Used building materials are the future

Construction and demolition is the largest source of waste in the Netherlands. What’s more, construction activities make up a large proportion of carbon emissions. Circular building is the ideal solution to both problems. But it does require a complete rethink from architects, builders and those who commission builds (such as you, perhaps).

What is circular building?

Actually, grass roofs belong in the category of sustainable building, among a broad array of ways and means to factor in the effects on the environment of living in a building. These include insulation to save energy, solar panels on roofs, geothermal heating, etc. Of course, re-using materials is a key element of sustainable construction – and that’s where circular building comes in. In circular thinking, there’s no need for waste: it’s really more a matter of rethinking. Buildings can be created so that their materials can be used repeatedly. They’ve been put together in such a way that it’s easy to take apart and re-use the materials in other buildings. Which means less and less building waste.

Is this happening on a massive scale?

No, there’s very little circular building going on as yet. In fact, it’s only been a few years that builders, architects and those who commission these projects have been experimenting with circular technology. One of the first circular buildings in the Netherlands is Circl, ABN AMRO’s sustainable pavilion in Amsterdam’s financial district. Circl’s insulation, for instance, consists of 16,000 old pairs of jeans, a proportion of which were previously owned and worn by some of the bank’s workforce. Its meeting rooms have window frames that were salvaged from a dismantled major office building. And Circl employees wear clothes made from textiles derived from old plastic bottles.

The Netherlands wants to be circular by 2050

A lot still needs changing, to be honest. It starts at the design stage, of course. No circular architect worth their salt would start from a blank sheet; they first look at available building materials and will then start fabricating something. The problem is that, at this point, nobody really keeps systematic track of which used building materials can be found where. That’s why all buildings should really have a kind of ‘materials passport’, recording precisely what materials have gone into creating it. If a building gets dismantled, the materials should end up at a sort of eBay for recycled building materials. The Netherlands has made a start, creating what’s called Madaster in 2017, a type of register for materials. ABN AMRO is also a partner of Excess Material Exchange, which has been garnering a great deal of international attention for creating a marketplace in this field. Circular construction helps cut carbon emissions massively. The production of materials and the actual construction of an average home release so much carbon that offsetting it would take over 5,000 trees to be planted. That’s reduced greatly in a circular build. The government could promote circular construction by charging on to their originator the social cost of all these carbon emissions, a process known as ‘true pricing’. This would help to make circular building a lot more attractive financially. And if you happen to be considering building your own home (increasingly popular in the Netherlands), try and engage your architect and builder on recycled materials. They may be new to circular building, but they’re likely to be open to the suggestion. Because even the building industry understands that circular building is the future.

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Jan Raes

Jan Raes

Sustainability Advisor +31 (0)20 383 1753