Urban mining reveals the ‘true’ value of buildings

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In the circular economy, buildings aren’t torn down when they’re old, but are ‘harvested’ or ‘dismantled’. Usable materials and resources are disassembled and re-used in new buildings, significantly increasing their value. This is the principle behind ‘urban mining’ – using the city as a source of building materials.

Michel Baars is the owner and founder of New Horizon, a company active in urban mining. Terms like ‘demolition’ and ‘waste’ don’t exist in this world. “We don’t see scrap wood – we see new window frames, dormers, tables and floors. We use old concrete to make new concrete. If you look at the built environment that way, you’ll see loads of opportunities. With this approach, we’re already competing with traditional construction companies.”

“We recently disassembled a hospital in the Dutch town of Veghel. A new neighbourhood was built on the spot where that hospital had stood for 50 years. There were wooden bumpers in the building that protected the walls against beds being wheeled through the halls. The bumpers were made from meranti hardwood. They don’t make them like that anymore. Fifty years old, but smelled like new on the lathe. That wood is now being used for the outside doors of the homes in the new neighbourhood.”

Source of building materials

Michiel was one of the main guests at the Week of the Circular Economy, held from 3 to 7 February in Circl. He talked extensively about the opportunities and challenges presented by circular construction and urban mining, the essence of which is that the built environment is used as the main source of building materials and resources for new buildings. By harvesting instead of demolishing, construction firms re-use materials, capitalising on the intrinsic value of a building. All existing buildings become valuable ‘donor’ buildings.

Circular construction can benefit the environment enormously. Michel: “We hear a lot of great stories in our business. Like the one about meranti wood or the bar of the football club Top Oss, which was incorporated into the floor at Circl. It’s really nice, and it’s good for our image. But imagine how much more we are doing for the environment by turning old concrete into new concrete. Together with our partner Rutte Beton, we are the first company in the world to do this successfully. Not only are we preventing tonnes of demolition waste, it’s also good for the climate, as the concrete industry is a huge producer of carbon emissions.”

Consistently sold out

New Horizon is a contractor for the dismantlement of buildings. The goal is to provide the construction market with the harvested materials. In collaboration with a number of partners in the Urban Mining Collective, among which ABN AMRO, these materials are made usable as circular building products for renovation and new-build projects.

This broad approach gives New Horizon good insight into the circular construction market. So, how is this market doing? Michel: “Demand is high and is very much on the rise. In fact, we’re consistently sold out of circular construction materials. This explains why our own demand for donor buildings is so high. There are far too few donor buildings – and that’s no good. Nobody will close the cycle on their own, so we’re all dependent on one another. That’s why I now tell project developers that I’ll deliver circular concrete for their construction projects, but they’ll have to donate a building as well.”

Stock of materials in the Netherlands

Urban mining is a rapidly developing field. “If you’d googled ‘urban mining’ a few years ago, you would have read about re-using rare metals from mobile phones,” notes Michel. “Today, it’s all about demolition projects and re-using natural resources and materials. And now we’re at the dawn of yet another new phase where we’re going to quantify the value of materials used in existing property. If you do that well, you can create financial structures that allow you to connect the stock of materials available in the Netherlands to the economy.”

Data is used to quantify the value of materials. “Based on our user data and experiences in the past, we can predict the ‘harvest’ present in an existing building. This value has never been recognised. What’s more, the value is now negative because it costs money to demolish it. We demonstrate that in a highly developed urban mining culture, very valuable components of a building emerge, increasing the building’s commercial value by several per cent.”

Honest about ‘true’ costs

It’s hard to say when circular construction will be less expensive than traditional construction. “The easy answer is, when we’re honest about the ‘true’ costs of traditional construction. If you add the costs of the environmental and climate impact, we’re competitive on all fronts. But we’re not there yet. At present, we’re competitive in certain materials, such as ceramics, brick, concrete and bitumen. What we need is for the supply to be more predictable. A predictable volume would create continuity, allowing us to be more competitive. Quantifying the materials in existing property, which we’re now starting to do, will help us enormously.”

Photo: Marieke Odekerken

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