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Blogs 17 may 2023

Circular Construction 2023

It is a well-known fact that the construction sector is facing major challenges: a huge housing shortage, significant labour shortages, pressure on supply chains, and laws and regulations that are becoming more stringent. Under the Energy Performance of Buildings Directive (EPBD), by 2027 all new public buildings in EU Member States are required to meet the zero-emission definition, and by 2030 so must all other new buildings. Requirements for existing buildings will also become stricter. All this at a time of rising interest rates and high inflation.
We discussed the subject with Lizzy Butink (Manager Sustainability at Dura Vermeer Divisie Bouw en Vastgoed [construction and real estate division]), Patrick Ballast (Head Sustainability at Ballast Nedam) and Thijs Pleijhuis (Manager Sustainability at KlokGroep).

What is the greatest challenge faced by your construction company today?

Both Pleijhuis and Ballast indicate that the Dutch Nitrogen Reduction and Nature Improvement Act, together with rising material costs and rising interest rates, is having a major impact on operations. But it does not stop there. Ballast: ‘Scarcity on the labour market is also making it more difficult to attract sufficiently qualified staff.’ This does not stop them, however, from taking responsibility in a climate-changing world and seeking solutions for sustainable construction. Ballast: ‘We are continually looking for sustainable materials to apply in our development projects, working on CO2-neutral construction processes and striving for the lowest possible environmental performance score.’ But time is also playing a large role. This is where the biggest challenge lies, according to Butink: ‘Many things are already possible and a lot is happening, but acceleration is key. A serious system change will be needed for the entire sector to stay below 1.5 °C of global warming.’

The EU has not only set strict requirements for new buildings but also for renovation and conversion of existing ones. The aim is to have a highly energy-efficient and carbon-free building stock by 2050. Is that achievable?

It will be, if we create a level playing field, says Pleijhuis. ‘It helps if we have unambiguous regulations including a clear vision of where we want to go as a country. The CSRD and the EU Taxonomy encourage us to take steps towards that level playing field and further initiate the transition towards a circular economy.’ Meanwhile, the choice of material is playing an ever-increasing role for everyone in minimising environmental impact. And so are disassemblage possibilities in design and construction, where data registration is important so that materials can be reused in the future. Ballast also aims to stimulate and encourage the market by setting the bar for development processes always higher than the legal standards. Whichever way you look at it, we need to accelerate according to Butink: ‘Last year, we launched a net-zero strategy at Dura Vermeer to formalise this aspect. Our CO2 emission level must be halved by 2030, and, at least 90% CO2 reduction needs to be achieved by 2050, with the remainder being offset. In doing so, we are taking our responsibility within the entire chain.’

According to Euroconstruct, the European construction sector will hardly grow, in spite of the very large housing shortage. What would be needed to turn this tide?

Both Pleijhuis and Ballast say that it is absolutely vital that municipal and civil service procedures are accelerated. Ballast: “Although there is a great willingness to develop and to build houses, the overall process from tendering and procurement to construction and completion is too long, and the shortage of qualified staff is making these processes even longer.’ Added to this are the nitrogen policy, scarcely available urban development space and housing affordability issues due to rising construction costs and interest rates. Butink emphasises that we should at least continue building within the carbon budget, with key principles of energy neutrality and timber construction. She talks about making use of the existing environment. ‘Large-scale renovation, adding residential floors to existing buildings and building smaller properties are important solutions.’ According to Pleijhuis, it is mainly a matter of making choices. ‘The time of stacking ambitions has passed. We need to make the right choices, together, so that plans become feasible.’

Almost all construction companies are facing shortages of materials and rising raw material prices. How could project managers and procurement specialists optimise their project management to cope with these problems?

All agree that communication between supply-chain partners and clients is essential. Pleijhuis: ‘By working with regular partners/co-creators, the lines of communication are short and common ground can be reached through timely discussions about rising prices. We involve co-creators in the designs at an early stage, which enables us to make the right choices together about the materials that are available and can be reserved.’ Ballast says they have adjusted their strategy as a result of scarcity and rising prices: ‘Ballast Nedam is making more use of replicating construction with regular suppliers and subcontractors and readily available materials. We are also working more in construction teams in which we jointly try to overcome any problems.’ A focus on the actual application of secondary and bio-based materials is key in any case, according to Butink.

How can construction companies distinguish themselves from their competition?

Digitalisation is crucial in this context, all agree. Pleijhuis: ‘KlokGroep designs parametrically, which allows us to switch quickly from A to B in this changing market. In this way, we also focus on sustainability and climate adaptation. Early on in the design phase, we will thus have an idea of what the CO2 emissions of a particular project will be. This calculation methodology allows us to switch to an alternative, if need be.’ According to Ballast, digitalisation and sustainability often go hand in hand: ‘Our digital solutions support our sustainability measures, such as dashboarding and the ability to monitor and manage accordingly.’ Butink indicates that transparency also plays a part in strengthening competitiveness: ‘Show how you build; this is in line with the Paris Agreement. Here, using the right data and methodology, in line with EU market standards, is an important starting point.’

What made you choose a Madaster partnership?

Both Butink, Pleijhuis and Ballast underline that insights are important to drive circular ambitions. Pleijhuis: ‘The reliable data and insights obtained via Madaster’s tool improve our ability to look ahead. Information about circular materials, the detachability and toxicity of materials and products can be extracted from this database and used for future reporting requirements. Our cooperation with Madaster allows us to collaborate on tool optimisation. In this way, we help each other to take our vision to an ever higher level.’  

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