‘Sustainable building innovations: nice, but only chain cooperation can save us’

Concrete and asphalt are giant polluters. And BAM Infra Nederland realizes this like no other. According to sustainability program manager Jasper Visser, the company wants to become more sustainable much faster than it is already doing, but the current system is putting the brakes on. “Electric machines are fun. But only an integrated approach in which parties within the entire chain innovate together and learn from each other, can save the day.”

Gigantic challenge

“As a construction sector, we are faced with a gigantic challenge,” says program manager sustainability at BAM Infra Netherlands Jasper Visser. “On the one hand, construction is needed, from dykes for dry feet to road maintenance and the opening up of regions through infrastructural projects such as the Lelylijn. On the other hand, there is the sustainability challenge of the construction sector, which, with the current design, is responsible for an excessively large part of the harmful emissions and material consumption. The big question is: how are we going to reconcile the two?”

Chain cooperation as the only solution

The debate often focuses on technical innovations such as replacing diesel engines with electric ones. Visser: “But then you are talking about a fraction of the emissions. 90 to 95 percent of the emissions from the infrastructure sector come from the production and transport of materials such as concrete and asphalt. This can only be tackled through a completely different approach, in which cooperation and shared responsibility are central.”

Materials often make a long journey before they arrive at the construction site. Cement and bitumen usually come from far or are part of a highly polluting process. Partly because of this, making the chain more sustainable is particularly complex. “You have to work together with the entire chain to get the emissions to zero. Do you want to build in such a way that society benefits the most, the local economy is supported and that the environment experiences as little nuisance as possible? Then the only solution is a partnership in which government parties are also involved.”

Focus on the actual costs

Within this approach, construction companies can no longer keep prices down by passing the costs on to society, as is sometimes the case today. Visser: “Fortunately, we are increasingly moving towards a model that revolves around the environmental cost indicator (ECI), in which social costs are also included in the price in addition to the financial costs. To guarantee a level playing field in which no one can escape the ECI, the government must also be involved as a client. Almost all construction companies can work with the ECI and have become good at it, yet it remains a challenge to give this sufficient weight in all works.”

Learning from each other’s successes and innovations

According to Visser, it is also crucial that construction companies jointly research innovations and learn from each other’s successes. “There is an enormous amount of talent, potential and development capacity in the Dutch construction sector. If you start to innovate and collaborate with each other in the right way, then there is nothing that we cannot solve. It is important that construction companies can still distinguish themselves and benefit from their own inventions.”

According to Visser, the Concrete Agreement pretty much outlines the contours of the ideal model. This agreement has been signed by parties from the entire chain: from construction companies and recycling companies to suppliers and (mainly public) clients. “Within the agreement, agreements have been made about certain minimum requirements, for example in the field of emissions and recycling. Parties are encouraged to learn from each other and innovate together, but at the same time there is sufficient room for each signatory to distinguish itself.”

The biggest obstacle: time

According to the program manager, the biggest obstacle is time. “In terms of technology, everything can be solved one way or another. Massive forest fires, a devastation of insect populations: the headlines make it clear that we are facing a huge problem. And that the time to do something about it is too short. Roadmaps for 2030 are great, but I fear that the transition needs to be moved up a few gears.”

Visser states that BAM would like to go much faster. “We are a large builder with decades of experience, making huge investments in sustainability and employing hundreds of people who work on the sustainability dossier. When calculating our plans, we see that things can be done faster and that much more is possible. Unfortunately, we sometimes run into a wall: the surroundings cannot or will not go as fast as we would like.”

Integral approach that does justice to regions

Visser will give a presentation about BAM Infra’s sustainability innovations at the New Energy Forum 2023 in Groningen, an event about energy and mobility transitions. Visser: “At the Forum I want to talk to other professionals about the challenges and opportunities for regions.”

“Hypothetically, you could say: in order to increase sustainability, we are scrapping all projects outside the Randstad conurbation. With that you would make a lot of impact in one go, but it is also at the expense of enormous social value. The best thing would be if we could build within the boundaries of the earth with as much value as possible for people, with regions such as Groningen also reaping the benefits of the sustainability drive we are making. And that not all investments in hydrogen, for example, end up in the Randstad.”

According to the program manager, this is an extra dimension within the gigantic challenge facing the construction sector, which increases the need for an integrated approach. “At events, such as the New Energy Forum, you will find professionals from a wide range of fields. That is why I want to use my visit to investigate together with them: how can we best work towards such a comprehensive approach?”

New Energy Forum

On June 22, 2023, Jasper Visser gave a presentation during the third edition of the New Energy Forum in Groningen. The event for the (prospective) mobility and energy professional and focused on the energy and mobility transition. New Energy Forum is an initiative of New Energy Coalition, EnTranCe and Hive.Mobility.

Photos: BAM Infra Nederland