Circular buildings boost vitality

With Circl as a testing ground for the construction and use of a circular building, the bank has created a useful template for its other office buildings and business units. Céline Pessers, Circular Economy Manager with Facility Management, is involved in this transition every single day. After eighteen months of pioneering, tackling dilemmas and making choices, she says circularity is alive and kicking at the bank.

ABN AMRO has set itself big goals for sustainability. With Mission 2030, the bank aims to ensure that all the properties it finances or manages have earned an average energy label A. Another objective involves making sustainable investment the norm. The bank also intends to be an action leader in the circular economy. 

Accordingly, all the many circular initiatives which ABN AMRO has developed have generated a wealth of experience and lessons learned. Circl is a well-known example, but the bank is also experimenting with circular furnishings at its branches in Amstelveen and Oosterhout. Amersfoort, too, is home to several exciting circular initiatives which are currently in the pipeline. As is common practice in the circular world, the bank supports the right of others to copy its achievements. That includes clients, suppliers and other stakeholders, all of whom are encouraged to build on ABN AMRO’s successful initiatives and breakthroughs.

A need for standards

“The circular transition won’t be easy, but that doesn’t mean we’re not actively pursuing it anyway,” says Céline. “We want to make circular building, renovation, design and procurement the new standard. And that’s a huge challenge. There are a staggering 114 definitions for the circular economy, for instance, and that can sometimes make it hard to decide whether a concept is, in fact, truly circular. It all starts with determining where products come from and how they’re made. No matter which production chain you look at, there are always detrimental effects on human beings, the environment and the climate. Unfortunately, much of what is touted as circular these days isn’t circular at all when you get right down to it. 

“When mapping out a particular production chain, it can be very difficult to get a full picture of all the data,” Céline continues. “Often what you run into is a black box. That goes for businesses in the chain itself, too. Things aren’t always as transparent as you might think. After all, certifications and labels can only ever be part of the solution, since they don’t address the question of how materials should be put back into circulation at a later stage – which is, after all, the very essence of circularity. The market clearly needs standards for circularity when it comes to production, purchasing and reporting.”

Making an impact

“Doing nothing is not an option,” Céline says. “To make headway, we simply have to experiment, try new things and learn from our experiences. Last year, we mapped out all the flows of building and raw materials for the bank’s 250 branches. This gave us a good picture of how we can make the greatest circular impact in our purchasing. We discovered that construction waste and office furniture generated the two biggest waste flows. So that’s what we’re focusing on at the moment. We’ve joined forces with several start-ups to launch multiple initiatives. Our aim over the next few years is to create standard circular branches and workplaces together with various market players.”

Three concrete examples of circular initiatives

1. The chain for floor covering
Céline has high hopes for the projects now under way. She says, “Since we recently switched to agile working, we’re modifying the physical layout and furnishings of all our branches to support the new approach. Obviously, we’re talking about thousands of square metres of flooring. So we wanted a circular solution. We teamed up with a provider of circular procurement software called Rendemint and have carried out an impact analysis of the entire production chain, the use phase and post-service life for several floor finishes. The floors scoring the highest in terms of circularity are now being used on a large scale for renovations to our Amsterdam Zuidoost branch.”

2. Cataloguing circular furniture
“The second experiment we undertook involves office furniture. Working with CircularIQ, we generated product circularity sheets, which function like passports detailing the raw materials a piece of furniture contains, the level of carbon emissions and whether the product can be disassembled. This process is meant to raise staff awareness about their working environment. It also serves as input for a conversation with our suppliers, which has to go further than the quality of their office chairs. Our aim really is to set the entire chain in motion.”

3. A Living Lab for radically sustainable catering
The circular developments at the bank’s offices in Amersfoort are of a completely different order. Céline explains, “The starting point for the initiative here was high-quality, circular coffee. ABN AMRO has formed a partnership with Selecta and Peeze to find out what a fully circular coffee concept looks like. We’re mapping out the whole journey of the coffee bean to explore with manufacturers the possibility of modular coffee machines. Amersfoort will also serve as our Living Lab for radically sustainable, healthy catering. We’ll be serving mainly vegetarian food. The Lab is 100 per cent PET (or polyethylene terephthalate)-free, and 0 per cent waste. We’re also aiming to generate the very minimum in carbon emissions. We then plan to adopt the most successful aspects at other ABN AMRO offices and branches.”

Boosting vitality

Staff vitality is another important area of focus in the circular philosophy. Céline explains, “In Amersfoort, we’re soon going to be measuring how the building and catering impact on the health and vitality of our staff. Healthy food, lots of daylight, good air quality and views of greenery rather than concrete benefit all of us in a big way. Fit employees are more productive and absent less often because of illness. I’m in favour of taking a broad, integral approach to the investments we make in our buildings and, by extension, indirectly in our employees. And that means we’ll be working closely with our HR colleagues.”

Taking a holistic view

Céline says these are exciting times: “I believe we’re at a crossroads. If I’ve learned anything over the last year and a half, it’s that we can’t build a new economy within the structure of the old system. But fighting a broken system is a lost battle and can wear you down. It’s about enticing others with different ways to produce, consume and think. Once you look at the world from that perspective, you see that the new economy is actually already in full swing. My wish for the future is that circular thinking becomes second nature to every single one of us.”

Amstelveen: a fully functional circular branch

The bank’s Amstelveen branch is a great example of circular thinking and expertise. Together with the construction team, project manager Bart Bos has blended many of the lessons learned from Circl and newer experiments. The building was equipped with energy-saving features during renovation, which resulted in an energy label A. Suppliers were tasked with deploying as many previously used materials as possible during the renovation process. Visitors enter the branch on a tufted floor made from empty PET bottles and recycled twine from nets produced in the Dutch fishing town of Urk. The wall panels are made of old pallets. There are tables fashioned from grass fibres, chairs made of old industrial uniforms and recycled plasterboard. Any new materials are at the very least cradle-to-cradle certified and sustainable. All the materials are soon to be recorded in a Madaster materials passport so they can be reused after their life at the bank. But a circular building is about more than just the materials it’s made of – it’s also a mindset. Right up to the last day of construction before the branch reopened, the construction team were constantly working to ensure optimum sustainability and circularity.