Dealing differently with water in the built environment

Downpour flooding and persistent drought: two extremes that are familiar to every person living in a city or village in our country. And we experienced them again in 2020. ‘We have to deal with water differently in the built environment,’ says KWR researcher Marcel Paalman. Together with its partners, KWR made significant progress last year in developing a water-cycle-wide circular approach.

‘You no longer have to convince anyone of the urgent need to retain water in the built environment, for its use or reuse,’ says Paalman, co-coordinator of the Water in the Circular Economy (WiCE) research programme. In collaboration with many actors, KWR took steps in 2020 to incorporate water at the beginning of design processes, and to take a new perspective on the values this delivers. The conclusion reached: the built environment calls for a shorter circular water cycle.

Water challenges in the built environment

Besides balancing water retention and use, cities and villages are confronted with other water challenges, explains Paalman. ‘Water is needed for the green spaces, particularly in dry periods. This need for green and water is also linked to the mitigation of heat stress. And in hot summers the drinking water utilities approach the limits of their capacity to provide sufficient drinking water. They make calls for water conservation. For example, through a change in citizen behaviour, the introduction of water conservation measures, or the use and reuse water. Then the question becomes: How do you address this challenge in an integrated manner?’

New forms of collaboration

To a significant extent, the solutions are technical in nature, and KWR’s knowledge makes a contribution in this regard. ‘Think, for instance, of rainwater treatment or new sanitation techniques, in which you can treat wastewater on a local scale for local use,’ says Henk-Jan van Alphen, researcher at KWR. ‘This allows you to potentially save on large-scale treatment capacity.’ At the same time this raises a fundamental question: How do you create new forms of partnership that make such innovative water systems possible? In other words, it is more than a matter of technique. Van Alphen explains: ‘Traditionally, the water utility delivers drinking water to a residential neighbourhood. The municipality discharges the water, and the Water Authority then looks after its treatment. But if you make the water system circular at the neighbourhood level, then all these actors need to sit down at the table together. Where does the responsibility of one end, and that of another begin? Or should we opt instead for a joint approach?’

Brainport Smart District

It is therefore pretty complicated. And according to both Van Alphen and Paalman, this is perfectly illustrated in one of the highlights of 2020: the presentation of the research report on Brainport Smart District; an innovative neighbourhood in Helmond, with a design that is strongly focused on a smart, circular and resilient water system. The report describes what the circular water system might look like. KWR coordinated this process with experts from Brabant Water, the Aa and Maas and De Dommel Water Authorities, the Province of North Brabant, the municipality of Helmond, and the Brainport Smart District Foundation (BSD). BSD is one of the four pilots within the WiCE theme ‘Value in the Water Cycle’, which researches the governance of the circular water cycle. As this theme’s coordinator, Van Alphen is enthusiastic about the Helmond pilot. ‘By setting targets, like building homes that ultimately result in water-savings of at least 40 percent, you attract project developers who are guided by sustainability and innovation. They present plans that need to be tested for their feasibility. Sometimes this calls for further research. Normally, the municipality issues the specifications, whereupon the project developer begins the construction. The water mains are dealt with at the end of the design process. In the case of BSD, the entire district is being built from scratch, and that includes the water system. This is more complex than ever, as well as being experimental. Does everything work as we expected? And how will the residents deal with it?’ Now that the research report has been done, it is the turn of the project developers and contractors to elaborate the plans further.

New cost-benefit analysis

Van Alphen stresses that a critically important element in the transition to circular water in the built environment, is the need to reinvent cost-benefit analysis. ‘Since today’s water system is so efficient, it always seems that a new approach is going to be more costly. But as soon as you take additional values into consideration, such as flood protection or heat-stress mitigation, you sometimes arrive at very different conclusions.’  The position of KWR, as a research institute, allows us to lay out different values in a clear and substantiated fashion. ‘As scientists, we don’t need to reason from the perspective of a particular mission statement,’ adds Paalman. ‘In this way we help others look over their own garden fence. An entirely new way of working, which we will increasingly get the hang of together.’