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Biobased (Ver)Bouwen

Whether it’s the housing shortage, nitrogen pollution, CO2 emissions, subsidence or decreasing biodiversity, the Netherlands is facing some serious challenges.  The question is how do we deal with them and how do we ensure that the environment and our landscape remain healthy and liveable?  Bio-based agriculture is a huge opportunity to interconnect and get a grip on these challenges. BOOM Landscape, together with Natuurverdubbelaars (Nature Doublers), investigated the potential of bio-based crops in the context of farming and landscape conservation.

 

Renewable, natural materials ensure a cleaner building industry. They contribute to climate goals and inject quality into our landscapes.

 

FLTR: Biobased (Ver)bouwen on the urban outskirts of Utrecht, Biobased (Ver)bouwen in the peatlands of South Holland and Biobased (Ver)bouwen in de Noordoostpolder in Flevoland.

 

Three case studies

The research was commissioned by the Board of Chief Government Advisors and the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Kingdom Relations. It involved case studies that explored the opportunities for bio-based crops in three provinces: at the urban edges of Utrecht, in the peatlands of South Holland and on arable farming land in the clay soil of the Noordoostpolder in Flevoland. Each case study examined the following questions: how can bio-based crops contribute to better environmental quality and how can farmers make a living out of it?

New crops can be introduced where the land needs it most, either to improve the quality of the soil or where the present system of production is exhausted. Cultivating bio-based building materials means boosting biodiversity, soil quality, recreational opportunities and quality in spatial planning.

Clean building materials

Biobased (Ver)Bouwen is all about cultivating crops that can be turned into building materials. Crops like trees, flax, straw and bulrush, for example, can be processed into flooring, insulation, exterior cladding and construction materials.

A clean ecological footprint for the building industry is the future. In the Netherlands this is certainly true given the enormous building plans needed to meet housing demand and the highly polluting current construction industry. Tackling these challenges and meeting the international agreement on climate change requires a new way of building. And building with bio-based materials is an environmentally and climate-friendly alternative.

The ambition to make the Dutch building industry circular has been gaining ground – not just among government parties, but across the board. The ambitions include not only the use of natural building materials, but even preferably those grown on Dutch soil. Questions that arise are: Which crops and geographic areas are most suitable and what are the financial and social benefits of the production of bio-based building materials? Where do the greatest opportunities and obstacles lie and what would new business models look like? And what are the advantages of bio-based production for the climate and for restoring biodiversity?

There are absolutely chances to cultivate building materials in the Netherlands, but in most cases this will require a radical transformation of the landscape. The benefit, however, is that it’s a much-needed transformation, considering that how we currently use the landscape is what caused the problems in the first place.  The ground we have ‘cultivated’ is now subsiding, eroding, salinising, clogging up, overgrowing, emitting CO2 instead of absorbing it, and/or channelling rainwater away to the sea instead of putting it to good use. If we do nothing to stop this, the cost to our communities and the environment will go on rising year by year.

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Opportunities for both farmer and landscape

Our research illustrates what the production of bio-based building materials can generate for farmers and landscape. We explicitly linked design and numbers together: BOOM Landscape analysed three types of landscapes and designed appealing perspectives for different kinds of bio-based farming, in such a way that Natuurverdubbelaars could calculate the costs and benefits. They did this by developing a tool especially for this study. They examined the earning potential for a farmer (a business case) and the social return (a value case). The latter involves advantages like increased landscape quality, decreased CO2 emissions and mitigated salinisation.

Case study on the urban outskirts of Utrecht. 1000 new lines of harvestable crops connect the city and suburban Leidsche Rijn with the surrounding landscape.

Layered landscapes

We focused on areas where the environmental problems are so intense that the present production systems are approaching their limits. In these often very ecologically poor areas, monocultures could be transformed into dynamic cultivation systems: a mosaic of new crops and a landscape based on reintroduced historical elements.

The choice of cultivating systems for the three areas was influenced by two aspects: the features of the land and the local environmental problems. Matching suitable cultivating systems to the features and needs means an integrated approach that delivers additional benefits like combatting climate, nitrogen and water issues, as well as improving biodiversity, soil quality and recreational potential. The ultimate goal is a healthy and layered landscape that is rich and varied. Diversity also creates new habitats for wildlife and greenery.

The historic use of the land also influenced potential choices. In the past, our landscape was much more varied and the land  was worked at a much smaller scale. This meant less pressure on the soil and more breathing space for a natural balance. Also, crop choices in the past were guided by existing water resources and soil quality. New crops and classic crops – thanks to innovation and new techniques – can become successful bio-based materials.

Case study in Noordoostpolder. Bio-based crop cultivation around Schokland translates into improved ecosystems, recreational opportunities and a historical connection that is also legible in the landscape.

Recommendations

As a business case, the farming of bio-based crops would require the government to actively stimulate the market and supply chain development. Farmers need to be able to count on low start-up costs, fair (and set minimum) prices and a receptive market for their product. The government could broker agreements with various sectors in the building industry. They could also stimulate market and supply chain development through policy, legislation, research and by facilitating partnerships.

Nonetheless, no farmer would be able to earn a living on the basis of cultivating bio-based materials alone. What might help them to generate an income beyond solely crops is if we reward farmers for being custodians of the land and facilitators in environmental issues. Our study revealed the price we have paid for present-day agricultural practices – and will continue to pay because it is us who will foot the bill for subsidence, salinisation, greenhouse gas emissions and ecological degradation.

The solution to closing the gap for the business model therefore lies in valuing complementary attributes and amenities, such as ecological balance and recreational facilities. More significantly, farmers must also be compensated for ecosystem services like providing buffers for fresh water (which is becoming scarcer), sequestering carbon and reducing nitrogen emissions and greenhouse gases. In this way we create a new and sustainable form of agriculture that allows a farmer to grow bio-based crops, but also be a ‘water and/or climate farmer’.

This study explored an alternative agriculture that contributes to the regeneration of arable land by harvesting bio-based building materials that can transform current environmental problems. At the same time, it is agriculture than can transform the building industry by supplying it with clean, ecologically-sound building materials. Such a completely different approach to farming requires adapted roles for governments, farmers and other parties in the chain. Furthermore, it is a transition that farmers can only achieve with the help of government, the market and society as a whole. With this in mind, we prepared some recommendations regarding government stimulus: policy or economic measures that national and provincial administrations could put in place to stimulate the production of bio-based building materials. In doing so, a bio-based business model can emerge that is profitable for farmers, that contributes to a cleaner building industry and that solves serious environmental problems. And we can achieve a healthier landscape, better soil conditions and a viable future.

Case study in peatlands of South Holland. Bio-based crops provide a (recreationally) attractive, ecological and climate-resilient landscape. The peat ridges retain water, which can be used in dry times to water the adjacent clay soils.

Curious to read the full studies (in Dutch)?

More information on the calculation tool used in the studies?

It is open source and can be found on the website of De Natuurverdubbelaars.

Locations: Veenweidegebied Nieuwkoop, Groot-Haarzuylens and De Noordoostpolder
Assignment: Three case studies on the opportunities for farming bio-based building materials – design, development and calculations.
Clients: Ministry of Internal Affairs and Kingdom Relations, Board of Chief Government Advisors, Province of South Holland and Province of Flevoland.
Design and reserach team BOOM Landscape: Philomene van der Vliet, Jan Maas, Max Daalhuizen, Augusto Rodrigues, Gerlinda Floor, Stephanie Albicher
Design and reserach team De Natuurverdubbelaars: Daan Jochem Groot, Merlissa Diele, Stijn Wijdekop
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