Five questions for Jamaica den Heijer

‘We already have all the solutions’

Let’s be honest: construction is not the most sustainable industry when it comes to waste, CO2 emissions and the use of raw materials. That is the exact reason why this industry has the greatest chance of becoming more sustainable, explains innovations manager Jamaica den Heijer. As a biomimicry expert, she is looking for solutions, preferably in nature: an enormous R&D lab that contains many answers.

February 1, 2019

What exactly is biomimicry?

“Biomimicry is a method used to translate solutions found in nature into solutions for human challenges. Take, for instance, concrete. When producing cement for concrete, a massive amount of CO2 is emitted. Recently, they discovered that when coral is growing it actually stores CO2. They have figured out the chemical process behind this. As a result, there are now two companies which capture and reuse part of the CO2 that is emitted during the production of cement.

There are also airplanes, wind mills and buildings that are based on organisms in nature, such as the new Triodos Bank headquarters. Architect Thomas Rau designed it according to biomimicry principles.”

Jamaica den Heijer Heijmans biomimicry 10.jpg

World’s first fully biocomposite bicycle-pedestrian bridge can be found at the TU/e University campus in Eindhoven. This bio-based bridge is completely made up of flax and hemp fibres combined with a bio-based resin covering a core of, also bio-based, PLA foam.

“That is the technical side of it, but you can also apply biomimicry at system level. In order to build resilient and adaptative cities, we examine, for instance, forests and try to translate our findings into concrete solutions. We are learning that nature does not aim for maximisation but for optimization; a tree does not grow to the heavens either.

We have also noticed that there is more cooperation than competition in nature. This is much more productive and requires the minimum amount of energy. On top of that, basically everything is multifunctional. The trick is to translate these kinds of lessons and immediately incorporate them into designs and innovations that contribute to a healthy living environment.”

What is it that you find so fascinating about biomimicry?

“It combines sustainability and innovation in the most exquisite manner. On top of that, it continually provides us with answers on how to deal with all the social challenges we face. A story of hope! Melting polar ice caps and all the accompanying doom scenarios, how are we ever going to find solutions for it all? Biomimicry demonstrates that those solutions can already be found in our natural environment. All it requires is a different way of looking, thinking and designing.”

“A good example within Heijmans is the Solar Noise Barrier (SONOB), an innovative noise barrier. It is not just multifunctional, but also adaptive. It has been designed in such a way that the latest solar cells can always be integrated. I have also challenged the project team to only use local materials. It would be so cool if we would design like that more often."

Is circular construction a similar solution?

“Circular construction means you are closing the cycles, thus reusing materials and no waste flows. The same applies to nature: there is no waste in nature. If we were to build everything in the same manner as this bio-based bridge was built, then there would be no more waste. This is something our clients are starting to ask for more often. However, we do not always have the technology at hand to do so on a large scale. The circular transition is in full swing, creating a huge number of opportunities.”

Jamaica den Heijer Heijmans biomimicry 2.jpg

What difference can Heijmans make in all of this?

“At Heijmans we give a lot of thought to circular construction. This is a good thing, because this allows for us to make an enormous impact. For instance, our asphalt innovation team is working on solutions to make roads more sustainable. As a result, we are already capable of quite a lot of things, from reusing materials to producing low temperature, self-healing and bio-based asphalt.”

Want to know more about self-healing asphalt?

Jamaica den Heijer Heijmans biomimicry 3.jpg

“Furthermore, it is important to focus on the big picture; a healthy living environment and how you contribute to it via a circular economy. It is not about making one home energy-neutral, but making a neighbourhood, area or whole city more sustainable. At Heijmans we have gained a wealth of knowledge, so we can also proactively figure out this big picture with our client. A complex comprehensive approach, but one that does produce integrated solutions. The biomimicry method could be of help in this.”

Step by step is also a way, right?

“Yes, that is how it starts! Last week, I visited two colleagues from ‘Bodemspecialismen’ (Soil specialisms). In 2016, they founded the Heijmans Grondstoffen Netwerk (raw materials network). It is an internal platform enabling project teams to sell and buy raw materials from one and other. The start of circular construction and it generates a financial saving.”

“I find it very inspiring when colleagues who are faced with a problem come up with such solutions and actually put them into practice. This shows you that good ideas are usually the result of inherent motivation. The fact that you spot something and think: I am going to do something about that!

At the Infra Innovation team we are now investigating with our Bodemspecialismen colleagues how can expand this platform. Maybe we can even develop it into a broad-based platform within the circular economy. I think it is great that as an innovation manager I can carry such initiatives forward.”