordable housing sector.

Through these studies and analyses of the affordable housing sector and the architectural profession, it can be argued that a transition to a CE requires radical change in how building and refurbishment are perceived in the value chain. The building and refurbishment of affordable housing should be considered from a life-cycle perspective that takes into account use, operation and reuse, conditions for planning, collaboration models, performance descriptions, and schedules in the affordable housing sector's and architectural profession's decision-making processes and practices. This is put forward as an alternative to isolated building and refurbishment projects that pay no attention to coherency, use, application, or strategic development.

Data and knowledge have been established through the four studies, enabling the development of a decision-making framework that integrates CE principles into the affordable housing sector, which, with adjustments, can be applied to the building and refurbishment industry as a whole.

Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • University of Southern Denmark
  • Tollin, Nicola, Supervisor
  • Birkved, Morten, Supervisor
External participants
Date of defence8. Mar 2024
Publication statusPublished - 28. Feb 2024


  • Circular economy
  • Affordable housing
  • Social value
  • architecture profession


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