This is what the future looks like according to three young minds in the construction industry

By: Jessica Merkens

On the path towards a more sustainable world, the Netherlands has the ambition to transition to a circular economy before 2050. At the same time, predictions tell us that the amount of waste in our country will grow with 70%. So how are we going to realize this circular economy?

The construction industry is one of the areas in which development is increasing rapidly. In the Netherlands, it produces 23 million tonnes of waste each year. Worldwide, it is responsible for 40% of CO₂ emission. And so, in this industry legislation is getting stricter when it comes to sustainability and circularity.

How are we going to get this job done? We hear three young minds, who have a different point of view on our (built) environment: Daan Kosterman, Maayke Damen and Cécile van Oppen.

Daan Kosterman

is project manager for Jan Snel. This is a company that constructs buildings from loose components, so that they can be deconstructed in the future without using a wrecking ball. “Materials remain valuable, instead of ending up on a pile of waste.”

“I’m looking at how sustainable our company is and what we can do to become even more sustainable. I collect data, such as the energy consumption of our factory or the emission of our trucks. I also take into account what impact our materials have on the environment and on the waste we produce. We try to make the best decisions, based on these data and common sense. For me, sustainability and circularity mean taking the future into consideration. I can see that my generation is quite aware of these areas. What you’d want, is that everything you do today, has no impact on the generations ten or twenty years from now. In the past, companies and people weren’t really worried about that. Nowadays, most people know what circularity entails. I don’t have to explain it as often as I had to before.


Materials remain valuable, instead of ending up on a pile of waste

I wanted to work for Jan Snel exactly because of the modular construction. We are often associated with temporary buildings, like emergency buildings. But we also take on more permanent projects. We are working on earthbound houses and have also constructed operation rooms for the Utrecht Medical Center. We build in modules. These modules consist of slim, 5cm concrete floors with a steel cage construction surrounding them, which is filled with timber frame walls. The modules are produced in our factory, after which they are put onto a truck and assembled on location right-away. This way, buildings can be constructed twice as fast. When in fifty or a hundred years time it’s decided that these buildings need to be replaced, it’s easy: you just remove the facade and take out the modules one by one. These modules can be reused somewhere else. This causes a significant reduction in emission. And materials keep their value, instead of ending up as a piece of trash or being downcycled. If you would throw all the materials used in a modular and a traditional building on a pile and would look at the average amount of materials per square meter, then the modular construction already would have half of the CO2 emission compared to the traditional building.


It is really important to be aware of the things you do and what happens when you leave again

As a modular builder we are the minority. 95 percent of all buildings were built in the traditional way. What’s the environmental impact when you renovate such a house? I think that’s an interesting issue. My own house that I recently bought, was built in 1941, during the war. Materials were scarce back then and it hadn’t been refurbished in about eighty years. It had to be stripped completely. I was very curious: if you partially knock down a house and update it, so to say, with the newest techniques: what do you take out and what do you put back in? We took out nine containers of waste to make sure we could turn it into a modern house. I was really shocked by that. These buildings already exist. You can’t say: “I’m going to do it in an entirely different way.” But it did bring me new ideas. Imagine if it was originally built in a modular way: I might have been able to take out the entire house, bring it to the factory where it could be altered and put it back in place again. Instead of it disappearing in a container as a pile of bricks. Sustainability and circularity don’t have the tree hugger image it used to have anymore, but it’s still not entirely mainstream. I believe it is primarily a mindset. It doesn’t have to be more work or cost you any more effort or money. It’s really important to be aware of the things you do and what happens when you leave again.”

Maayke Damen

founded the Excess Materials Exchange: a digital market place where used materials are connected to buyers that can reuse them in the best way possible. “Waste is worth its weight in gold”

“I have always realised we are part of a bigger ecosystem and that we should change the way we interact with it. I want to contribute to it, and that’s what I now do with the Excess Materials Exchange. We describe ourselves as a dating website where we connect the materials to the buyer that will reuse the materials as best as possible. So, we’re not like Tinder, where you just swipe left or right, but more a website like eHarmony. We’ll tell our users: ‘this may be a good match for you’. Waste is worth its weight in gold. It’s very workable these days. When we started the Excess Materials Exchange 4 years ago, people told us we were crazy. And now, people think the idea is actually really logical. That realization changed in a short amount of time. The most important industries that we work with are construction, infrastructure, plastics, textile and organic materials such as coffee grounds and orange peels. The construction industry is very interested in our service, because legislation has become stricter to achieve ambitious goals with regards to circularity. We receive a lot of different materials: ceiling tiles, walls, windowsills, blinds, carpet tiles, you name it.


In an ideal world, you’d have a raw material passport already from the mine

How does it work? First, you identify what materials are in a product or building. We do this through means of a material passport. You can compare this to a nutrition label for foods. You want to know as detailed as possible what kind of materials a building consists of. The same with your clothes, your laptop, etc. In an ideal world, things have a raw material passport from the mine onward. Organisations make decisions based on costs. Circularity wasn’t really on the agenda in Europe, until China introduced export restrictions and quota for Rare Earth Elements (REEs). This is a diverse group of metals we need for important installations in our energy infrastructure and healthcare. For example solar panels and MRI machines. A lot of European manufacturers suddenly had supply chain problems because of these restrictions. Shipments were delayed and, in some cases, bills for raw materials tripled because of the scarcity. People started thinking: where are we going to get these REEs now? While in the meantime, many of these metals are already inside products that are in Europe, but we just throw them away. So, there is a large incentive to make sure we reuse more products and materials.


Our end game is a worldwide exchange of materials and products on a large scale

As an organisation, you could start by keeping a register of your raw materials. What does your company use? What’s in your building, what can you do with it? With this, you increase the value of everything you do. And you can make circularity a key component of your strategy in a measurable way. I’m positive when I look at the future. Our first goal was to change the paradigm that waste is not worthless, but valuable. I think we are already quite successful at that. Now, our end game is a worldwide exchange of materials and products on a large scale. And that starts with introducing a raw materials passport.”

Cécile van Oppen

co-founded consulting agency Copper8, where she helps organizations in the transition to a circular economy. “I believe that the circular economy should be beneficial for everybody.”

“When I started working in 2005, sustainability in business was quite new. It primarily was a subject for facility management, such as limiting paper use. Sustainability was not part of company strategies. I successfully introduced sustainability as a proposition to my first employer, but I became more and more aware that the traditional model of consulting agencies goes against the necessary measures for the circular transition. Eight years ago, I co-founded Copper8. We are, for lack of a better word, a consulting agency that is focused on accelerating the transition to a circular economy. We do this by giving advice, doing research and participating in hopeful initiatives that might help to upscale the circular economy.


In the 70s, one of my personal gurus Walter Stahel, was already talking about ‘Loop Economy’. So how brand-new is circular economy really?

From an early age, I was already very aware that we had to treat the earth differently. I was raised in the south of Limburg (the Netherlands) and my father was a DSM-dad (a chemical company, that originated from the Dutch State Mines). We frequently drove by the factories, so I knew what factory emission looked like. Later, when I was abroad, I was confronted with the concept of acid rain. My dad explained to me that acid rain was caused by the emission of cars and factories. I just couldn’t understand that my dad contributed to the destruction of the beautiful nature he admired so much. Later, he told me that this was a turning point for him as well. Quite understandable, when your six-year-old daughter calls you to order. In the 70s, one of my personal gurus Walter Stahel, was already talking about ‘Loop Economy’. So how brand-new is circular economy really? I am happy more and more parties are talking about this. I find it difficult that the transition to a circular economy is mostly approached in a technical way. We’re almost stuck in a ‘how do we measure circularity?’ mindset. While the biggest transitions are actually social and economic. Whenever I look at LinkedIn, I see the word ‘circular’ being used. We’re a frontrunner when it comes to using it in our vocabulary, but our consumer behavior tells differently.


If we can make that happen, ‘product as service models’ become commonplace

I believe that the circular economy should benefit everyone, not just the ‘idealistic elite’. If you rent a circular washing machine, you pay 25 euros a month. For the average citizen that’s not an interesting proposition. If we can shift the economy in such a way that you can rent the exact same washing machine for 7 euros a month, then you can make it more appealing to the masses. And as a result the proposition becomes scalable. There are a lot of entrepreneurs with a strong circular mindset. Such as Mud Jeans, a clothing company where you can rent instead of buy your jeans. Sadly, they are forced by the current system to sell their jeans anyway. Why? Because banks don’t like financing businesses based on a monthly membership, since your debts are higher than your income. Or because of accountancy limitations. As a society, it’s our job to explore the obstacles these progressive businesses encounter, and to discuss those obstacles. If we can make that happen, these ‘product as service models’ become commonplace.”

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