Why we should focus on circular areas, then circular buildings

Published on the 4th of May 2018

Circular construction is often associated with how we design and develop individual structures, focusing largely on the materials we use.  But truly circular development requires us to zoom out a notch and look at the larger network of structures and utilities surrounding the buildings. Merlijn Blok explores the concept of circular area development and how it can accelerate the Dutch built environment’s transition to circularity.

The concept of the circular economy has become highly relevant for the Dutch construction sector in recent years. The momentum driving a circular built environment is two-fold: while city governments are applying growing pressure to develop within specific sustainability parameters, organizations are at the same time sitting up to the economic and reputational gains that circular buildings can provide. The Dutch Green Building Council’s (DGBC) decision to work circularity into its BREEAM standard is a signal: circular construction is a fast-growing reality and a priority.

For many, circular construction refers to how we design and develop individual structures, focusing largely on what materials are used.  But truly circular development requires us to zoom out a notch. All city buildings are plugged into a larger network of other structures and utilities, including transport services, sanitation systems, electricity supply grids, refuse disposal systems and public spaces. To become fully circular, buildings need to be developed in parallel with the broader urban system or area in which they are embedded. As Metabolic’s Gerard Roemers mentioned in a recent interview with DGBC, “you can build a very durable or circular building, but if you do it in a location that you can only get to by means of a long car journey, then that is not a circular choice.”

Dutch municipalities leading the way on circular area development

Amsterdam’s northern suburb of Buiksloterham is one of the country’s frontrunners when it comes to circular area development. In 2015, the City of Amsterdam and 20 other organizations including Metabolic, signed a manifesto to turn the post-industrial, polluted area into a fully circular neighbourhood.

In subsequent years, circular area development has been a growing priority for Dutch municipalities. Metabolic’s built environment team has recently rounded off a circularity framework for a central district in the province of North Holland. Working with Haarlemmermeer, we mapped the energy, water and materials flows coming in and out of the area and used this data to suggest high-impact circular interventions, including decentralized sanitation, urban mining, battery storage and electric vehicle charging stations, among others. We continued to work with the municipality on how these interventions should be integrated into their urban area development program (SPvE), and how these spatial implications should be translated into tendering and development guidelines for the plots of land in the area.

Running through all of this work is a common thread: each of the areas that make up a city or region differ from one another, with some areas more suitable for sustainability interventions than others. This is best explained by a recent project where we mapped how the municipal sustainability and circularity goals of Amsterdam relate to the spatial implications of each area, and how neighborhoods with different profiles should be approached with tailor-made strategies. This approach forms the core of the Metabolic Cities Program, which will launch later this year.

What does this mean for developers?

When granting building plots for development, Dutch municipalities increasingly select developers on the basis of circularity and sustainability. These prerequisites are often set at the area level, so if developers are to continue winning tenders, focusing on buildings in the context of areas is critical.

To help developers and housing corporations understand and prepare for this shift, the Metabolic team recently ran a three-month masterclass series on circular tendering and area development in collaboration with Platform31, SGS Search and AT Lawyers. Key takeaways from this series can be found in the publication Groenboek: circulariteit en gebiedsontwikkeling

To learn more about Metabolic’s approach to circular area development, read the Spatial Implications of Circular development in Amsterdam [Dutch and English], or contact Merlijn Blok on [email protected]

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