You learn circular building by doing but how?

The construction sector is one of the most polluting sectors on earth. By 2050, our economy should be completely circular. How do we ensure that through experience we move to a radically different way of working in construction? For the Master’s thesis in Industrial Ecology (TU Delft / University of Leiden), Sietse Gronheid studied this issue.

Circular construction requires an entirely new way of thinking and behaving. It is clear that we have to shift to a building method that is economically responsible and contributes to the well-being of humans and animals, but how to get there remains a research task at present.

For Sietse Gronheid, a former industrial ecology student who now works as a circular economic consultant at Over Morgen, this was a very interesting case for his thesis.

City Grounds

How does learning in practice work?

“Learning by doing” is the motto, but how does this learning work in practice? To what extent does this lead to a radical change between the parties involved? A knowledge gap in both practice and science.

Sietse investigated in four cases and developed, among other things, a classification of translational learning that can be used when preparing or evaluating transitional experiences. He won with her the 2022 Rachel Carson Thesis Award.

Circular construction is a serious challenge

Circular construction is still far from the norm. So far, the construction sector has been particularly polluted. In the Netherlands, the built environment is responsible for approximately 40% of carbon dioxide emissions, 11% of which can be attributed to material-related emissions related to building materials and (construction) processes.

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It seems that this percentage is only increasing, as one million homes will be added by 2030. At the same time, we should have reduced CO2 emissions by 55% by 2030 compared to 1990. One of the greatest tasks of our time.

Can you learn from the experience?

By 2050, the Dutch (construction) economy should be completely circular. The circular construction economy was set up for a transitional team from the central government. In 2018, they indicated the need to gain practical experience in circular construction until at least 2023, by way of experience.

But to what extent do these experiences really lead to fundamental change? How would you design such an experience? Sietse delved into the matter and conducted a research case study.

Four experiments under the microscope

Live labs, pilot projects, transitional experiments, live labs, or project examples; Circular building experiences come under many different names. Despite the slight differences, they all have the same goal: to learn about the innovations of circular building in a physical environment.

Sietse has inventoried all completed circular construction trials at the building level in the Netherlands, resulting in 29 trials. From this list choose four: above local in Kerkrade, Assink countries in his anthem green house in Utrecht and Vondeltuin in Amsterdam. He interviewed all stakeholders involved in the design and construction phase of these cases to see who is learning, about what and in what way?

Expo Superlocal Building

Am I really doing the right things?

He often writes from the literature about single-loop and double-loop learning. In single-loop learning, also called incremental learning, insights are gained about a particular problem. Actions are corrected, but not reversed.

Two-loop learning goes further: thinking is central here. It’s not about double-loop learning ‘Do I do it right?’, But the question is “Am I really doing the right things?” Center. In order to achieve sustainability transitions, it has been reported from the literature that two-loop learning is necessary.

From thinking to doing

Various interviews showed that double-loop learning appeared in all experiences and that these lessons were concentrated between builders (demolition, contractor and subcontractors) and clients.

An interesting finding, because it shows that circular-building experiments stimulate radically new thinking among the participants. In addition, there were four parties who also adapted their business operations as a result of the experience, leading not only to new thinking, but also to a radically new way of doing things.

3 educational axes

In the circular-building experiments, there were three educational themes. Until I found there learning process The place, which was mainly about circular procurement and a new way of working together in circular construction. For example, a demolition contractor can suddenly play a central role in the design process, because they can decide which parts can be reused or not.

In addition, there was Economic Learning Place, which relates to circular revenue models, where new owner models such as product as a service or total cost of ownership for customers (especially controllers) is an entirely new approach.

Finally found there technical learning A place, focusing on circular design and construction with a view to future value.

Learning through reflection and evaluation

To stimulate double-loop learning in an experiment, a space for thought appears to be essential. This may be an individual reflection, a collective reflection, or a reflection of the system. This research demonstrated that dual-loop learning was stimulated while creating a shared vision and monitoring and evaluating both the (environmental) impact of certain design options and lessons learned.

Incorporating these reflection moments into an experiment and allowing sufficient time for this beforehand turned out to be critical, but it did not happen in every experiment. Circular building experience is not equally experiential for everyone, and a number of prerequisites are required in order to focus on learning.

Prerequisites for the learning environment

To create a learning environment in the experiment is:

  1. Need a common approach
  2. In which a variety of experts participate, such as the various contracting parties, the architect and the customer, but also the controllers of customers and suppliers.
  3. In addition, a clear common vision must be formulated.
  4. Participants must then demonstrate commitment, if this is not present in one end, this may disrupt the learning potential of the experiment. For this purpose, it is desirable that the parties be intrinsically motivated.
  5. The next requirement is a reliable environment
  6. This can be achieved with open communication and a budget.
  7. Clear agreements about risks also need to be made, since there is a lot of uncertainty about circular construction.
  8. Finally, there should be a realistic budget and lead time for the circular ambitions – a buyer, but still equally important.

Classification for Transitional Learning

Finally, the emphasis on double-loop learning appears to be different in each of the four cases. These four cases can be considered different Flavors How does this transitional learning happen? So there was lecture (Assinklanden), where a series of workshops were used to first learn about circular construction on the basis of theory. Then this was applied in a practical case.

In addition, there was catalyst (Green House), where a building project in a circular building experience was stimulated by the expertise of a single enthusiastic project leader. This is where learning from within comes in.

Then Consulate (de Vondeltuin) where the experience of circular construction was brought in from outside in order to stimulate translational learning in one phase of the experience.

Finally there was lab (SUPERLOCAL) where hands-on technical experimentation, through trial and error, was central. These four Flavors It was found experimentally, but in theory there can be up to seven flavors. These constitute a classification of transitional learning.

A toolkit for preparing or evaluating transitional learning

This classification can be considered as a toolkit for stimulating double-loop learning when designing or evaluating transition experiences. Depending on the available context and time, different combinations Flavors in experience.

The image below shows a reconstruction of translational learning in the different experiments. For example, it can be concluded that different flavors occur at the same time and that the effect (the size of the hexagonal shape) can vary.


Overall, one of the research’s most important conclusions is that careful thought should be given in advance about how learning is shaped in experience and in the organization.

In some trials this has been well secured in the experience, but there appears to be no structure in the organization to feed lessons learned. In this way, lessons learned remain fragmented, which, according to the literature, is one of the biggest barriers to sustainability transformations. This is why there should always be evaluation in the experience as well as in the organisation. This way, you can eventually turn radically new thinking into radically new work.

Interested in the rest of the research? look at this Link

What does this mean for you?

As a client, are you considering starting a circular (building) initiative? Do you want to stimulate the ability to learn in the experience as well as in the organization?

Cits one of his colleagues We are happy to help you transition to a circular economy (construction). We initiate and monitor periodic initiatives.

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