Five questions for Eric Frijters

Better questions, better solutions

Heat stress, loneliness and energy transition are complex challenges which we need tackle in order to realise a healthy living environment. How do we go about this? With a design study and his integral view, architect Eric Frijters, lector at Future Urban Regions and founder of design agency FABRICations, is getting closer to finding solutions. “Instead of solving matters one by one, why not solve several problems in one go? Innovating while we are at it.” 

September 3, 2018

How do we make our living environment healthier?

“By having a better understanding of how we use our environment. In the past, we might have said that we included usage in our designs, but we mostly worked the way we had learned, always the same way. Sometimes with an ex-post evaluation.

Thanks to modern technology we can now measure usage. Satellites and mobile phones know where we are and how much we move around. As a result, we have a better view of how we use our environment and in which way materials and energy are used. On top of that, we measure and produce data ourselves, by adding sensors to everything we make. This way you are, so to speak, mapping the metabolism of a place.”

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Eric Frijters van FABRICations at the NDSM-werf in Amsterdam-North.

“If you stack data, for instance by layering it on a map, you will see more clearly where challenges and opportunities present themselves. Where there is a need to act in order to promote healthy living, because design can trigger a healthy lifestyle. By creating places that stimulate people to meet up with one another, prevent antisocial behaviour and limit loneliness. An environment that challenges users to make healthy choices, is a healthy environment.

I do so within the framework of the ‘Schijf van Zes’ (disc of six): resilient infrastructure, sustainable energy, a contained cycle of materials, social-cultural commitment, vital economy and healthy living. You can look at places from these six perspectives and attach indicators to them so to measure the results in those fields." 

Big themes, how do we handle these?

“By asking better questions. This is quite tricky, as clients continue to work in ever-growing collectives. These do not have a clear image of what they are asking for due to the different backgrounds of the participating parties. And because designers are not used to finetuning their output. That is because of the tender: if a municipality says: ‘Design twelve class rooms and a principal’s office’, that is what you will get. What if the question were: ‘I want to educate people and for them to evolve.’ Would a building always be the answer?”

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“At the moment, healthy living and fighting loneliness are often included a call for tender, but which is the deciding factor when it comes to awarding a contract? Because we do not know how we quantify all of this. As a result, developers are left outbidding one another: ‘I will create a neighbourhood where residents’ lifespan will be increased by five years! ‘In mine they will live on for another 10 years!’ Clients must learn how to gather proof for such statements now, so they will be able to see through these promises.”

“You can include usage in a tender if you first carry out a design study. So, do not immediately ask for a design, but start of by disentangling the spaghetti of all those actors and factors. Ask everyone where they are at, develop an idea, then choose, negotiate, is the idea conceivable and tenable? Is everyone warming up to it? “

Want to know more about design study?

“Then get into researching whether it is feasible and viable. A design study is more than investing in the ‘fuzzy front end’, it means thinking longer and better about the task at hand. It will come at a certain cost, but will be worth it in terms of sustainability. Because a better question results in a better solution. It will be cheaper than having to fix all sorts of things afterwards.”

Do innovations automatically follow?

“Yes, because this way, you are looking at a project as a whole. And the current energy transition is creating opportunities. Why do we not bundle energy, mobility and ecology issues? Imagine: what if the power plant in Geertruidenberg ceases the production of heat? This would result in the pipelines between Breda and Oosterhout needing a new power supply, for instance, residual heat from Moerdijk or other sustainable heat sources in the vicinity. The ground will then need be opened up anyway.

What if we then connect those heat pipelines to pipelines between the surrounding cities. Cycling highways will be built on top of those pipelines to facilitate Oosterhout residents working in Tilburg, or Breda resident on their daily commute to the Moerdijk business park. This will make Breda residents happy, as they are currently stuck with a jammed beltway. You will not be building houses on top of those pipelines, so why not turn it into an ecologic network? As it is, Brabant still has to strengthen the Ecologic Main structure.

“And can heat generated by the return flow in those heat pipelines be used keep the bicycle path from freezing over in the Winter? If so, there will be no more need to spread salt! Can we create road lining with led lighting, so the width of the lanes will automatically adapt to the number of cyclists?

It all sounds technical, but you are also encouraging people to exercise more. And being amidst nature contributes to people’s welfare, so this solution also meets the Schijf van Zes (disc of six). I know for sure that Heijmans is up to this and I would like to dare you to play a part in it all.”

Sounds fantastic. What is still standing in the way?

“The costs involved: if we are investing so much in the front end of a process, and it takes a long time to pay out, who will bear those costs? Who will benefit from the developed value? We need to think about the value models that enable this type of sustainable procedures in the long run.

Tenders are of no help either. Authorities are scared to death of preferred partnerships. However, what if there is only one company that is building Tesla’s? Will you then not work with that company? The tender culture can slow down innovation. Outbidding to win ground might benefit the bidder, but capital gain that is generated this way cannot be invested in innovation.”

“Moreover, the tender process as a whole is an enormous waste of money, money that is not spend on the quality of our environment. Companies have to form expensive teams. Three different construction companies spend tons of money registering for one tender, while only one will end up getting the job. If you ask me, a great cost to society. We are smart enough to design a system for assigning contracts which excludes fraudulent situations and by which work is allocated as transparent and fair as possible.”

What do you need?

“Companies that are willing to take steps in the right direction and have an inquisitive attitude, like Heijmans. I have noticed that you are also curious to find solutions that are not yet applied on a large scale. And especially now, in this healthy economic climate, we can take steps together. Reorganise your expenses – try putting your marketing and innovation budgets next to each other – and try to get a head start.

And finally, I would like to see builders reach out to designers. There is a need for trust, instead of working in a legally watertight digital environment, like with a BIM-drawing. Think along the lines of chains, give each other feedback in the preparatory phase, enquire into each other’s interests and knowledge. Then there will also be trust during execution.”