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In 5 steps to a sustainable DNA

Match on ambition

14 July 2021

Three driving forces at Heijmans, Jan Willem Burgmans, Thijs Huijsmans and Dennis Strijards, are looking for the connection to get sustainability into the DNA of the whole organisation. This is key in order to become the ideal partner in the future. ‘Exceed the minimum demands and formulate an ambition. This will help you match with the right clients sooner’.

Heijmans colleagues Dennis Strijards, Thijs Huijsmans and Jan Willem Burgmans are working on Heijmans’ sustainable ambitions in different places within the organisation. The first mentioned is building energy-neutral neighbourhoods, the second is working on circular building processes and the third on increased biodiversity and climate-adaptive environments. All three areas of expertise form the basis for Heijmans’ sustainability strategy: energy, materials and space.

Heijmans’ sustainable ambitions:

  • Our production is CO2 neutral and we create energy-neutral solutions for our clients
  • We are targeting 100% circular construction in 2023
  • Our developments are blue, green and safe

Even though each ambition requires a specific approach, these sustainable driving forces keep a close eye on the big picture. “After all, we can only create a healthy living environment if we maintain an integrated approach”, believes Dennis Strijards, energy & sustainability advisor. During a walk along the Maxima Canal in Rosmalen, they discuss what needs to be done to achieve Heijmans’ sustainable ambitions sooner. They believe there are five steps.

1. Connecting through stories

It is essential to create connections, Dennis kicks off. “If you are looking at your own expertise with blinders on, you will lose sight of sustainability as a whole. It is especially the connection between the three pillars in the Heijmans strategy; energy, materials and space that is so important. That is why you continuously refer to each other and keep each other focused.”

“Constantly seeking out interaction”, nods Thijs Huijsmans, senior advisor circular construction. And a lot, a whole lot of ‘teaching’. Because the materials discussing is complex, so transferring knowledge is vital. Thijs meets up with as many colleagues as possible who ‘touch’ those materials and talks with them about how they can work smarter. “Mobilising people is my first goal, the materials will automatically follow. The day I will not be needed anymore within Heijmans, will be the day that I have reached my goal.”

Jan Willem Burgmans, programme manager Space, is also no stranger to mission work. “The ‘why’ behind our ambition is my key message. The importance of biodiversity is not widely known, we need more awareness. When it comes to the extinction of species and the subsequent increasingly vulnerable eco systems, people often think of whales and polar bears. Not particularly a next door matter. While it is also happening in your neighbourhood: recently the CBS (central bureau for statistics) calculated that of all the animal species that occurred in the Netherlands a hundred years ago, only half is left. Half! So this concerns butterflies and that plain house sparrow.”

This development also concerns Heijmans, according to Jan Willem. “Public support for nature preservation is growing. Protecting nature will be translated into our clients’ new ambitions and into new regulations. As a construction company we will soon be asked to improve nature. That is why I have to keep telling this story, to instil it in the minds of decision-makers.”

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2. Raise the bar

Even though the energy transition is in full swing, Dennis feels explaining the reason for it is equally as pressing. “To achieve the goals of the Paris Climate Agreement, we should really step it up a notch. The CO2-emmission must be lowered by 49 percent in 2030 compared to 1990, in order to limit further global warming to 1.5 ℃. Knowing that, are you still content with meeting just the minimum demands? Because those are the current rules. Why would you install three to four solar panels on a roof when it could be a total of sixteen? Raise that bar, take that extra step!”

Costs are currently the main obstacle, says Thijs. “Also in the materials transition. The current, linear material chains are super-efficient and circular material chains are still being developed. Currently, it is much cheaper to buy something new than to extract, transport and repair a material or to prepare it for new use.”

That is the reason why Dennis and Thijs stimulate both themselves and their colleagues to become more creative. “I also find it hard to exceed the demand sometimes”, says Dennis, “because people come to me for a solution that fits within the rules. Though, more and more often, I take a broader view of the sustainability of a project.”

Merely checking all the boxes kills all creativity, states Thijs. Voice your ambition, what do you want to achieve? And put on different glasses: are you looking for kilo stunners or are you looking at performances and the life span of materials? Where do you use which material, how can you keep putting it to use? Those are questions he often asks his colleagues at Heijmans design and engineering. Unfortunately, it is difficult to incorporate circularity in the current calculation methodology of building projects. “The residual value of materials is often not included”, Thijs sighs. “So, it boils down to: are you also defending other values than just the financial ones in your project?”

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3. Learn from management

By the way, the knowledge at management organisations is very helpful with regards to further increasing sustainability, says Thijs. “How do we work more efficiently, how do we save materials and how do we cut down on waste? Unfortunately, that practical experience is not incorporated into the design of projects often enough. The same goes for our own colleagues who work on management and maintenance. We could improve the manner in which we collect and process feedback, in order to design in a more sustainable manner.”

Dennis sometimes notices reluctance when it comes to talking to the client about increasing sustainability outside the context of the maintenance contract. “If you are maintaining a super-efficient energy installation, but the building isolation is in need of renewal, you are still heating for the birds. Then a proposal to deal with the isolation will be a quick win. Colleague Maarten Nijhoff is already working on top of that within Energy Services.”

4. Improved partnership

“Do not talk too much about the contract, but just start cooperating”, says Thijs. He and Jan Willem are noticing that sustainability can flourish when you cooperate as a building team. “Different cultures find their place in it, in a building team you remain curious about each other’s input. And you speak from your own expertise and experience.”

The chain cooperation between clients, home builders and suppliers is based on the same principles. Dennis: “Heijmans is now asking the fixed co-makers of our concept homes to increase the sustainability of their products and services. We are asking more of them than we had initially agreed upon. I believe that as Heijmans we need to reward that. After all, we want to learn from one another. A partnership is a two-way street.”

If we do not take good care of nature, we will not be able to live in it later on

Also from a circularity perspective, Heijmans is imposing an increasing number of demands on procured materials. For instance, the company will only use FSC-certified wood from sustainably managed forests. Furthermore, it will only accept packaging material which is fully reusable and recyclable, says Thijs. “Those are good incentives to increase sustainability within the whole chain. Soon we will only be accepting materials with a minimal environmental impact. Above a certain barrier, Heijmans will not be procuring anymore materials, no matter how cheap they are. We must take our responsibility with regards to this. After all, each year, we spend about a billion on materials and we should be increasingly critical when it comes to the sustainability of it all.”

5. Being of service

Heijmans has formulated the current sustainable ambitions for 2023. What must be the goals for 2030? “Master in material flows of course!”, Thijs says smiling. “But by serving the planet. We have to learn to play according to earth’s rules.” Jan Willem concurs: “Heijmans as an eco-system builder. We are a part of that eco system, so if we do not take good care of nature, we will not be able to live in it later on.” Dennis concludes: “That healthy living environment is, therefore, still the connecting ambition. And that will only come within reach if we all exceed our own expertise, business unit and project.”