Building a circular built environment in the Netherlands

This project was carried out in partnership with Metabolic and C-creators, with generous support from the Goldschmeding Foundation and De Hoge Dennen.
The Netherlands has put forward the ambitious goal of a fully circular economy by 2050. But resting at the centre of a perfect storm, the built environment in the Netherlands is dealing with challenging environmental and social circumstances such as the climate and nitrogen crisis, a shortage of affordable housing and the biggest labour shortage seen in years. To uncover the state of circularity and related employment effects—both showing opportunities and providing recommendations for the Dutch built environment—we apply the Circularity Gap methodology to a sector for the first time.

The Perfect Storm

The Netherlands needs to:

75,000 new homes per year until 2025
greenhouse gas emissions by 49% by 2030
Decrease nitrogen emissions by 60% by 2030
resource consumption by 2030
a fully circular economy by 2050
the current labour shortage
and fill the 180,000 expected
roles in construction
by 2025

The Dutch built environment accounts for half of the country's resource use

The construction sector is the country's biggest consumer of resources. At the same time, the Dutch government estimates that 75,000 new homes will need to be built yearly until 2025 to put a roof over peoples' heads. To become circular in 2050 the construction sector needs to consume fewer materials, use waste as a resource, prioritise bio-based, non-toxic materials, practise durable design and embraces strategies such as repair, retrofitting and renovation—all while meeting the needs of Dutch residents.
The metabolism of the built environment in the Netherlands
hover over the image below to zoom-in
The multitude of materials and products 'flowing' through the built environment paints a complex picture, with the underlying data being scarce. However, to get an understanding of the current situation and - more importantly - to identify opportunities for improvement, monitoring these flows as part of the transition to the circular economy is crucial. Using urban stock data models, we have been able to create this snapshot of the current metabolism of the built environment in the Netherlands.

The Netherlands is a massive motor for downcycling

An astonishing 88% of all the waste generated by the sector is reused or recycled. While the amount of cycled waste sounds impressive, it is marred by the proportion of waste used for low-grade applications like road construction, which locks away a potentially valuable resource and downcycles its value.

Of the millions of tonnes of materials the construction sector uses to build houses and commercial buildings (not including infrastructure), only 8% come from materials that have been cycled back into use.

*Note that this metric doesn't distinguish between recycling and reuse.

The built environment employs 7% of the national workforce, but has lost over 100,000 jobs since 2008

The Dutch built environment employs a substantial portion of the population yet is faced by a number of challenges of its own. A labour shortage and mismatch in the skills needed and those that currently exist, exacerbated by the ageing workforce and insufficient influx of new workers, for example.

Our analysis reveals that for the circular transition to become a reality, the workforce must be adequately prepared and equipped with new skills such as: automation, digitalisation, material knowledge, digital knowledge, design & biomimicry, advanced manufacturing, machine operation, sustainability knowledge and AI technology.
Of the
people working in the sector
174,000 workers are employed in the construction of buildings, with an additional 57,000 employed in the construction of infrastructure.

However, this number is declining—and in the next five years alone, the sector will demand
new employees
just to cover the exit of older workers in construction. This figure doesn't account for the 70,000 experts who have left the sector since the economic crisis—and another 70,000 who no longer hold necessary qualifications.

Four scenarios for a bold, transformational shift towards a circular built environment in the Netherlands

Facilitate circular supply chains

Ensure supply chains support the input of regenerative materials in a sustainable way.

  • Prioritise the use of secondary materials
  • Prioritise regenerative materials
  • Prioritise materials that are sustainably sourced, manufactured and transported

Prioritising secondary material use could cut the material footprint by as much as 44%, while favouring renewable materials could decrease the mass of primary materials used by 38%, cutting greenhouse gas emissions by a massive 123%. Prioritising the use of secondary materials is predicted to create 13,800 jobs in the deconstruction, collection and sorting of construction and demolition waste.

Design to do more with less

Design for circularity to cut material use, enable cycling at end-of-life and increase durability.

  • Design to reduce
  • Design for cyclability
  • Design to last

Using more bio-based materials could cut the mass of primary inputs by 81%, while design for cyclability would enable greater secondary material use years down the road. Designing with flexibility and durability in mind could lower buildings' environmental burdens. Design for cyclability could lead to a net decrease in workers for on-site construction of between 15,000 and 37,000.

Champion circular and sustainable operations, maintenance and renovation

Ensure that buildings operate in a circular way. This scenario targets the longest part of structures' lifetimes: the use phase.

  • Circular operations
  • Circular maintenance and repair
  • Circular renovation and retrofitting

Increasing insulation will deliver substantial energy savings, while extending buildings' and components' lifetimes through repair and maintenance could cut the volume of materials needed for construction by 2%. Circular renovation and retrofitting provide an opportunity to cut residential construction by 7%. For this scenario, a slight increase can be expected for the employment level: the need for solar panel installation, for example, will create jobs, while increased renovation and retrofitting will create an estimated 880 jobs.

Advance high-value recycling practices to close the quality gap

Boost the proportion or materials that are reused at a high value at the end of a buildings’ life, if renovation or adaptive reuse are not possible.

  • Advanced deconstruction and demolition practices
  • Advance digital and physical infrastructure capacity

It's expected that both strategies will cause secondary material use to swell. 13,800 jobs could be created in end-of-life activities, matched by an expected increase in jobs for digital roles and storage facilities.

Due to this scenario's tight link with Scenario one's first strategy—Prioritise secondary material use— we can also expect significant cuts to the material footprint.


Explore the methodology behind our work

A circular built environment has the power to drive the circularity of the Netherlands as a whole

The Dutch built environment might be resting at the centre of a perfect storm—but circular strategies can help it meet its environmental goals as well as the social need for new housing, while reshaping the employment landscape.

The Circularity Gap Report for the Built Environment in the Netherlands shows how.


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