You learn circular construction by doing, but how?

The construction sector is one of the most polluting sectors on earth. By 2050, our economy must be completely circular. How do we ensure that by experimenting we switch to a radically different working method in construction? For her master’s thesis Industrial Ecology (TU Delft / Leiden University), Sietse Gronheid investigated this problem.

Circular construction requires a whole new way of thinking and acting. Clearly, we need to shift to a way of building that is financially responsible and that contributes to the well-being of humans and animals, but how to get there remains a quest so far.

For Sietse Gronheid, a former industrial ecology student and now working as a circular finance consultant at Over Morgen, it was an extremely interesting issue for his thesis.

Sietse Groundness

How does learning work in practice?

‘Learning by doing’ is the motto, but how does that learning work in practice? And to what extent does this lead to radical changes among the parties involved? A knowledge gap in both practice and science.

Sietse investigated four cases and developed, among other things, a typology for transition learning, which can be used in setting up or evaluating transition experiments. He won Rachel Carson’s 2022 dissertation award with it.

Circular construction is a serious challenge

Circular construction is still far from common. Until now, the construction sector has been particularly polluting. In the Netherlands, the built environment is responsible for almost 40% of CO2 emissions, of which 11% are due to material-related emissions related to building materials and (construction) processes.

This percentage only seems to increase, as one million homes are to be added in 2030. At the same time, we must have reduced our CO2 emissions by 55% in 2030 compared to 1990. One of the biggest tasks of our time.

Can you learn from experimenting?

By 2050, the Dutch (construction) economy must be fully circular. A Transition Team Circular Construction Economy has been put together by the central government. In 2018, they indicated that practical experience with circular construction should be gained until at least 2023, by experimenting.

But to what extent do these experiments actually lead to radical change? And how do you design such an experiment? Sietse dived into the case and conducted case study research.

Four experiments under the microscope

Living labs, pilot projects, transition experiments, living labs or sample projects; Circular construction experiments come under many different names. Despite minor differences, they all have the same goal: to learn about circular building innovations in a physical environment.

Sietse inventoried all completed circular construction experiments at the building level in the Netherlands, resulting in 29 experiments. He selected four from this list: SUPERLOCAL in Kerkrade, Assinklanden in Enschede, Green House in Utrecht and Vondeltuin in Amsterdam. He interviewed all stakeholders involved in the design and construction phase of these cases to find out who is learning, about what and in what way?

Expo building Superlocal

Am I actually doing the right thing?

From the literature, it is often written about single- and double-loop learning. In single-loop learning, also called incremental learning, insight is gained into a specific problem. Actions are corrected but not reflected.

Double-loop learning goes a step further: Reflection is central here. It’s not about double-loop learning ‘Am I doing it right?’, but the question is ‘Am I actually doing the right thing?’ central. In order to realize sustainability transitions, it is stated from the literature that double-loop learning is necessary.

From thinking to doing

The various interviews showed that double loop learning occurred in all trials and that these experiences were concentrated among builders (demolition, contractor and subcontractors) and builders.

An interesting finding because it shows that circular construction experiments stimulate radical new thinking among those involved. In addition, there were four parties who also adapted their business processes as a result of the experiment, so that it not only led to new thinking, but also to a radically new way of doing things.

3 learning themes

In circular construction experiments, there appeared to be three learning themes. So found there process learning place, which was mainly about circular procurement and a new way of working together in circular construction. For example, a demolition contractor may suddenly be given a central role in the design process because he or she can decide which parts can be recycled or not.

In addition, there was economic learning place, which concerned circular revenue models, where new ownership models such as Product-as-a-Service or Total Cost of Ownership for customers (and especially the financial controllers) are a whole new approach.

Finally found there technical learning place, focusing on circular design and construction for future value.

Learning through reflection and evaluation

To stimulate double-loop learning in an experiment, space for reflection seemed to be essential. It can be individual reflection, group reflection or system reflection. This research showed that double-loop learning was stimulated, while at the same time forming a common vision and monitoring and evaluating both (environmental) the impact of certain design choices and the lessons learned.

Incorporating these moments of reflection into an experiment and giving sufficient time for this in advance proved to be crucial but did not take place in every experiment. A circular construction experiment is not equally experimental for everyone, and a number of prerequisites are required to focus on learning.

Prerequisites for a learning environment

Creating a learning environment in an experiment is:

  1. Need a common approach
  2. In which a diverse group of experts is involved, such as various contracting parties, the architect and the builder, but also controllers of builders and suppliers.
  3. In addition, a clear common vision must be formulated.
  4. Participants must then show commitment, if this is not present at one party, this may interfere with the learning potential of the experiment. For this purpose, inherently motivated parties are desirable.
  5. The next condition is a trusted environment
  6. This can be achieved through open communication and budget.
  7. Clear agreements on risks must also be made, as there is much that is unclear about circular construction.
  8. Finally, there must be a realistic budget and lead time for the circular ambitions – a buyer, but still just as important.

A typology for transition learning

Finally, the weight of double-loop learning appeared to be different in each of the four cases. These four cases can be seen as different taste how that transition learning occurs. so there was master class (Assinklanden), where a series of workshops were used to first learn about circular construction based on theory. This was then used in a practical case.

In addition, there was the catalysts (The Green House), where a construction project was catalyzed into a circular construction experiment through the expertise of an enthusiastic project manager. This is where learning came from within.

Then the consultant (de Vondeltuin), where circular building expertise was brought in from outside to stimulate transitional learning in a phase of the experiment.

Finally there was the laboratory (SUPERLOCAL) where practical technical experiments, through trial and error, were central. these four taste has been found empirically, but in theory there can be as many as seven flavors. These form a typology of transitional learning.

A toolkit for setting up or evaluating transition learning

This typology can be seen as a toolkit for stimulating double-loop learning when designing or evaluating transition experiments. Depending on the context and time available, combinations of different taste made in an experiment.

The image below shows a reconstruction of transition learning in the different experiments. For example, it can be concluded that different flavor variants take place at the same time and that the effect (size of the hexagon) can vary.


All in all, one of the most important conclusions from the research is that careful thought must be given in advance to how learning is shaped in the experiment and in the organization.

In some experiments, this was well secured in the experiment, but there seemed to be no structure in the organization to provide feedback on the experiences gained. In this way, experiences remain fragmented, which according to the literature is one of the biggest barriers to sustainability transitions. Therefore, there should always be an evaluation in the experiment as well as in the organization. In this way, you can ultimately convert radical new thinking into radical new action.

Interested in the rest of the research? See this link.

What does it mean to you?

As a developer, are you considering starting a circular (construction) initiative? And do you want to stimulate the learning capacity in the experiment as well as in the organization?

Sietse or one of his colleagues is happy to help you in the transition to a circular (building) economy. We initiate and monitor circular initiatives.

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