Where to build, and where not to build (in NL)

I was asked that question last year by Thomas van Belzen of Cobouw,[1] and it got me thinking. It was an interview in Dutch, but let me return to it in English and in more detail at the beginning of 2023.

The first reaction is of course: why build, we can no longer afford to build, climate-wise, in terms of energy and raw material use. Our CO2 budget to stay under 1.5 degrees is almost gone, within 2 years it will be exhausted [2] Since everything is still made with fossil energy, we will probably end up with much higher temperature changes, if we do not strongly limit production in general, Even solar panels increase CO2 emissions: they are made with fossil energy, and if we build more and more of them before the previous production is compensated, the CO2 emissions increase.[3] So don’t build, or build as little as possible. One way to do that is reduce our territory a bit, reduce the number of m2 per person, with all kinds of incentives , for instance split houses where possible.

Anyway, that wasn’t the question. If we have to build anyway, then where and where not.

First reaction is: You really shouldn’t want to build, in the Netherlands that is, we live in one of the most densely populated countries in the world, and if there are problems in the distribution of energy and raw materials, and there will be, there’s pretty little we can do here to save ourselves.

If we want to keep building here at all, and therefor ‘grow’ in population at the same time (students, asylum seekers, knowledge workers…) then we would have to start seeing the Netherlands not as a country but as a metropolis. And then an independent existence is no longer tenable, then we become totally dependent on imports, which can’t work of course is such a country. ‘You can’t eat from knowledge’.

The engineer Lely 150 years ago already knew that the Netherlands needed more land to grow food, new polders were already included in his plans at the time. It took another 50 years before it was realized started. And during the First World War, despite our neutrality, it became very clear that we were in trouble. [4] isolated as we where, land was expropriated and cattle slaughtered to free up land for food for people in stead of for animals. And back then there were only 6 million of us, now nearly 18 million.

While now , we are going to lose land, because of our water problems, and land needed for renewable materials production. So we are going to be in trouble, especially if world trade collapses, which is already happening.

Anyway, I suppose we will still build here, but then: where? At least not below sea level. That is asking for trouble of course, and you can imagine the costs that will have to be made later to keep the new buildings dry again, or to relocate people. (A moratorium on new construction below sea level would be my first action as minister…)

If there is to be construction at all, it will have to be with as little impact as possible, and that already provides a simple criterion: not where piling is required. Foundation and certainly a heavy concrete pile foundation is about the biggest contributor to the materials impact of a building. So if you can avoid that, the first win is in. (Follow the Fixers! [5]) You should also not want to build in areas where you know there will be problems in the near future, such as areas prone to blackouts of the power supply.

But still, the question remains, where to build?

The first rough criterion is of course, with some margin, at least 2 meters above sea level. This is often also an area where piling is not required, so that makes sense.

A second criterion is that heat must be easily deliverable, and by that I mean with minimal energy and material investment, so then you’re near surface water, as most obvious source. A study several years ago called “Grip op de Maas” [6] found that the Meuse can supply heat to 1 million homes, obviously if they are a short distance away. That would even be good for the river water, because it gets too warm and would thereby cool 1 degree. Or even better: build homes right away that no longer need heating at all, as they are already doing in Austria. [Projects under the name 2226, see 7]

Building homes is 1 thing, the impact of the home is dwarfed by the impact of the facilities needed for it. So plan new construction near already existing facilities, public transport, stores etc. That will undoubtedly require a lot of organizational skills, such as infill development, topping up houses and buildings, and so on. But don’t just plant some high-rise buildings , is putting the cart before the horse: high-rise buildings are not necessary for density, as I have demonstrated before [8], and it is also high-impact building per m2. (and piles… ).

But main reason to refrain from high-rise is another easy to remember criterion: if an elevator is needed, don’t build. Elevators obviously increase the investment (e+m) enormously, but in addition, in case of foreseeable power failure, people are trapped, or as in corona time, they become unusable. 4 or 5 layers max should be the norm. Then the buildings also don’t shade other buildings, which want to harness solar power.

So : without piles and without elevators, as rough limits of construction.

But perhaps not everything can be solved in inner cities, and then real new construction is needed.

In that case, build along already existing roads. Because if roads have to be built, then at least the impact of new construction doubles. This is not usually attributed to a building but is of course part of it: after all, if there had been no new construction, no road would have been needed to it. And the number of m2 of road required per m2 of floor, pretty much doubles the impact of that m2 of floor. [9] . So build close to existing roads: local roads , provincial roads, traffic is no problem, with electric transport noise and and stench are from the past, but ij any case let public transport run right along those roads.

Another possibly derived option is, that if we have to build dikes anyway to separate the Netherlands under sea-level from the Netherlands above sea-level, see picture, do that on the already existing roads and make a long ribbon of dike houses on top.

Superfluous to mention that building itself must of course be biobased, whoever has not yet figured that out is really living in a bunker. ( of concrete, exactly 😉

Happy new year, and much wisdom for 2023!



PS 1 when it comes to land use, also look at golf courses: http://www.ronaldrovers.com/golf-the-decadence-in-our-use-of-space/



[1] Cobouw article ( Dutch) : https://www.cobouw.nl/307820/de-ideale-bouwlocatie-van-ronald-rovers-bouw-langs-lokale-wegen

[2] CO2 budget: http://www.ronaldrovers.com/a-co2-budget-limit-for-housing/

[3] solar panels: http://www.ronaldrovers.com/solar-panels-are-not-the-solution/

[4] WW1: http://www.ronaldrovers.com/netherlands-during-ww1-an-island/

[5] fixers: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KeAd2HV0tDM

[6] Meuse (Dutch) : https://debouwcampus.nl/trajecten/grip-op-de-maas

[7] 2226: http://www.ronaldrovers.com/building-without-heating-more-material-or-more-installations/ and the residential version: https://v-a-i.at/publikationen/baukulturgeschichten/20kw47eschbuehel.pdf

[8] high-rise buildings: http://www.ronaldrovers.com/how-to-avoid-highrise-buildings/

[9] roads: http://ronaldrovers.nl/exploring-sidewalks-impact-similar-to-housing/

Author: ronald rovers