‘From demolition to supplier’

  12 October 2021  |    Interview

Heembouw is the construction company and designer behind the circular pavilion at C-Bèta. Its commercial manager Martijn Icke says the focus on sustainability can be found across the whole industry. “At C-Bèta, we demonstrate what we think construction is going to look like in the future.”

What are the current game changers and has the coronavirus pandemic had an effect on the industry?
“Health and wellbeing are gaining more traction as focus areas, and the pandemic has exacerbated that. In my experience, those topics then tend to touch on others, such as sustainability and circularity. It all comes back to one of the biggest game changers: the desire for conscious living. For us as a construction business, sustainability is of great interest to us. For Heembouw it’s key.”

What does that mean for Heembouw’s plans for the future?
“The awareness of the topic is only going to become greater and greater. It’s certainly become an important factor in how we run our own business. In early 2020, we moved to our new location, which is a sustainable building with an A+ energy label. Our complete vehicle fleet is becoming electric. And this is the direction we’re taking in all our activities. We are committed to using Freement, circular concrete, whenever possible. Such commitments mean it’s no longer an option to choose non-sustainable methods. The sustainability ideal is spreading out across all parts of the business. The challenge is to get everyone on board. For that you need inspiring key figures. The switch to sustainable methods went pretty fast. Around five years ago, it wasn’t an important topic for many construction businesses. Sound business management goes hand in hand with this new focus – it’s not a question of one or the other. I’ve noticed this across the whole supply chain. In some places, this is a quick process, some others need a bit longer to adjust, such as building services engineering.”

But isn’t that actually an area where there are many steps that can be taken to make it more sustainable?
“That’s right. And there are some pioneers in that field, as well. But a lot of challenges remain, for example when it comes to reducing the materials used or reusing existing installations. In recent years we’ve been challenging our partners to reconsider their role in making projects more sustainable. What we need is to change the revenue model, particularly when it comes to reuse and ownership of materials. That’s the biggest obstacle to overcome right now. Because the way I see it, manufacturing and using new materials will become an outdated process. And that will change the entire sector. The demolition industry will turn into suppliers, with far-reaching consequences for everyone involved.”

What sort of innovations are you witnessing in the construction sector and what effects do they have?
“Because the supply chain is going to change, we, as part of that chain, will need to change too. We’ll continue to build and design, but we’ll need to be more creative with those processes. There will be more focus, for example, on making sure materials can be removed and reused more easily.”

“When you look at construction itself, craftsmanship will play a much bigger role again. We noticed this during the rebuild of the barn at C-Bèta. Material expertise and quality control have taken a step back in recent years, but they’re making a comeback. We’ve also seen a new role develop: that of material scouts. For the longest time, the thinking was that if something had an NEN certificate – i.e. was certified by the Royal Netherlands Standardisation Institute – that’s all you needed to know. But you can’t certify reused materials using the NEN rules. As a result, people have needed to re-learn how to recognise quality and estimate a certain material’s value. This requires expertise and new competencies. You need to be creative, open-minded, be able to look beyond the delivery date of a project, design with an eye on deconstructability…

A number of our recent projects, such as C-Bèta and our own offices in Roelofarendsveen and in Berkel en Rodenrijs, have taught us a lot, and we share these new insights. We also talk about what didn’t go well, or which aspects we’re unsure about. I really like this sharing of lessons learned. Another new development I expect is that we as a construction company are going to be thinking a lot more about maintenance, even prior to construction. And that we are going to talk to our clients about future maintenance and service costs. I expect that in the coming years, all these developments will lead to more integration within the sector. I’m hoping that all us construction nerds will come together once more and build.”

How do sustainability certificates approach circularity?
“The main sustainability certifications in construction are BREEAM and WELL. Despite BREEAM being a well thought out method, it doesn’t reward the reuse of materials at all. That’s a bit strange. The same goes for WELL. We may need to add new ratings to them: ‘super-excellent’ for BREEAM and ‘five-stars-plus’ for WELL. The Dutch environmental standard, the MilieuPrestatie Gebouwen (MPG), which needs to be included with every application for planning permission, thankfully does take reuse into account. It lists the environmental impact of the proposed materials, and reused materials score well.”

Certificates, objectives, requirements: the construction industry has to reckon with a large body of rules.
“And we must constantly adapt these rules, too. We are frequently faced with new regulations. In principle I’m all for that. But sometimes, a change in rules means it’s cheaper to demolish an old building and put up a new one – not exactly a sustainable way of working, but often the only way that buildings can meet the requirements. What you really want to do is build something that you know can stand for at least 50 years. Or where you know you can change its use within its lifetime. Now that’s sustainable! So there is quite a lot happening and we need to find considered and innovative concepts to deal with that. Always looking to the future.”

What sort of concepts are you currently working on?
“One of our current projects is a circular distribution centre. When we built our office according to circular principles, we thought, ‘why aren’t we doing the same thing with a distribution centre?’ There are enough potential clients for that. As a construction company that also designs and that has circular credentials, we have all the expertise needed for such a project. We now have a proof of concept and we’re in discussion with a number of parties.

In addition, we’re building an office building that’s entirely constructed from wood. Sustainable, deconstructable and with a high residual value. The disadvantage is the initial cost. It’s still so much higher than standard construction, so this way of building is currently not competitive.”

What are your hopes and expectations for the circular pavilion at C-Bèta?
“It will be a place to meet interesting startups and scaleups who are active in the field of construction and the built environment. We want to learn from everyone there, gain some insights and inspiration, and hopefully also share our own experiences. On top of that, the pavilion is our own project and as such, it’s ideal for taking others to in order to demonstrate the quality of construction that Heembouw stands for. We want to take everyone along on our transition and share our vision of the future of construction. Furthermore, I’m hoping for some excellent food and drink at C-Bèta – that would make the place even nicer.”