Interview with Teun Verhagen
If you walk around in Amsterdam you see construction activities everywhere: the city is growing rapidly as more and more people want to live and work in the city built on the water. This asks for more buildings, apartments, offices, schools, hospitals etc. A great opportunity for many professionals: from architects and contractors to construction companies. However, there is one huge challenge for the city: circularity. How can Amsterdam’s construction chain become more circular and what can the municipality do to make this happen? Teun Verhagen, master student at TU Delft and currently one of the students in our graduation hub: Resilient City Hub, conducted a research in this field with the help of Cirkelstad and provided some guidelines for the municipality.
What is the focus of your research?
The focus of my research is the role of the municipality in developing a marketplace for resources in the construction & demolition sector. The municipality has ambitious goals to become fully circular in 2030 and thus resources, from raw materials to products, should be reused as efficiently as possible. Their question was: what is already done by stakeholders involved in this sector and what is needed from them – the municipality - to improve the reuse of resources?
How is the current relationship between the municipality and this resources market?
Bluntly said: the municipality actually doesn’t know how this market looks like. They really needed this research to get a clear picture of the bottlenecks and the opportunities in the building materials business. They are aware of this lack of knowledge and that is why they asked Cirkelstad for help. Cirkelstad is a platform that supports cities in their quest to become fully circular.
How did you come up with this research topic?
As a student, I was looking for a research topic and I asked Gertjan de Werk, Associate Director of the Centre for Sustainability, for help. He then put me in contact with Rutger Büch, founder of Cirkelstad.
Tell me more about your research, what did you do?
First of all, I had to get a clear understanding of the market myself. I wanted to know what kind of stakeholders are involved. It is quite a complex market with a variety of stakeholders: from construction companies and contractors to waste management companies and resources marketplaces like “Grondbalans” which only deals with the resource “soil”. After this I interviewed as many stakeholders as possible within the given time to get insights in the main challenges.
What are the main challenges to close the loop of resources via a marketplace?
Time management is very important, especially on the level of products. The problem with products is that it is very hard to manage demand and supply. Take for instance window frames. When tearing down a building, you first strip it and take out the window frames. It would be perfect if there was immediately a place where you can reuse the window frames. Since the frames are very specific, for instance the size and material they are made of, it is not easy to find a suitable fit. Also, it’s very difficult to store products for a long time, there isn’t a dedicated storage space for them and it mostly happens just before a building is being demolished.
On the level of raw materials, this is easier: concrete is a good example of a material which is perfectly suited for a closed cycle. This is already successfully incorporated by parties like Volker Wessel and PARO Amsterdam.
Can’t we just try to break products down to raw materials?
This is energy consuming and far less sustainable than directly reusing the product. It is always better to use it with the same value or even add value.
Which factors determine if a marketplace will be successful?
For both products and materials, it is crucial to have a quality control and guarantee. We have no idea what materials are used in the current buildings and what their current quality is. It would be convenient to have one standard in which everything is digitalized and which is also supported by all kinds of parties and software. Madaster is a company which is really trying to help achieve this standardization and uniformity in the digitalization.
For products, it is important to have ownership. One example for successful implementation of circularity for products is at the municipality of Amsterdam itself. They have products like benches, lampposts and paving stones which are reused and refurbished on their own dedicated storage sites. This is possible because they know what to expect and because they have ownership of the product.
How can the municipality of Amsterdam influence this market for circularity?
Next to the field work I have done, I also studied a research by Dr. Erwin Heurkens on the role of local planning authorities as market actors. He distinguishes 4 tools to influence the market:
- Shaping: using policies and strategies. For example, the municipality can define what percentage of the materials should be reused.
- Regulating: using laws. For example, the municipality can define by law what percentage of the new buildings should be circular.
- Stimulating: subsidies. An example is the subsidy for solar panels. The downside of subsidiesis that they can disturb the market.
- Capacity building: facilitate the market, for example by taking a the role of a broker and bringing together demand, supply or knowledge.
During my fieldwork, I noticed that the stakeholders were reluctant with subsidies since it can also disturb the market. The government should take care of the demand side, to make it easier to sell products and materials again.
Okay, so subsidies should be avoided. But can you be more specific what the role of municipalities should be?
The municipality of Amsterdam should not regulate from top-down, but be a part of the market and have an open role. Responsibilities can be building a digital quality standard, bringing together all variables and knowledge about the existing built environment. They can provide a platform in which all stakeholders communicate with each other to gain insight in each other’s existing initiatives and efforts. Also: they should define clear goals and standards in their policies, trying to inspire and giving an example to the market. All these roles combined should push the industry towards more circularity and stimulate demand for these solutions.
How important is this research for the municipality?
It gives the municipality of Amsterdam a guideline for their new policies and future plans. Hopefully, some of it will be used to implement a new vision or plan and bring parties more often together to cooperate.
Could you give students some advice on finding an interesting and meaningful topic and how to do a complex research like you did?
Talk to professors and teachers, they have the most knowledge of which organizations exist and who to contact. Sometimes you can even help a professor with a research or problem, a capita selecta can be a lot of things and is flexible in execution. It can take some time to set it up but it creates a lot of freedom as compared to a normal course. My main motivation to undertake this project was to experience a more practical research and to understand how it is to work on your own as preparation for my thesis.