We need to get the sustainability ball rolling much faster

Published on {{ $filters.formatDateWithYear(1580684400000) }}

Witteveen+Bos has recently become a member of the Duurzaam Gebouwd (‘Sustainably Built’) knowledge platform – a move that was driven by the company’s sustainability ambitions, explains Jaap de Koning. ‘It’s still too easy to build in the traditional way.’

The head of the Amsterdam office is enthusiastic and articulate as he talks about the transition his company has gone through. Traditionally, Witteveen+Bos was an engineering firm that became successful by focusing on the technical side of ‘pure’ engineering. While these disciplines are still very much alive and kicking at the company, many other specialisations have been added to the mix. For example, Witteveen+Bos now also does a lot of planning and process management, and in recent years it has been increasingly involved in digital projects. ‘In the broadest sense of the word, including in house,’ says De Koning. ‘We now also employ programmers, which would have been unthinkable a decade ago. They work on things like building websites for engagement and stakeholder management, virtual reality, automating design and construction processes, and BIM. Websites make it much easier for residents to get involved, giving them the opportunity to have their say in a project. Their comments are then incorporated directly into the client’s specifications.’

Witteveen+Bos is also increasingly involved in design projects and employs a large group of landscape architects. ‘Our range of services is therefore much broader,’ says De Koning. ‘We’re also getting bigger and bigger assignments because of the way the market is evolving. Clients’ requests are becoming much more holistic and no longer broken down into separate pieces. More research needs to be done beforehand and in an integrated way, with a better overview of the implications and impacts of a project. We ourselves are also growing towards larger projects that require the involvement of more and more disciplines, including structural engineers and geothermal engineers.’

Sustainability is in our DNA

Another factor that clients are increasingly looking for in projects is sustainability, and Witteveen+Bos is just the right partner for this. This was also one of the motives for joining Duurzaam Gebouwd. De Koning: ‘Sustainability is extremely important to us – it’s in our DNA. You can see that in what we’ve done at our office in Deventer. We’ve shown that it is possible to make an old building more sustainable and that the savings are huge – especially when you compare it to the cost of raw materials for a new building.’


The building in Deventer was built in 1975 and proved to be a source of inspiration for Witteveen+Bos. The installations, in particular, had seen better days, with lifts dating from 1975. De Koning: ‘They were in dire need of renovation. Functionally speaking, the floor plan and design was no longer fit for purpose. But for sustainability reasons, we didn’t want to sell the building; we wanted to give it a second life – as a reference project and to learn from it.’ The Witteveen+Bos head office in Deventer is now completely gas-free, saving 50,000 m3 of gas per year. Thanks to air-to-air heat pumps and 350 solar panels on the roof, energy consumption has been halved. The building, which was completed in March 2018, has been upgraded from energy label E to A+++. It has also been given a complete makeover, which has had an impact on work practices.

De Koning: ‘In 2013, we introduced an office concept for the way we work together. We started using it in Amsterdam and then our premises team redesigned or relocated all our offices. You can influence the way you work through the layout. Then you’re getting into social engineering. The whole idea of the traditional office is just so outdated: everything has to be more open so you can interact more. Also, in the past, drafters were always at the office, but now people are spending more and more time elsewhere. That’s one of the trends of recent years.’

Stimulating the market

Examples of projects Witteveen+Bos is proud of include the design of a dyke around Jakarta to protect the city from flooding and advising on new mangrove forests to protect shorelines (and improve water quality) in Indonesia. ‘But we’re also becoming increasingly active in the field of sustainability in the Netherlands, with projects such as the water plant in Wilp, the N737 Innovation Route in Overijssel, and the Cruquius Bridge in North Holland, which specifically focused on energy neutrality and circularity. Our aim is to stimulate the market to come up with innovations, including in the field of sustainability.’

‘At some point, the ball starts rolling once you get references and gain experience. But we can still do more. When it comes to sustainability, the Netherlands is the ‘tortoise’ of Europe. Our polder model probably works against us in this respect. We shouldn’t be looking to the government to deliver sustainability – but that’s just my personal opinion. We’re also paying close attention to big business and finance. Take the pension funds, for example. Big investors are increasingly focusing on sustainability, as we saw recently from the comments made by Laurence Fink, CEO of Blackrock. These investors are looking at their business cases and seeing that wind and solar energy are now cheaper than fossil fuels. That has a huge impact.’

Office next to the station

As far as De Koning is concerned, the construction sector could also move a bit faster. ‘The construction sector tends to follow the leader and isn’t going to start building differently overnight. It’s still too easy to build in the traditional way. On the other hand, the industry is subject to a lot of regulations and has very tight financial margins, and these regulations can be exploited to have a direct impact. Take the insulation requirements for houses, for example. Ultimately, these are decisions that need to be made by politicians, so things don’t always happen all that quickly.’

At Witteveen+Bos, however, the pace is a little faster. Five years ago, for example, a decision was taken to locate all Witteveen+Bos Group offices next to an intercity train station. De Koning: ‘That’s working out well, and it also attracts a certain type of employee. Young people, especially, seem to like it: they’re not as enthusiastic about cars anymore. The cars we do still have will be replaced by electric models. And last year we introduced ‘Meatless Mondays’ in our company restaurants – a day on which no meat or fish dishes are served. It’s also about raising awareness: we use banners to show just how many litres of water it takes to produce a kilo of meat. If you look at everything we’re doing, we’re also working on sustainability in an integrated way.’

Construction team

Finally, tendering and contracting is another key issue that De Koning, as group leader at Witteveen+Bos, is heavily involved in. Partly for this reason, he is particularly interested in the development of a new construction team contract under the auspices of Duurzaam Gebouwd. This is currently in the final stages; De Koning contributed the necessary building blocks. The final version will be published on this website. In the next edition of the Duurzaam Gebouwd magazine (to be published on 27 March), De Koning will discuss the subject in more detail.

More information?