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Davari, S.; Jaberi, M.; Yousfi, A.; Poirier, E. Traceability Framework in Built Environment. Encyclopedia. Available online: https://encyclopedia.pub/entry/44722 (accessed on 13 June 2024).
Davari S, Jaberi M, Yousfi A, Poirier E. Traceability Framework in Built Environment. Encyclopedia. Available at: https://encyclopedia.pub/entry/44722. Accessed June 13, 2024.
Davari, Saman, Meisam Jaberi, Adam Yousfi, Erik Poirier. "Traceability Framework in Built Environment" Encyclopedia, https://encyclopedia.pub/entry/44722 (accessed June 13, 2024).
Davari, S., Jaberi, M., Yousfi, A., & Poirier, E. (2023, May 23). Traceability Framework in Built Environment. In Encyclopedia. https://encyclopedia.pub/entry/44722
Davari, Saman, et al. "Traceability Framework in Built Environment." Encyclopedia. Web. 23 May, 2023.
Traceability Framework in Built Environment
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The transition towards a Circular Economy (CE) has been receiving an increasing amount of attention in the built asset industry. One of the key aspects of CE is traceability, which can enable the identification and tracking of materials, products, and their associated value throughout their entire lifecycle. However, achieving traceability has been challenging in the built asset industry due to the complex nature of construction projects and a lack of awareness about the benefits of traceability in achieving the circularity of building products and materials. A limited number of frameworks or guidelines exist to support traceability in the built asset industry. In many cases, several of the existing traceability standards, strategies, and guidelines must be identified and framed to support development and implementation of theories and models applicable within the built asset domain. 

traceability circular economy built asset industry sustainability

1. Introduction

The built asset industry is a significant contributor to global waste and resource depletion. According to the World Green Building Council, the construction and demolition of buildings account for 40% of global energy consumption and 30% of global greenhouse gas emissions and are responsible for 25% of waste [1]. Transitioning to a Circular Economy (CE) presents a viable alternative that seeks to keep materials and products in use for as long as possible, thus reducing waste and promoting sustainable resource use [2]. One of the main goals of CE is to create a closed-loop system in which materials and products are used and reused as efficiently as possible, without creating waste or depleting resources [3]. This approach is often contrasted with the traditional linear model of production and consumption in which resources are extracted, transformed into products, and then disposed of, often in a way that is harmful to the environment [4][5]. As the principles of CE are becoming more prevalent in various fields of research, there are still several barriers associated with achieving circularity of built assets, including the complex supply chains involved in the distribution of products [6], the difficulty of tracking materials and products through the various stages of their lifecycle [7], and the lack of incentives or effective collaboration among industrial practitioners to promote circularity [8][9].
One critical aspect of CE is traceability, which enables the identification and tracking of materials, products, and their associated value throughout their entire lifecycle. The notation of traceability can be defined as the ability to track and trace the history, location, application, and movement of materials, products, or systems from the point of origin to the point of consumption or disposal [10][11], while providing detailed information about the transformation processes, intermediaries, and actors involved in each stage of the value chain [12]. Such abilities can provide opportunities to address current CE challenges by enabling full transparency of transformed and shared information throughout lifecycle stages, as well as supporting potential End-of-Life (EoL) options such as ability to reuse or recycle the disassembled products and materials [13]. To date, the concept of traceability and its applications are widely investigated in various domains including food industry, software engineering, manufacturing, and aerospace. In such domains, several published frameworks and models can be found describing the key characteristics and components of traceability to meet CE goals and outcomes [11][14][15].
In comparison to other domains, the literature on traceability studies is relatively limited in the built asset industry [16]. There is a poor understanding about the role of traceability in enabling circularity of building products and materials across various lifecycle stages [17]. Most of the existing studies have focused on specific aspects of traceability, such as the use of advanced information technologies (e.g., blockchain technology) to accelerate traceability processes [18], or have been limited to case studies of individual projects or companies. There is an apparent lack of integrated approaches to frame current industrial standards, guidelines, and strategies linking their relationships in real construction projects [13]. The main reasons for slow adoptions of traceability in the built asset industry can be investigated due to the fragmented nature of construction projects, very long asset lifecycles, and a high volume of stakeholders involved [17]. To address such issues, many academic publications put emphasis on the necessity to develop and implement integrated traceability frameworks to enable the circularity of products, materials, and systems in the built asset industry [13][17][19].

2. Traceability Framework in Built Environment

2.1. Circular Economy in the Built Environment

Waste generated from construction, renovation, and demolition (CDR) in Canada generated more than 4 million tons in 2021 [20]. To divert this significant amount of waste from landfills, the Canadian government is pushing the built asset industry towards a CE model by replacing the EoL concept with reducing, reusing, and recovering materials across construction and operational lifecycle stages [20]. While the body of literature pertaining to a circular future is rapidly growing, many scholars and industry experts have highlighted the significant challenges in transitioning to this new economic model [5][21][22][23]. There are several strategic and political challenges hindering this transition such as resistance from stakeholders in the industry who are accustomed to traditional linear approaches and do not see the value of the CE models [8][24] or the competitive nature of markets, which may make it difficult for organizations with narrow profit margins to justify the additional investment and effort required for circularity [25]. From a technical perspective, challenges include effective lifecycle information management to increase the circularity of materials and products within and between organizations and regulatory bodies in the built asset industry [26]. Achieving circularity depends heavily on the availability of data that is relevant, reliable, and readily accessible [27]. Without such data it is hard to track the properties of materials, products, and systems and measure their economic, social, and environmental impacts [28].
One opportunity for accessing required data is the use of materials passports (MPs) [29]. MPs are a set of digital documents containing composition data, environmental product declarations (EPDs), and provenance of building materials and products and showing their potentials for recovery and reuse [30][31]. A growing number of passport-types have been proposed by scholars and practitioners [32][33][34]. However, it may cause difficulties in collecting and matching incoherent data from multiple MPs [35]. Examples of MPs include the following:
  • Buildings As Material Banks (BAMB): this MP describes data and their implementation strategies in the built environment. All necessary information about materials and products pertaining to CE is hierarchically categorized into several levels (Figure 1) such as material properties, certifications, logistics, etc. The project has also established a digital platform which connects individual components of the buildings by displaying their uses and values in the marketplace [30].
Figure 1. Categorization of MP data (adapted from BAMB [30]).
  • 3XN Architects: this MP provides guidelines to collect CE data across a building’s lifecycle stages. The collected data need to be linked to a database enabling traceability of all building components and parts with their technical and functional specifications [36].
  • Madaster: this project frames MP data based on the building’s layers (e.g., structure, skin, services, etc.). The MP also provides circularity indicators to calculate the amount of virgin, recycled, reused, and renewable materials that are incorporated within a building. Madaster’s cloud platform can connect to Building Information Modeling (BIM)-based models and allows users to create and develop a unique passport for buildings or objects [37].
In addition to the application of MPs, transition to an advanced CE requires a high degree of digitalization and automation [38]. The main barriers that hinder this potential are primarily related to what can be described as an information gap between industrial parties [39]. This information gap appears when there is no transparent and common understanding about what, when, which, where, why, and how CE data are circulated and exchanged among the involved parties in a project. It is becoming increasingly important to close this gap by ensuring traceability of all relevant CE-related data and linking them into a structured knowledge base [40][41]. Nevertheless, disregarding digitization’s upheaval influence, there are still certain issues which need to be addressed. These might include a digital gap across lifecycle phases and project stakeholders [42]. Finally, traditional project delivery practices tend to create barriers between project stakeholders which leads to a collaboration gap [43]. Figure 2 demonstrates these gaps across asset lifecycle phases. To fill these gaps, an integrated and automated solution is very much needed to link and put key components of circularity into relationship.
Figure 2. Overview of current gaps in asset lifecycle phases.

2.2. Concept of Traceability across Domains

Traceability of materials and products is recognized as one of the major concerns in an increasing number of CE studies and practices across various domains [44]. Although there is no definitional ambiguity that encompasses all aspects of traceability [17], the notion of “traceability” has been defined in the literature as listed in Table 1.

Table 1. Definitions of traceability.
Ref Definition Context Year
[45] “The ability to trace the history, application, or location of an entity by means of recorded identifications”. ISO8402 1994
[40] “The ability to access any or all information relating to that which is under consideration, throughout its e tire lifecycle, by means of recorded identifications”. Food industry 2018
[46] “Client requirements have to be presented in a manner that will facilitate: (…) [t]he traceability of design decisions to original requirements throughout the life cycle of the facility”. AEC 1 2000
[47] “Traceability involves knowing where the product or raw material comes from, real-time location throughout the supply chain, and its conditions regarding pre-set quality at each stage of the roadmap”. AEC 2021
[13] “The ability to follow information related to a product through its supply chain” (p. 3) providing a number of uses: quality and safety, minimizing scandals that damage company reputations, improved supply chains, and enhancing trust”. AEC 2017
1 AEC: Architecture, Engineering, and Construction.
Recent studies have emphasized the role of information traceability in mitigating quality and safety issues, optimizing resource productivity, facilitating information retrieval for management practices, and improving supply chain by increasing trust between suppliers and consumers in the context of sustainable development [14][19][47]. Organizations can also utilize information traceability to locate the sources of mistakes or discrepancies in their data and keep an accurate record of changes made over time [48][49]. In a study conducted by Moe [50], internal traceability and chain traceability were identified as two common information traceability methods. Internal traceability can be performed within a single stage of the product lifecycle, allowing for improved planning and optimization of raw material use as well as identification of causes and effects to conform to product standards. Chain traceability, on the other hand, enables the tracking of product information throughout its entire lifecycle, from early stages such as planning and conceptual design to end-of-life (EoL). This level of traceability is essential for accessing information about a product’s history and ensuring compliance with regulations, standards, and quality control [51]. Data related to information tractability can be obtained from entities, processes and activities (services), project context, and stakeholders involved in a product’s supply chain (e.g., suppliers’ name and their responsibility) [30]. However, it is still not clear how to use such data and at which lifecycle stages data should be traced to meet circularity requirements.
Different traceability methods, models, and frameworks have been proposed in different domains to improve the tracking and flow of information for sustainability purposes. For example, Anastasiadis [52] proposed a holistic transability framework emphasizing the relationship between sustainability principles and agri-food supply chains. The proposed framework consists of several key elements, including stakeholder analysis, supply chain analysis, development stages, testing through multiple real case scenarios, and assessment stage. Based on the defined elements of this framework, it can be found that effective information exchange and collaboration among stakeholders through the use of innovative technologies such as cloud computing, big data, blockchain, and the Internet-of-Things are essential to meet consumer needs and sustainability goals in general. Such findings support an argument that any traceability approach should meet the demands of major stakeholders while having positive impacts on economic, social, environmental, and governance aspects of the sustainable development.

2.3. Traceability in the Built Asset Industry

Implementation of information systems and practices enabling traceability in the built asset industry varies depending on the region, sector, and specific application. In general, the industry has been relatively slow in adopting these systems and practices compared to other industries [47]. One reason for this is the industry’s notorious fragmentation [47]. The built asset industry is made up of various stakeholders that each have their own set of requirements and standards. Another reason for this slow adoption is the lack of a standardized approach. Unlike other industries, such as food or pharmaceuticals, there is no universally recognized guideline or standard for tracking and tracing building materials and components [13]. Some organizations have developed domain-specific guidelines for tracking and tracing building materials and products, such as the Building Research Establishment (BRE) in the UK [53] and the Green Construction Board’s Supply Chain Sustainability School [54]. In 2014, BRE established BES 6001 requirements (Figure 3) for the responsible sourcing of construction products, which considers factors such as environmental and social impacts, ethical sourcing, and supply chain management. The standard covers a wide range of construction products, including metals, timber, aggregates, and insulation materials. Traceability is an important element of the BES 6001 standard, as it helps to ensure that the construction products being used are responsibly sourced and sustainable. BES 6001 requires construction companies to demonstrate the traceability of their products by identifying the sources of the raw materials, as well as the suppliers involved in the production and delivery of the finished products. This includes identifying any potential environmental or social risks associated with the sourcing of the materials, such as deforestation, human rights violations, or other unsustainable practices [53].
Figure 3. Traceability in the construction sector—adapted from BES 6001 standard (adapted from BRE [53]).
Digitalization of a traceability process is another critical aspect that should be considered by leveraging the next generation of automated tools or systems [55]. Companies can establish a comprehensive and accurate record of the origin and movement of their construction products through digital traceability technologies [16]. This includes capturing and making available data about the source of raw materials, streamlining processes, and reducing the time and effort required to collect and manage any relevant information about the product and the supply chain. Regarding current regulations, in the European Union (EU), the Construction Products Regulation (CPR) requires that construction products must be traceable through their entire supply chain, from raw materials to the finished product [56]. The CPR also requires that products be accompanied by a Declaration of Performance (DoP) that provides information on the asset’s performance characteristics, such as fire resistance and mechanical strength. In the United States, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) requires that contractors performing renovation, repair, and painting projects that disturb lead-based paint in homes, childcare facilities, and schools built before 1978 follow specific practices to prevent lead contamination [57]. This includes maintaining records of lead-safe work practices used on each job. Additionally, some voluntary certification programs, such as Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED), encourage traceability by awarding points for using materials with recycled content, sustainable sourcing, and transparency in reporting the product’s environmental and social impacts [58].
Overall, improving traceability in the built asset industry requires a multi-faceted approach that involves various stakeholders throughout the requirements, design, construction, supply, and in-use chains. Many scholars and industrial experts have agreed on certain necessary actions such as establishment of clear standards and guidelines [13], adoption of innovative digital technologies (e.g., blockchain systems) [47], encouraging collaboration and communication among project parties [19], regular monitoring and verification of supply chain performance [59], etc. However, there is still a lack of comprehensive understanding of such actions in relation to CE requirements in the built asset industry.

2.4. Summary

Despite the increasing interest in traceability of materials and products throughout built asset lifecycle stages, there is a notable lack of research and understanding around its framing, application and integration into existing standards, strategies, and guidelines to support implementation [13]. Stantana and Ribeiro [11] conducted a comprehensive literature review to map the existing traceability models and frameworks across domains. The authors of the study listed a few traceability models in the construction sector with a focus on effectiveness of technological systems (e.g., RFID system, GPS tags, blockchain technology) for tracking the building fabrication process or construction site logistics [60][61]. To date, only a few studies have highlighted other aspects of traceability in the built asset industry and discussed the actions needed to enable circularity of building materials and products across lifecycle stages [13][14]. This includes poor understanding of the main types of data enabling traceability, lifecycle stages where data can be potentially traced, key technologies to facilitate traceability in data management and documentation, and the relationship among stakeholders involved in the traceability process. These gaps in the literature are significant, as they prevent a complete understanding of the concept of traceability through the lens of CE. Current research often emphasizes single aspects of traceability, such as documentation management or change control, rather than examining the broader impact of traceability on the circularity of products and materials. Therefore, there is a need for further research to investigate the relationship between different aspects of traceability and their potential to support CE principles in the built asset industry. Such research can provide valuable insights for industry practitioners and policymakers, deriving progress towards a more sustainable and circular built environment.

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