Photo: The Treasure Room
IN THE SPOTLIGHT
Nicole Bakker (Circular Engine)
“You can innovate better with a more diverse team”
By: Jessica Merkens
Nicole Bakker is the owner of Circular Engine, a circular design and consultancy firm. As a structural engineer specialised in constructions, she had always wanted to become an architect. But a Masters degree Design Engineering at Harvard University brought her on the path of biotechnique. There is one common thread: for her, everything revolves around sustainability, circularity and making a demonstrable impact. The transition can be done quicker and better, according to her. “It’s important that the construction industry becomes more inclusive.”
As a child, Bakker had always felt a strong connection with nature. She grew up in Friesland, in the north of The Netherlands, and got her love for greenery from her family. Very early on, she realised that humans need to work in harmony with nature. In 2016, a coalition of Frisian companies gave her the opportunity to go to Boston. “I walked into the MIT Media Lab and was acquainted with biobased and bio-inspired design. Those researchers made structures with beautiful organic forms that were entirely made out of biobased materials. And they did it with the help of algorithms and robots. I immediately thought: this is the future of construction! I want to be involved in this.”
Photo: Research of Nicole Bakker to the integration of solar panels in historical buildings
The construction industry is still quite dependent on CO2-intensive materials like steel, ceramics and concrete. What’s your view on this?
“I have a realistic view on it. As humankind, we have come this far because of these materials and energy. It’s a given that we should not forget. It’s just too bad that these materials are not good for CO2 emission and our health. With insights like these, we can keep on innovating and developing, with biobased materials for example. It’s important that we take responsibility for this evolution collectively and don’t get stuck in the old system. How can we make buildings and products that give the same performance, but are more sustainable and add to our health? You always have to look at the application for this. You don’t really want to use biodegradable materials in applications that wear out easily, such as roads. For packaging, on the other hand, biodegradables are great. For me personally, the change towards new materials is not going fast enough, but we’re early on in the process of technological development. For biobased materials, there is little available on the market. That’s a problem the construction industry is facing. Hopefully, the market will be riper for change in a year or two. Currently I do research all of these facets, while also maintaining a more practical side. Something can be a beautiful idea or elegantly designed, but can it be built? And what does it mean financially for an organisation or a product? With my company, I try to translate scientific theories and technologies to a strategy, design trajectory or prototyping session with which a company can get started right away.”
As a person, you can make a lot of impact. That applies to everybody.
What’s the most urgent change that needs to happen in the construction industry?
“We need to work together more. It has to revolve less around costs and competition, because it creates shortcuts that are neither necessary nor sustainable. The climate challenge is really big. I jokingly call myself a translator. Traditionally, there are disciplines where there is a lot of friction and conflict. How do you bring them together? In design engineering, you mainly look at how you’re able to unite those disciplines. In that way, you can overcome inefficiencies in the system in a pragmatic and practical way. You work as a mediator, but in the field of innovation, technology and sustainability. By getting different people around the table, you can quicken this transition much faster. That’s very valuable. In this light, it is also important that the construction industry becomes more inclusive. I work in different technical industries, like the waste industry, mobility and construction. Traditionally seen, those are largely male dominated industries. My experience is, that it’s much harder to work in construction. It is a very cost-driven discipline, that could be a reason. But there is also great pressure on people. I am convinced that when more female engineers would cause such a transactional sector to become a bit softer. Moreover, scientific research has shown that organisations can gain a lot from this. You’re better able to innovate and come up with more unique propositions when you work in a more diverse team. I am committed to that.”
Photo: Sandwave (2021): acoustic wall panel made by parametric CAD/CAM workflow and CNC fabrication.
Finding a common ground creates more possibilities
We can keep talking, but change needs to happen now
As a woman, do you tackle problems in a different way?
“Yes, quite often. That’s also because I have done an atypical degree. I look at problems from all those angles. When I was nineteen, for example, I wrote a book about the integration of solar panels in historical buildings. Those two disciplines have a lot of friction, because you are not allowed to apply new innovations to these buildings. By trying to find a common ground, a lot more is possible than previously thought. In technology, design and regulations. Searching for those connections is a quality that is quite female, I believe. Subsequently, you can co-create together to get to a constructive solution relatively quickly. The responses were overwhelming. I didn’t expect that at all. At that moment, in 2013, that integration was not known at all. In Leeuwarden, they built new buildings in which they integrated solar panels in the houses, based on what I wrote in my book. Some people ask themselves: what can you do as one person? While I believe, if you take the leap, you can have a lot of impact. Even as one person. That goes for everybody.”
Recently climate panel of the United Nations published the IPCC report. Climate change seems to be bigger than ever, caused by the human species. What’s your opinion on that?
“The report was a lot to take in. I have spent my whole life working on sustainability. You know climate change is coming. But the urgency of the report, combined with the signs of climate change we already see at the moment, like floods and tornados, give me goose bumps. The realisation has sunk in that climate change is happening now and not in ten years. It sparked my fire even more. We can keep talking, but change just needs to happen right now.”