Published on 19 March 2018

Circular design

The Netherlands has formulated the ambition of realising a fully circular economy by 2050. This economic model is based on recycling raw materials and resources and preventing waste. Witteveen+Bos is working on circular solutions in a wide range of projects. Ambitions are translated into strategies, visions and principles, and we develop and implement smart, innovative solutions, either in-house or in collaboration with clients. It is clear that the design chain and our operational processes are changing. Two experts in circular design explain how we can add even more value in our projects by creating the right conditions. 

Circular design is applied sustainable development by engineers

The Dutch government has set up a national programme called ‘Circular Economy in the Netherlands by 2050’, which seeks to realise a 50 % reduction in the consumption of primary raw materials by 2030. Five so-called ‘transition agendas’ are designed to help change course. Such a vision document will result in a welcome acceleration of the process, says Arjen van Nieuwenhuijzen, an expert in energy, water and resource recovery. ‘People are clearly thinking differently; they are adopting a more disruptive mindset based on the conviction that radical change is truly possible. The time is ripe to take bigger steps.’ Arjen has been applying circular principles for over fifteen years in his work for Witteveen+Bos. ‘For environmental reasons, we have long been exploring options for the recycling of water, energy and resources at treatment plants, landfill sites and waste collection and processing facilities. So we have been familiar with circular thinking for quite some time. I am convinced that we as engineers can help to speed up this transition, because we are skilled at thinking laterally and integrally. By applying our sustainable design principles, we can encourage ourselves and our clients and stakeholders to view challenges differently.’ 

Circular design means preparing a deconstruction plan for each design

More and more clients are looking to phase out their linear processes, and to ensure that their energy management is in order and that materials can be recycled. Rob Dijcker has been focusing on the circular economy and on waste materials for approximately twelve years. He supported Delfland Water Authority in preparing a circular economy strategy: ‘We started by performing a circularity and selfsufficiency analysis. A strategy has since been drawn up, and work sessions with employees have yielded good ideas that Delfland Water Authority can use to take concrete steps.’ Vallei & Veluwe Water Board also wants all its longterm decision-making to be fully circular from 2025 onward, in order to eventually achieve fully circular operations in 2050. Rob and Arjen are helping the water board to realise these ambitions, working together with consultancy firm Metabolic, which specialises in industrial ecology. Rob has analysed mass flows within the chain, and has identified possible measures to close loops and become climate-neutral by 2050. ‘Measures to promote circularity are often aimed at existing systems. In the case  of Vallei & Veluwe Water Board, however, we quickly asked ourselves if revamping the entire system was a better solution. By zooming out, you can see new possibilities emerging along the existing system boundaries. We must look at the challenges from a different perspective. As engineers, we apply a bottom-up approach based on technology. We help our clients in realising their ambitions and implementing their strategy, and can translate this into challenges - technical or otherwise - that can be addressed.’

Romeo Neuteboom Spijker, project manager and leader of the Circular Economy programme at Vallei & Veluwe Water Board, is pleased with the collaboration: ‘The Water Board has high ambitions when it comes to promoting a circular economy. It is a wonderful, innovative field that demands new expertise and new forms of collaboration. The partnership between Witteveen+Bos and Metabolic is proving to  be a good combination.’ ‘To create a good circular design, you would really need to carefully consider the entire life cycle three times before completing the design. You can improve the results by simply drawing up a deconstruction plan’, says Rob.

In 2017, Witteveen+Bos teamed up with the DirectorateGeneral of Public Works and Water Management (Rijkswaterstaat) to develop a manual for the application of circular design principles in the Multi-Year Programme for Infrastructure, Spatial Planning and Transport (MIRT). Using this manual, circular economy assessments can be performed for large infrastructure projects like InnovA58. As part of the Directorate’s Impulse programme, Rob also investigated possible ways to reuse the redundant steel arch bridge across the Lek River at Vianen. The analysis produced an unexpected outcome. ‘The call for tenders for the bridge demolition was already being prepared when I was asked to help conduct a quick analysis of the potential for reuse and the sustainability benefits. It turned out that the bicycle bridge and the main bridge are in good condition for reuse, and that disassembly would be more cost-effective than demolition. In light of these demonstrable sustainability benefits, the tender procedure for the traditional demolition of the arch bridge was halted and reuse options will now be further investigated. We can increase our impact by looking beyond the existing system boundaries and thinking more in terms of cycles.

Arjen adds: ‘As engineers, we are often at the controls and can influence the decisionmaking process. The entire life cycle should be taken into account right from the start, both functionally and technically. That means thinking ahead about materials usage, at all levels and in all phases of a structure’s life cycle. Being aware of the impact of your design from the outset allows you to devise the best possible solution together with the client and stakeholders. The traditional, linear approach in the sector remains a challenge in that respect. We will have to be even more proactive in demonstrating to clients what is possible, because we really need more scope for circularity in projects. By considering other aspects besides costs, a better solution can be devised.’

The international dimension of the drive for a circular economy is underlined by the signing  of the ‘ReCirc Singapore’ covenant in December 2017. Arjen is proud of this milestone: ‘After more than a year of consultations and preparations with our partners, we have now completed an action plan for the joint development of circular solutions in the field of water, sludge and waste treatment and raw materials recovery in Singapore and the Netherlands. Circularity connects on all fronts, and that makes it a very exciting field. But realising a circular economy is also a necessity. If we want to become fully circular by 2050, all designs must be created in accordance with circular principles from now on.’ Rob adds: ‘And every Witteveen+Bos design should include a deconstruction plan.’ 


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