’A little bit of an architect’ of a circular icon

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We give daily guided tours of Circl, ABN AMRO’s circular pavilion in Amsterdam’s Zuidas business district, mainly to representatives of other companies, business owners and politicians who are seeking inspiration for their own sustainable projects. Circl has become an iconic symbol of the circular economy in the Netherlands: an economy where waste is designed out and there is a closed-loop approach to products and raw materials. It’s impressive, certainly, but it nearly didn’t happen; a very different building was initially planned for where Circl now stands.

The site was in fact almost construction-ready when the team suddenly decided to call a halt to the project Niina Pussinen Business Development Manager at Circl

Fascination for buildings

My father and brother are both architects, and while I chose a very different area of study, I’ve always had a fascination for buildings and how they influence people. When I entered the world of finance 15 years ago, though, architecture seemed a long way off. I began as a management trainee, then worked as a project manager and strategy consultant before moving to various management roles in IT and Operations. In 2013, I was contacted by the Director of Facility Management, who’s responsible for ABN AMRO’s property portfolio. We’d worked together in the past and regularly came across each other in the bank’s female employee network. She offered me an interesting position in her management team, with responsibility for buildings management and the development of interior design and service concepts. It didn’t take me long to make up my mind; after all, it was the perfect opportunity to follow to some extent in the footsteps of my father and brother. What’s more, I would never have been offered such an opportunity outside the bank, since I had no experience of real estate management.

Most sustainable in-use office building

Sustainability was a priority from my very first day at Facility Management. The first thing we did was begin making our offices more sustainable. With impressive results: in 2016, for example, the bank’s head office in Amsterdam was voted the most sustainable in-use office building in the world. This was pretty amazing for a building that was 20 years old. What’s more, we can now use the knowledge we gained during the renovation to advise the bank’s real estate clients on how to make their own property portfolios more sustainable and show that a support centre can also contribute to the core business of the bank.

Not right

As well as making our existing buildings more sustainable, we wanted to gain experience in building new sustainable offices. That’s why we decided to design a pavilion as an extension to our head office, to contain extra conference rooms, among other facilities. Although it met far-reaching sustainability requirements, the design was still fairly traditional, focusing mainly on energy conservation measures. The Executive Board had already approved the plan and the drawings when doubts began to assail the project team. Was it as good as we could make it? Was it genuinely going to help us meet our sustainability goals? For instance, although the recycling of materials was part of the design, it wasn’t really a priority. It didn’t feel right; the plan just wasn’t innovative and inspiring enough. The site was nearly construction-ready when the team suddenly decided to call a halt to the project and, with the architect, went back to the drawing board. In the end, we decided to aim higher and go for a fully circular building. The project team was committed to the new approach straight away, and the architect duly got to work on new drawings. Everything suddenly fell into place, especially as the transition to a circular economy was now becoming a more prominent social theme.

Nerve-racking presentation

Our Chief Operating Officer (COO), who had commissioned the project, was aware that the original proposal hadn’t been particularly ambitious. But he had no idea that the project team was now working on a completely new design. When it was ready, we invited him to hear our presentation. We gave ourselves a 50-50 chance of winning him over to the new concept. We knew he was committed to sustainability, but circular construction was still a fairly unknown quantity, and hence risky. So we were pretty nervous. But the project team gave an inspired presentation and convincingly explained why ABN AMRO should show more courage in this development. The message got through and the COO gave the new design his wholehearted support. Circl was now a reality!

Mission

With Circl, ABN AMRO has now put the concept of circularity firmly on the agenda. That’s because the pavilion isn’t just a symbol of circular construction: circularity is also at the heart of everything that happens inside it, from catering and events to circular business design workshops and the many new initiatives we are developing there with our clients and partners. ABN AMRO is on a real mission to spread the ‘circular’ message, and this is reflected in the huge popularity of our daily guided tours. If the project team hadn’t had the courage to follow its instinct, we’d never have made such an impact. I’m immensely proud to have had the chance to contribute to such an initiative. Whenever I stand on the roof terrace of the Circl building, I feel a little bit of an architect: of this initiative, and hence of a new economy.

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