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Towards a Socially Inclusive Circular Economy: A Study of Tenant Engagement in European Social Housing Organisations

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Chapter 4 in "Social and Cultural Aspects of the Circular Economy: Toward Solidarity and Inclusivity" Ed. Viktor Pál, Routledge, 2022. ISBN 9781032185804
Chapter 4
Towards a Socially Inclusive Circular Economy:
A Study of Tenant Engagement in European Social
Housing Organisations
Halima Sacranie1* and Sultan Çetin2
1 Housing and Communities Research Group, CHASM, University of Birmingham, Birmingham,
United Kingdom
2 Management in the Built Environment, Faculty of Architecture and the Built Environment, Delft
University of Technology, Julianalaan 134, 2628 BL Delft, The Netherlands
* Correspondence:
Chapter Overview
The concept of the Circular Economy (CE) draws on sustainability literature with its Triple
Bottom Line framework of planet, profit and people (Merli, Preziosi, and Acampora 2018).
This resonates with the underlying philosophy of CE, which implies “not only a change in the
way of managing resources and business but also a modification of social interrelations”
(Ellen Macarthur Foundation, 2015). However, literature on CE focuses predominantly on its
economic and environmental benefits, while its social impacts remain unexplored (Kirchherr
et al, 2017; Merli et al, 2017; Geissdoerfer et al, 2017). Social housing organisations (SHOs)
are by definition social-purpose driven and therefore ideal candidates to explore the
neglected ‘people’ dimension of CE. Circular SHOs have the potential to create social impact
in a number of ways. Improving their financial performance and resource efficiency ultimately
strengthens the social housing sector and allows more housing investment into socio-
economically disadvantaged communities. CE can change household attitudes towards
embracing a more sustainable mode of dwelling and lifestyle, with added health and well-
being benefits. The social impact focus of this study is the role of tenant engagement and
how this can help foster a socially inclusive and collaborative CE model drawing on principles
around social innovation and the social and solidarity economy.
Through case studies of four circular social housing projects in the Netherlands, France,
Belgium and the UK respectivelyi, this paper addresses the missing social aspect of CE
(Murray et al, 2017) by exploring the role of tenants and tenant engagement in circular social
housing. A multiple-case study method is adopted using questionnaires, documentary
analysis and interviews with the four circular SHOs, providing an opportunity to undertake
comparative research across different organisational scales and countries.
The research findings reveal different approaches to how circularity is adopted in social
housing, how SHOs understand and frame the social impact of their CE projects, and a range
of tenant engagement models, from ‘business-as-usual’ to ‘new circular engagement,’ within
existing organizational structures.
4.1. Introduction
Cities worldwide face significant socioeconomic and climate change-related challenges, which
have become even more evident with the impacts of the coronavirus pandemic. Growing
urban populations, inadequate housing supply and other context-specific problems reduce
accessibility to affordable housing, putting millions of lower-income households at risk.
According to the recent State of Housing in Europe report, 1.1 million affordable homes are
needed in England alone, and around 700,000 people are homeless, sleeping rough or in
temporary locations across the European Union (EU) (Housing Europe 2021). As a response,
most European countries set objectives to build new affordable homes, e.g. France is
investing in around 110,000 new social housing units (Housing Europe 2021). However, a
critical question remains how to construct these much-needed homes without damaging the
natural environment.
The construction sector typically operates in a linear production-consumption system and has
an enormous impact on the environment. The system inputs are significant in volume as the
industry uses around 50% of raw materials (Herczeg et al. 2014) and consumes around 40%
of total energy (European Commission 2020) for the production and operation of buildings in
Europe. Similarly, waste and greenhouse gas emissions are created as system outputs, which
account for 35,9% and 36% of all sectors respectively (European Commission 2020; Eurostat
2018). Considering the rising concerns over climate change and the construction sector’s
contribution to it, a radical change is needed in how buildings are produced, function and
An alternative model to address some of these challenges is the Circular Economy (CE). As
opposed to linear production and consumption systems, CE focuses on minimizing resource
inputs and outputs by creating cyclic flows to narrow (resource efficiency), slow (lifetime
extension) and close (recycle waste) resource loops (Bocken et al. 2016). CE derives
conceptually from existing models such as industrial ecology, cradle-to-cradle and the
performance economy. Despite numerous attempts, there is no widely accepted definition of
CE. Perhaps the most popular CE definition is the one proposed by the Ellen MacArthur
Foundation (EMF) (Kirchherr, Reike, and Hekkert 2017), which interprets CE as an industrial
system that is “restorative or regenerative and aims to shift towards using renewable
resources and eliminating toxic chemicals and waste through superior design and business
models” (EMF 2012). The EMF has played a critical role in defining and conceptualizing CE to
decouple economic growth from raw material consumption (EMF 2012) and offers technical
solutions to achieve this grand objective.
As an emerging research topic, CE in the construction industry has predominantly
investigated economic and environmental benefits in building production processes.
Researchers concentrate on recycling or reusing construction and demolition waste, reducing
raw material use, and eliminating waste throughout the lifecycle stages of buildings (Munaro,
Tavares, and Bragança 2020). Such technical approaches focus on the production and end-of-
life phases (e.g. design for disassembly) and overlook social aspects such as wellbeing, equity,
and behaviour change (Murray, Skene, and Haynes 2015). Indeed, the literature purports
that the social dimension of CE is a neglected area, apart from a limited focus on mainly
labour markets, health and safety and participation approaches (Padilla-Rivera, Russo-
Garrido, and Merveille 2020). Geissdoerfer et al. (2017) also argue that CE offers clear
advantages mainly for the economic actors, benefiting the economy and environment while
neglecting explicit benefits for society. Merli, Preziosi, and Acampora (2018) reiterate that CE
research prioritizes environmental sustainability but only marginally considers the social
aspect of the triple bottom line that should constitute the foundation of this sustainable
Other scholars argue that the social objective of CE is the sharing economy where a cultural
shift is expected from being a consumer towards a cooperative and community user of the
physical material capacity (Korhonen, Honkasalo, and Seppälä 2018). Furthermore, Moreau et
al. (2017) stress the essential role of nontechnical, institutional, and social aspects in
developing CE and further propose the social and solidarity economy (SSE) as a means to fill
the elusive social gap of the CE concept. According to the authors, in an SSE,
decisions could be made in terms of what materials should be reduced or reused, or what
materials should be recycled as a priority, toward a common good, regardless of economic
.” (p.503). Such a democratized participative approach appears not to be a priority
in the current implementation of CE in the construction sector.
In this chapter, we explore the neglected social dimension of CE through case studies of four
social housing organisations in Europe, which have undertaken new circular building and
renovation projects. The focus of our investigation is on tenant engagement within these
circular social housing projects, building on the arguments of Moreau et al. (2017) and
considering how models of tenant engagement link to principles around participation,
collaboration and citizenship.
An interesting dimension to this research is that these case study social housing organisations
(SHOs) ii are, by definition, hybrid or third sector organisations with a not-for-profit business
model, providing decent, affordable housing for economically and socially disadvantaged
groups in society. They manage or own significant European housing stock and are
responsible for housing production, regeneration and maintaining a good quality of homes
and neighbourhoods. These organisations, therefore, have an implicit social purpose.
CE principles offer several promising opportunities for SHOs including, improving the
environmental performance of housing production; decreasing dependency on raw materials
and therefore strengthening SHOs’ financial security against rising material prices, allowing
them to build more social homes with the savings or operating surpluses resulting from the
circular management of resources. Thus, there is a strong argument that implementing CE
also has a de facto social impact through any economic or performance improvement for
these social-purpose housing organisations.
However, beyond these inherent social impacts through improved organisational
performance and efficiencies, our research seeks to understand the more direct social
outcomes of circular housing for the people who occupy these homes. We explore, therefore,
changes in the interactions or engagement between the SHOs and their tenants as these
organisations implementing CE strategies take into consideration their tenants’ perspectives
due to the SHOs’ social responsibilities (Eikelenboom, Long, and de Jong 2021). Through our
case studies, we investigate if and how SHOs capture evidence on the social dimensions of CE
as pertaining to their tenants, and how they engage their tenants in these circular projects;
whether these processes remain as business-as-usualor if a new circular engagement
The following sections of this chapter sets out an overview of the current state of CE
implementation in the social housing sector in Europe, explaining our case for investigating
circular social housing and our focus on tenant engagement linked to SSE to consider a
collaborative and socially inclusive CE. The research methodology for this study is outlined
and a brief profile of the case study organisations is provided, before the case study findings
are discussed and outcomes mapped theoretically. The concluding section of this paper
reflects on the evidence presented through the case studies on business-as-usualversus a
new circular engagementand sets out the next steps for this ongoing research.
4.2. Towards a Collaborative and Socially Inclusive Circular Economy in
Social Housing
In the EU, around 76% of the overall building stock comprises residential buildings (European
Commission 2013), of which roughly 9% is managed or owned by SHOs (Housing Europe
2021). The size, definition, and responsibilities of the SHOs vary across Europe. The
Netherlands, Austria and Denmark have the most extensive social housing stock of 29.1%,
24% and 21%, respectively (Housing Europe 2021). In contrast, other EU countries like Greece
do not have a social housing system. Furthermore, there is no universal definition of social
housing as ownership, tenure and allocation, and national policies vary across countries.
Social housing can generally be considered a system that provides long-term housing with
below-market rents to households with limited financial resources, which is usually supported
by public or private subsidies (Granath Hansson and Lundgren, 2018). Public actors or non-
profit SHOs play a crucial role in housing provision. For example, in the Netherlands, SHOs are
independent from the state and act as a non-profit enterprise that pursues social goals
within a strict framework of national laws and regulations by involving local government,
tenants and other stakeholders in their policies and are accountable to society
” (p.3) (AEDES
CE is a new phenomenon in the social housing sector as energy transition and
decarbonisation of the housing stock has been the focal point of attention for environmental
sustainability. Following the EU’s first CE action plan, the CE concept has had a growing
interest within the construction sector, and several SHOs across the EU have started piloting
circular construction projects. According to Çetin et al., the first experimentations of SHOs
concern the development of technical solutions in housing production for resource efficiency,
waste reduction and future re-use of building materials rather than social dimensions or
cultural behaviour change of residents (Çetin, Gruis, and Straub, 2021). The authors further
explain that for Dutch housing providers, “
lack of tenant awareness and interest
” towards CE
is not a barrier when implementing CE principles in pilot projects as tenants are usually not
involved in the project development phase. However, Eikelenboom et al. explore how social
elements could be integrated into CE strategies of SHOs, establishing relationships with
communities in the vision creation, and involving them in the execution of CE strategies,
thereby leveraging community support for the environmental targets of these strategies
(Eikelenboom, Long, and de Jong 2021).
To build a conceptual understanding of collaborative and socially inclusive circular social
housing, this section triangulates literature in the areas of social housing tenant engagement
and SSE, linking tenant engagement theories with models adopted in CE literature around
social inclusion, citizenship and the social and solidarity economy (SSE).
In the context of this study, we explore tenant engagement in the design and planning stages
of their housing providers’ CE construction and renovation projects. More broadly though,
tenant engagement is critically important in social housing strategic management and
operations through corporate governance, regulatory scrutiny, housing management
services, consumer standards and community investment practices.
A seminal theory regarded as the foundation for understanding tenant engagement in social
housing is Arnstein (1969)’s ladder of participation, which locates varying degrees of
participation along the rungs of a ladder model starting from non-participation such as
manipulation, progressing to tokenistic participation (like informing and consultation), before
reaching the higher echelons of citizen power which include partnership, delegated power
and finally citizen control. These ideas of citizenship and collaborative decision-making have
clear parallels to the principles of SSE with regard to social inclusion and empowerment.
Apart from the aspirational and intrinsic value of citizenship and participation, Hickman and
Preece (2019) describe the practical benefits of tenant participation through commercial
benefits to the housing service, individual benefits to tenants and social benefits to local
communities (Hickman and Preece 2019). Tenant engagement may be collective or individual,
the latter usually relating more to a customer or consumer approach. There are also overlaps
between tenant engagement and Community Investment (CI), where SHOs will have priorities
around facilities, projects, and schemes for their tenants such as community centres,
nurseries or employment and skills training. Tenant engagement may feed into SHO
community investment strategies, although shifts from community-based to customer-
focused models may occur due to financial and efficiency drivers and changing organisational
cultures (Sacranie 2012). Indeed, organisational culture is regarded as a key aspect affecting
the type of tenant engagement adopted by housing organisations (Pawson et al. 2012). (This
would be an interesting concept to explore through the growing adoption of CE in social
housing organisation, considering organisational cultural shifts and paradigms which might
emerge in this new field of circular social housing.)
An often-cited framework on tenant engagement is Cairncross, Clapham, and Goodlad’s
model. Consumerist models of tenant
engagements see engagement as a customer service or satisfaction improvement tool with
commercial benefits around cost efficiency and asset management through tenant scrutiny
panels and satisfaction surveys. Citizenship models are about meaningful and inclusive
engagement through shared decision-making, collaboration, and empowering tenants (as
captured customers with little alternative housing options) to make decisions about their
housing service and are seen as intrinsically valuable through the process of engagement and
not just what the engagement achieves (Hickman and Preece 2019). Benefits of this approach
include embedding social interaction and social cohesion in communities and improving
relationships between tenants and landlords. Finally, traditional tenant engagement is driven
by SHOs in a clear top-down approach, with the housing provider ‘looking after’ or guarding
the best interests of their tenants. Different approaches are not mutually exclusive and can
co-exist within the same organisation.
Mullins et al. (2017) reiterate that a key debate around the identity of tenants and their role
in housing governance is that of consumerist versus citizenship approaches to tenant
engagement (Mullins, Shanks, and Sacranie 2017). Consumerist approaches frame tenants as
consumers of a housing service and prioritise a customer service focus to engagement, often,
but not universally, tied in with a commercial orientation of larger SHOs. Citizenship
approaches are typically more participatory and prevalent in (often smaller) co-operatives
and locally-based housing organisations. However, as other cited authors suggest, the
approaches are not mutually exclusive and can be blended in the manner of adoption.
As outlined in this chapter introduction, a key research aim for this study is to move beyond a
de facto social purpose to understand approaches by which the social aspect of CE in social
housing may be framed, such as social innovation, the sharing economy and SSE, which hold
common principles around community, collaboration, and democratized participation. These
fundamental principles are also characteristic of the citizenship approaches to tenant
engagement in social housing (Cairncross, Clapham, and Goodlad 1994) thereby supporting
the investigation of tenant engagement practices in these case study housing projects as a
way to understand the social dimension of CE in social housing.
Having a shared understanding, values, sense of ownership and purpose are regarded as
integral to social cohesion (Berger-Schmitt 2002; Forrest and Kearns 2016). Social housing
communities are connected as networks through shared community investment and social
value projects but also as tenants who are involved in decision-making around the housing
and neighbourhood management services. The social innovation approach (Marchesi and
Tweed 2021) encompasses grassroots engagement initiatives through community interest
groups and citizen engagement which helps embed sustainable behavioural changes and
practices. Developing a typology of seven community social innovation (SI) initiatives ranging
from community growing to social enterprises, Marchesi and Tweed (2021) argue through
case study analysis that SI initiatives can benefit both communities and cities by creating
alternative production-consumption practices into their communities to reduce waste, save
money, create a more cohesive community, enhance people’s skills, and increase community
(Marchesi and Tweed 2021) (p. 12). The authors, therefore, make a case for SI
approaches to be integrated into CE models in order that SHOs could benefit from including
their tenants in their transitions to CE.
Woodard and Rossouw’s (2021) study on engaging social housing residents implementing a
circular economic waste management programme found that participants identified that
embedding “a sense of community” was one of the main positive outcomes for the project
and that a key motivation for their involvement was to increase community spirit and social
cohesion. Environmental improvements were noted, but additionally the collaborative
approach employed engendered a sense of pride in the local neighbourhoods, improved
wellbeing and fostered better relationships with local authority staff and contractors.
Residents also found the interactive and inclusive engagement made them feel valued as
stakeholders in an important project and that the engagement was meaningful rather than
tokenistic because of this bottom-up approach.
Another complementary model reiterating these principles of collaboration and social
inclusion is the sharing economy, which has also been considered in relation to the social and
cultural vacuum of CE models of sustainability. Through a sharing economy co-operative
community rather than consumerist customer culture can enhance the social impact of CE:
The social objective is the sharing economy, increased employment, participative democratic
decision-making and more efficient use of the existing physical-material capacity through a
cooperative and community user (user groups using the value, service and function) as
opposed to a consumer (individuals consuming physical products) culture
Honkasalo, and Seppälä 2018)
Reinforcing these common principles applied to CE, Moreau et al (2017) argue that SSE is the
ideal model to address the missing social dimensions of CE by “
bringing together cooperative
efforts and promoting democratic participation in economic activities
,” which can lead to
more robust CE strategies toward societal and environmental aims.”
SSE aims to create
social value through this participative decision-making towards a democratised economy
(Moreau et al. 2017). Indeed “
the models of collaborative and democratic governance
systems, which challenge the profit motive
” are already evident in
third sector housing organisations, which are not-for-profit, driven by social purpose and
already integrate some form of tenant engagement as part of their governance or regulatory
4.3 Four Circular Social Housing Case Studies
This study is based on longitudinal multiple-case study research (Yin, 2018) with four circular
social housing organisations in the Netherlands, France, Belgium and the UK, respectively.
The case projects and this research study are ongoing, and this chapter draws on early data
collection through documentary evidence and interviews with the case SHOs.
Our research focused on the organisational engagement of tenants during the early project
phase iii, and how the role of tenants in the circular housing projects differed from the usual
way in which these SHOs engaged with their tenants. We wished to explore specifically how
the tenants of these four SHOs would be involved in the circular housing projects, from
participation in planning and design to the allocation of tenants to these schemes. Would
these interactions be incorporated into existing organisational processes and engagement
models, or would the circular nature of the projects necessitate new processes and a
different way of engaging?
The four case studies are part of an Interreg Northwest Europe funded project called CHARM
(Circular Housing Asset Renovation and Management) iv , which aims to promote circular asset
management approaches in the social housing sector to prevent downcycling of materials in
renovation and construction of social rented dwellings. By developing and implementing
demonstration circular exemplars, the case study SHOs hope to recover 40,000 tons of
materials annually. Table 1 provides an overview of the four case study organisations.
Case 1 is a housing and care provider operating in the UK and serves around 54,000 residents.
The environment policy of Case 1 includes saving energy, reducing waste, protecting wildlife
and biodiversity, preventing pollution, and cutting the amount of carbon emissions generated
by their operations, staff and tenants. They use waste hierarchy in their daily operations and
see CE principles as the "reuse" element. Within the context of CHARM, Case 1 is developing
12 virtually plastic-free homes. Case 2 is one of France's largest social housing providers,
serving around 287,000 residents and allocates 3,750 housing units each year to low-income
citizens. This SHO is committed to social and ecological sustainability and supports the vision
of a carbon-neutral city alongside the Paris Climate agreement. Case 2 aims to increase
reusing of materials in their existing building stock, testing CE principles with several light and
deep renovation projects within the CHARM project.
Case 3 is a Dutch SHO serving around 70,000 tenants. They are one of the forerunners in
implementing CE in the country with strong commitments towards circularity through their
strategic planning and operations. Within the scope of CHARM, Case 3 is developing 18 new
housing units. Finally, Case 4 is a relatively small SHO operating around 2,350 homes in
Belgium and perceives CE as a philosophy rather than a new approach in housing production.
The company applies a six-step CE approach in their operations: decrease demand for natural
resources; use renewable resources; use resources efficiently; measure, monitor, and
evaluate; coach users; share information and outputs with all stakeholders. Their CHARM
projects include the renovation of 40 dwellings with reused materials and building two new
apartments reusing materials from demolitions sites.
Case SHO &
Number of
CE Aspiration
CE Case Study Projects
/potential number of tenants
Case 1,
The UK
25,000/ 54,000
CE is the reuse element in
Waste Hierarchy
12 virtually plastic free social
rented homes; 12 tenants
Case 2,
125,700/ 287,000
CE is seen as an opportunity
to increase material reuse
in renovation and new built
housing projects
3 light building renovations; 2 deep
building renovations; and 2
transformation projects / over 1000
Case 3,
32,900/ 70,000
CE is primary sustainability
goal in road map to be fully
circular in ten years
18 new housing units by reusing
materials from other demolition
sites; 18 to 28 tenants
Case 4
2,350/ 4000
CE as an underlying ethos
with a six-step CE approach
in their operations.
40 deep renovations and 2 new
apartments; 90 tenants
Table 1 Circular Social Housing Case Study Profiles
4.4 Case Study Findings
Case 1
For their CE project, Case 1 was developing 12 plastic-free homes are as part of a broader
town centre regeneration programme. This scheme was also part of a cooperative subsidiary
of the SHO, which meant the cooperative structure with existing tenant engagement
mechanisms would be employed, however, with some exceptions. Due to the nature of the
site and tight planning restrictions around the town centre regeneration site, the
development was restricted to apartments only, while project costs per unit meant the size of
these 12 apartments was limited to 35sq m. Furthermore, the innovative replacement of
plastic materials for sustainable alternatives meant limited early development design choices.
For this circular project, a pre-development tenant design panel was not established as was
customary for other developments. The initial proposal for this scheme had been presented
to the cooperative tenant board, who were particularly interested in the fuel economy of
these homes.
While some of the building technologies and material alternatives did introduce engineering
complexities, for Case 1 the aim was not to sell or encourage a particular sustainable style of
living but rather for the sustainable building to fit into the lifestyle of their tenants, rather
than conflict with them. The expectation was that internal specifications would be of better
quality than usual, but apart from that, the apartments would have no obvious differences,
while any new technologies like the heating system would have to be explained to tenants.
“The house will function exactly the same as a normal house, and that's part of what
we're intending to do. So, although it's been circular, there will be no noticeable
difference to the end user, and that's the important part of our philosophy… We
shouldn't be creating a lifestyle change. We should be making it easy for people to
live their lifestyle in a green way. That's what we would say and that's what we think
we've achieved here. We will obviously give people an explanation of the scheme and
the ethos behind it. There will be a need to explain some technologies.” (Project
Manager, Case 1)
Tenants would be allocated according to local council waiting lists based on general needs
and suitability for the apartments. This was expected to be predominantly younger, single
tenants or couples, who would not specifically be selected because of any predisposition
towards living in a circular or sustainable home. Around six meetings were planned with
tenants before they moved in to create a sense of community, awareness of the circular and
sustainable characteristics of the scheme and allow them to choose certain specification
finishes on bathrooms, kitchens, flooring, and painting. Once tenants moved in, a check was
planned to see how they settle in and manage their property.
“It’s all of our normal tenant satisfaction surveys that we do for when people move
into a property. We will almost certainly have a sort of debrief meeting with residents
to work out what's going well and what's gone badly after sort of 6 or 12 months.
But we won't be doing anything special around this development that we wouldn't do
on any other development.” (Project manager, Case 1)
Although the social impacts of these circular homes were not intended to be formally
evaluated, the project manager for the circular homes anticipated that there would be
additional benefits for tenants which would include lower heating costs; cleaner air due to
the timber-framed construction, reduced plastics and plaster, and better noise insulation
(which would reduce the impact of anti-social behaviour).
Overall, an interesting aspect of Case Study 1 was that traditional co-design approaches with
tenant design panels were restricted because of planning parameters for the building site and
the technical specifications for the circular dwellings. While there is added complexity in the
engineering of heating and plastic alternatives, the aim for these circular homes is to be user-
friendly and straightforward for tenants. Tenant engagement will be ‘business as usual’ once
the houses are allocated, apart from initially explaining to tenants the new sustainable
features of their homes, and the choice of certain finishes to personalise their homes.
Case 2
Case 2’s circular project involved the refurbishment and renovation of around 800 of their
properties across different suburbs and estates where their housing stock is located and
affected a range of tenants from different socio-economic and cultural backgrounds ranging
from “extreme poverty” to more “middle-class” neighbourhoods. This SHO worked with
architects across different sites to reuse, recycle and upcycle parts, fixtures, and fittings such
as re-commissioned timber doors or windows. Like any other major renovation works,
approval was first sought by a tenant majority vote in the area/ estate where the work was to
be undertaken. With the vote, tenants also receive individualized copies of any planned
refurbishment of their home and building.
Tenant engagement typically occurs through structured public or town hall meetings and
frontline housing management, drop-in clinics, and Case 2’s outreach service. At these public
meetings, members of local communities who are not necessarily Case 2’s tenants will often
attend as well. The organisation has found that tenants from middle-class backgrounds are
more likely to engage meaningfully, whereas the more economically deprived and vulnerable
tenants like refugees are less able to do so, while others may have language barriers not
being first language French-speaking. Similarly, other groups, like single mums or others with
dependent responsibilities who are already volunteering (for example, through school
parents’ associations), find it challenging to be involved in the co-design and development of
a circular housing project.
Case 2 also has around ten voluntary tenant associations, but these do not cover all their
stock areas. Architects work with tenants on a site-by-site basis to ensure tenants are
satisfied with the renovations planned and understand and accept the choice of materials
used. In some projects, the architects try to employ tenants to undertake some of the
refurbishment work so that the tenants can learn employable skills, demonstrating a
collaborative approach to both engagement and a key social impact of the SHO's circular
Community investment and inclusion are critical components of Case 2's outreach strategy.
They work extensively with local partners and NGOs on the ground, considering the circular
project as part of a broader socio-economic context which includes housing, education, and
employment. While tenant acceptance was seen a crucial for the success of the circular
project, the circular ethos driving these refurbishments did not seek to imbue tenants with a
lifestyle or philosophy change, but rather to have the refurbishment work completed to a
good standard.
“Why it's important to us (to use) reconditioned building materials is not a part of
something that they see a lot... They don't know (about it), they know that we owe
them work on their apartments and we do. And they know that we owe them a
certain quality.” (Project Coordinator, Case 2)
At the same time, a circular philosophy was being adopted more holistically organisationally
with the support of Case 2’s senior leadership. The hope was that this could be reflected
across other housing management services an eventually begin to change social behaviours
and enhance tenants’ understanding of sustainable living. A visible example of this was having
large waste collection service for tenants by a recycling company:
“I think what is important for us is to have complimentary actions so that people can
understand the concept of reuse more globally and how it can impact their everyday
life… I think it (circular economy) is an organization-wide philosophy.” (Project
Manager, Case 2)
Case 3
Case 3’s circular project involved building new circular homes rather than refurbishing
existing properties. As a pioneering sustainable SHO adopting the principles of CE, they
quickly identified a group of seven tenants (on short-term contracts) who were invited to take
part in the pre-development process. It was hoped that these tenants would move into their
new circular homes, and they began a process of weekly engagement and co-design on the
new properties. The tenants were enthusiastic and engaged with the circular principles
behind the development, becoming tenant ambassadors in organisational videos explaining
the importance of the circular design of their new homes.
The design consultation included ergonomics and breaking component parts of the home
down to electrical sockets and doorbells, questioning what was essential to include in a
circular home and how those components might be reconfigured or redesigned to enhance
its sustainability. It was felt that this group of 7 tenants had formed a little community who
had become positively and intrinsically motivated around the circular principles and design
aspects of their future homes. However, due to planning and development delays on the
project the tenants engaged in the co-design process were offered and accepted alternative
homes from Case 3. This reflected the challenge of inclusive and collaborative tenant
engagement, which is most effective over a longer period of time, but which may become too
long a process for potential tenants for whom finding a social home is a priority.
“It was not their goal to get involved in a project; it was a goal to get a home... In the
end, they wanted a home and nothing more”
(Project manager, Case 3)
For the circular homes that would be developed, a new set of tenants would not be engaged
in development co-design, but the learning from the initial co-creation workshops would be
incorporated into any design modifications for the relocated building site. New tenants would
be consulted to choose certain fixtures and fittings. Case 3 were still keen to follow through
the lived in experience of tenants on:
How is it to live in a circular building, what works, what doesn't work.
” (Project
Manager, Case 3)
Tenant groups were typically engaged across their housing stock in different ways, and not
always in co-design but sometimes around interesting projects like communal gardens.
Internal layouts were more restricted but typically tenants could be involved in selecting
kitchens and bathrooms. As part of regulatory and statutory requirements in the Netherlands,
Case 3 also have a Tenant Advisory Board who play a role in the governance, agreeing an
annual corporate strategy for the following year. There are also tenant committees who are
consulted on smaller projects, but these can be dominated by a few available members (3 to
5 tenants representing an estate or area of 200 homes) and the development team,
therefore, try to encourage a broader and more diverse engagement. Traditionally for
renovation projects, Case 3 would do telephone surveys before the renovation, during and six
weeks after to see how the work impacts on their tenants, but more recently, they had
adopted a less intrusive approach.
The thing is, we want to build for our regular tenants so not just for people who have a lot
of involvement in sustainability”
(Project manager, Case 3)
For the circular projects, tenant engagement would be about knowledge transfer and
educating tenants about the different features of their new home, like the alternative
materials and heating systems, and any restrictions that might pertain to the different
specifications. Inevitably because of the technical requirements for the circular homes, the
material and finish choices would be more restricted. It was thought that it wasn’t necessary
to highlight using recycled building materials for new schemes as it would not be an issue to
have used components in an older rental property. An example was given of the click dry
bricks system that looks and feels like a brick. Case 3 assumed the majority of their tenants
would not care about this brick system as their priority was securing a comfortable and
affordable home and not specifically a sustainable one. While the home would be innovative
in terms of development, design and construction, the tenant lived experience should be the
same as usual.
Case 4
Case 4 had several concurrent circular projects, including the renovation of their offices
(‘leading by example’) and an entire estate renovation. The organisation had embraced
circularity as an organisational ethos, and all new developments and refurbishments would
aim to be ‘as circular as possible.’ For Case 4, the pandemic had proved particularly
challenging around engaging tenants. Their focus was rather on assisting vulnerable, lonely,
and elderly tenants through this difficult period and less about prioritising interaction about
their circular developments. The key stakeholders for Case 4 were the architects who were
aligned to the same CE and sustainable design principles and values as the organisation. The
focus of their circular project was around technical monitoring rather than tracking any social
“… We believe that the mindset of the architect is very important if you want to really
get circularity in your design, in your building, in your innovation… And that is why we
focus mainly now on the role of the architect, not as much as we want to focus on
the tenants because they do not really have a choice… They get the dwelling, and it is
what it is.
(Project manager, Case 4)
Tenant engagement for this housing association typically took the form of ‘Kitchen Table
Talks’ to gain insight into tenants’ preferences regarding design and how involved they
wanted to be. However, the pandemic had meant the cessation of these in-person talks, and
the organisation was considering alternative digital ways to communicate around their
demonstration sites, including a video walkthrough. Community houses that operated on
estates across the municipalities formed the usual hub for engagement with tenants, as social
and community services were provided here, and tenants could raise issues around service
delivery. Beyond that, there wasn’t a formal governance structure of tenant boards and
panels to consult, but as a small housing association with 25 staff members, frontline officers
and care workers knew up to 90% of tenants on a first-name basis.
The renovation of existing properties using recycled materials meant tenants needed to be
convinced and assured that they were still getting a 'shiny and new' high-quality, sustainable
product. At the time these case studies were conducted, Case 4 was in the planning stages for
their circular renovation project and described the selection process for which homes would
be renovated. Tenant willingness and agreement was essential, not only for the circular
components but also because the renovation work would take place while the tenant still
lived in the property. Tenant allocation to properties occurred in the same way as usual,
based on locality, special needs, suitability for a household size and waiting lists. Different
engagement processes were required with tenants for new developments ("
it is very useful to
get the tenants involved in an early stage
") compared to tenants already living in existing
properties chosen for refurbishment.
Tenant engagement for the circular projects was of particular importance to explain their
sustainable strategy, and why for example, when tenants expected a new kitchen, they would
have a renovated one instead. A lack of construction skills and building insurance liabilities
were seen as a barrier to involving tenants in the renovation work for their homes. As part of
their sustainable ethos, however, Case 4 intended to set up shared tools schemes for tenants
to maintain their properties, such as hedge trimmers, ladders and tools to undertake minor
repairs themselves and to give their tenants a sense of ownership.
Technical constraints on materials used meant less choice for tenants, and therefore
engagement was more about informing and explaining. There was an acknowledgement that
it would be challenging to change tenants' behaviour and attitude by housing them in circular
dwellings. Nevertheless, Case 4 considered that a key part of their role was to demonstrate to
tenants that if they changed their behaviour, it would increase the environmental impact of
the building and they could also save on their energy bills. Trying to capture the social impact
of a circular house on tenants' behaviour and attitudes would be difficult because the
technical aspects and outputs of the circular projects around energy saving, material used,
carbon reduction impact measurements were already challenging to capture.
4.5 Mapping Circular Tenant Engagement
A common rationale across all the case studies was around customer satisfaction and
providing a quality affordable home for their tenants that incidentally happened to be circular
and sustainable. Tenant engagement differed according to existing approaches and
organisational structures; the type of circular project (renovation or new development) and
ranged from informational knowledge-transfer type engagement (traditional and
consumerist) to more collaborative and co-designed processes (citizenship-based
engagement). All four case studies incorporated business-as-usual approaches but extended
these to new circular engagement with their tenants.
The case study SHOs aspired to and embraced a sustainable housing agenda and saw CE as an
organisational-wide vision or ethos, but there was no expectation or specific plan to
encourage tenants to adopt this vision and ethos too, beyond accepting and understanding
the different materials and designed systems, how it would impact them and what they
would need to do differently in their homes to adapt to those different materials and
systems. This was understandable as tenants of social housing are often socially and
economically disadvantaged, and all the case study SHOs were apprehensive about the
burden of over-consultation on quite technical changes to the tenants’ properties.
Interestingly, the new circular tenant engagement did not always reflect the same type of
approaches adopted before, for example, Case Study 1 had a co-operative organisational
model but for their circular project it was not possible to set up a Tenant Design Board
because of the constraints of the innovative but limited material choices to replace traditional
plastic components. For Case Study 3, a very collaborative design process with tenants
informed the project development but delays in the project development meant ultimately
those tenants moved into alternative properties rather than wait for years to take up tenancy
in the circular homes they helped design.
Ultimately all case studies focused on the economic and environmental output for their
circular homes and considered that the social dimension was addressed by the nature of the
product, i.e. a high-quality social home for their tenants. Key tenant engagement implications
for the case studies were gaining necessary tenant acceptance for the circular schemes
(particularly refurbishments) as well as informing tenants about any technical changes as to
how their circular homes would differ from any previous home.
Table 2 compares and contrasts these business-as-usual and new circular engagement
processes evident through the case study findings.
Business as Usual
Tenant Engagement
New Circular
Changes in Tenant
Engagement Approach
A good quality, affordable
home provided or
refurbished the circularity
of the home is incidental.
Knowledge transfer-
Informing and educating
tenants on any necessary
technical changes to how
they should occupy and use
their home.
Consumerist ->
(Cases 1;2;3;4)
Limited impact on lifestyle
and values.
Some behavioural change
required for sustainable
living in social circular
homes but no expectation
for tenants to take on
circular ethos and values
that case study
organisations had adopted.
Traditional -> ‘Light-touch’
(Cases 1;3;4)
Tenant Consultation/
Participation in Design and
choice of finishes and
Co-operative, co-design and
collaboration models with
constraints reduced
involvement and choice
because of technical
priorities, sustainable
material parameters, and
planning constraints.
Citizenship + Consumerist->
Constrained Collaboration
(Case 1;4)
Case Study organisations’
Tenant Boards, Committees
or Associations for
Regulatory Scrutiny and
Limited specific governance
and decision-making for
tenants around the circular
homes specifically, over and
above existing governance
and engagement structures.
Citizenship-> Participatory
Decision Making
(Case 1;3)
Tenant acceptance and
agreement on any
refurbishment programme
as per existing engagement
Further specific
engagement and
reassurance needed
especially to overcome
barriers on reused materials
and component parts for
circular projects.
Consumerist -> Customer
Service and Satisfaction
(Case 1;2;3;4)
Table 2: Business-as-Usual and New Circular Tenant Engagement in Circular
Social Housing Case Studies
(Drawing on Cairncross et al’s 1994 typology of tenant engagement)
4.5. Conclusion
SHOs have an entrenched social purpose serving disadvantaged communities and therefore
were considered ideal case study candidates to explore the ‘missing social link’ of circularity.
However, our study has revealed that because the clear social impact and purpose of these
organisations, there is an assumption of implicit social impact through their circular housing
schemes. Indeed, as their tenant engagement with these circular projects illustrates, the aim
for the case study SHOs was to provide an equally safe, comfortable, and affordable home
without the ecological aspects of their circular homes being a barrier or burden to tenants.
Furthermore, the projects lacked formal mechanisms and the resource to capture the social
value of the circular housing projects compared to clear environmental and financial
monitoring imperatives. This was understandable in the context of the case studies who were
fulfilling their funding obligations and project outputs around the material aspects of their
circular development and asset management projects.
Regarding tenant engagement, there were organisational scale and structural factors that
influenced the type of engagement that was possible and whether the case study SHOs were
able to continue with or newly adopt co-operative and co-design approaches, as some did. All
the cases studies adopted business-as-usual tenant engagement and participation. New
circular tenant engagement was, however, also needed to gain tenant acceptance for the
proposed circular schemes, particularly those that involved refurbishment to existing
properties with sitting tenants. New circular engagement also meant reduced choice around
materials and design because of technical material, construction, and planning constraints.
It is critically important to note that this study coincided with the Covid 19 pandemic, which
delayed the circular housing projects and affected their ‘business-as-usual’ tenant
engagement. The SHOs were in crisis management mode during this period and sustaining
tenancies and tenant wellbeing was regarded as more of a priority than engaging tenants on
circular developments and renovations.
It can be argued that circular social housing is presently a top-down organisational strategy to
adopt a sustainable approach to housing construction and renovation, and this ties into more
traditional landlord approaches of making choices for, or on behalf of, their tenants or
customers in their best interests as not-for-profit organisations. To embed more of a social
solidarity model in circular social homes, it would require SHOs to move beyond implicit social
impacts by nature of the service provided to circular models for housing that build in social
indicators, outputs, and mechanisms to begin to redress the critical missing social dimension
of the circular economy. Moving towards or reinforcing existing collaborative and inclusive
tenant engagement would mean including tenants in the decision-making processes around
adopting circular and sustainable principles and values to development and refurbishment,
which projects to take on and how to deliver them. More inclusive approaches beyond quality
assurance, customer satisfaction and knowledge transfer about new components, would
afford the opportunity for tenants and communities collectively to adopt beneficial,
sustainable lifestyle choices living in circular homes and neighbourhoods (at the same time as
their social housing providers have embraced the principles and values of CE as corporate
Despite the challenges and constraints of working in a pioneering technical context, if these
collaborative models of tenant engagement were strengthened rather than limited by circular
strategies, it would allow circularity to become truly entrenched in these organisations and
their housing stock, economically, environmentally, and socially through their tenants.
It would be remiss not to acknowledge too that the case study SHOs described in this chapter
were at the early development stages of the circular housing projects that were the subject of
this research study. While the organisational viewpoints have been captured through
documentary evidence and interviews, the social aspect of circular social homes and how
tenants have been engaged cannot be explored comprehensively without gathering evidence
from tenants once they move into their new homes, or have their circular refurbishments
completed in their existing social rented home.
This will be the next phase for this ongoing research with the aim to gain further
understanding and insight into lived experiences, how tenants have been engaged, the social
impacts of their circular homes, and if and how their behaviour and attitudes change by living
in a more sustainable dwelling. Examples of behavioural change might range from what is
required and necessary to adapt to living in a circular, sustainable home to more aspirational
culture, ethos and lifestyle shifts where communities feel empowered, engaged and
confident to make greener environmental choices with their housing provider that have
positive economic and social impacts on their lives. Finally, for circular economic schemes like
the social housing ones in this research study, the neglected social dimension of CE can begin
to be addressed if social inclusion and social impact are built into the project from the design
stage through to the project delivery, capturing output and impact beyond economic and
environmental targets.
ResearchGate has not been able to resolve any citations for this publication.
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