Good Business campaign – Simon Joe Portal Q&A

The second interview in our Good Business campaign is with Simon Joe Portal, head of engineering and sustainability at Drees & Sommer.

We specifically focused on chatting about policy making as it’s a topic that Si-Joe is very well informed in.

Please introduce yourself, Si-Joe – walk us through your role and what excites you about this industry?

I lead a team working across decarbonisation and the circular economy. My current role spans the older operational energy questions as well as the equally pressing concerns over materials, from embodied carbon through to circularity and resource extraction. Through my EPEA hat, our sister company which my team represents in the UK, I draw on 40 years’ of defining circularity and striving for holistic positive impact through the Cradle-to-Cradle® principles. My role sits really nicely at the heart of major technical sustainability topics, so I don’t have to fight one corner but am by definition focussed on a holistic perspective of sustainability and its business case.

How can industry work with government to drive standards and regulations around material re-use?

Industry needs to work with government on this. Achieving a circular economy requires fundamental commercial and technical changes to how we produce, buy and sell stuff – only industry can drive the priorities around what is needed to make this happen. A circular economy requires engagement with full supply chains to ensure that materials are ready and able to be kept in biological and technical loops without deteriorating in functional quality or causing negative impacts to health or ecological systems through the release of toxins.

Defining what a circular economy is would be a crucial first step. The current focus on direct reuse has an important place but will never scale enough and misses a huge part of the puzzle – potentially the harder part! Legislation, incentives and taxes then have a crucial role to play in creating an enabling environment, informed by industry as to what the key gaps and barriers are through our supply chains. Current legislation around the circular economy in the UK is at a very early stage and is not well defined, making it an additional reporting requirement but not a driver for change or impact, which seems to me a missed opportunity. 

What are the barriers to a zero-carbon future in the built environment? 

We need to be thinking collectively and through a value-based lens, rather than through a reduction-focused lens revolving around single metrics. Particularly in the UK, project-based carbon counting has gained great momentum, which is very positive. But the momentum risks driving a focus on one metric alone with not enough focus on the bigger picture.

I’m referring to both wider sustainability metrics that are equally important that we achieve, as well as wider system impacts of project decisions which may at best be moving carbon from one place to another, or at worst driving increased global emissions where the lesser impactful project has the louder voice. Maintaining the status quo will not get us to net zero – we need to be open to new models of how we develop the built environment, how we procure and where we procure from, how we engage with project stakeholders – and who these are.

There is of course the additional barrier that demand is needed to drive industry, and an ‘enabling environment’ is needed to create that demand. Cities and government have a big part to play in creating this enabling environment. In the Netherlands and Vienna, for example, government is a significant owner of housing stock and uses this to drive the circular economy agenda, stimulating the market to update its commercial models. 

What are some of the systematic and financial barriers that are preventing organisations in the built environment to strive for net zero / be truly circular? 

Net zero and circularity are often not the same goal. Circularity is a crucial tool to achieving net zero, but it goes far beyond this and may, particularly at a project / product level, present contrasting aims.

The overlap is important though. To achieve net zero we need to clearly regulate embodied carbon and our material use through its lifecycle. Our economy is built to be linear, which strongly leans on single use. In the UK, refurbishment and reuse do not benefit from the same tax benefits as new build, which is nonsense given the threats to businesses and our economy of resource depletion (e.g. material price volatility), climate change and biodiversity loss. Warranties are also generally not renewed for a second life of a product because of how risk is allocated in the built environment. 

Who takes this risk is an important systematic barrier to circularity that we do a lot of work to address. Manufacturers, for example, are used to selling a product and not being involved beyond the initial sale. This puts the risk of reuse fully onto either a contractor or a developer, despite reuse potential often being defined before they get involved. We have a lot of experience in connecting the dots across a supply chain and addressing this issue – but it’s new and we aren’t going to change it alone.

Equally, a circular built environment requires new considerations around costing and programme. Anything new carries risk but the take-make-use-dispose economic model we are used to puts all of this risk of change on one or two parts of the built environment value chain. Across our projects it’s clear that commercial models that share this risk – along with the rewards – are a huge enabler to circularity.

What levers can be pulled to drive towards a circular economy?

The circular economy needs to be an economic model – it needs to be driven by commercial drivers and drive inherent value. I would argue that the main tax incentives needed are to enable the value of materials to be seen, and conversely to facilitate a circular model that depends on skills, labour and industrial synergies. 

Follow our Good Business campaign

More information the Good Business campaign is available on our website, and we’ll be lauching a dedicated minisite soon.

The first interview of our series with Amy Borgan of CBRE / GWS Local is available to read on our website.

If you’d like to find out more or talk about how you and your business can get involved, email me on

Jo Sutherland