Changing minds in architecture
Meet Michel Baars, who is the owner and founder of New Horizon, a company active in urban mining. Find out more about his vision and our partnership.
Driving change isn’t easy. In fact, New Horizon founder Michel Baars, has had days where he’s literally felt threatened. His story is fascinating, his steadfast dedication to making the circular economy happen, inspirational. Here, we discover why his father’s wise words remain in this pioneering environmental engineer’s mind and how his business is laying a more sustainable path for specifiers.
What is New Horizon?
Essentially, my company New Horizon dismantles buildings that are ready for demolition, harvesting as many materials as possible for reuse. Our goal is to supply building materials to the market that contribute to a circular economic model with little impact on the environment.
How did the idea for the company come about?
By trade, I am an environmental engineer. On completing my environmental and economics studies, my entrepreneurial father gently pointed out that I would spend my career criticising the polluting companies I would work for. Regardless, I set up my own environmental engineering business. But his words stay with me to this day. Owning the business for 18 years, employing 300 people, I eventually sold it to international engineering consultant SGS.
Having gained a lot of project management contracts for complex demolition projects, this experience was put to good use in an advisory capacity, with a focus on achieving a more sustainable built environment.
Yet, it soon became apparent that influencing the big players in real estate and social housing would take a very long time. I wanted to take a Cradle to Cradle approach in a more direct way. Not as an engineer or advisor but in a risk-bearing, entrepreneurial way and with passion.
I'm going to change the world and I'm going to do it on my own.
These were the words this market disruptor told his wife when he set up urban mining company, New Horizon. Seven years on and with his team growing every day, it’s quite a different story.
How did you get the business going?
I hadn’t registered the company but was talking to a few former clients about my new ideas for the company and one said: “Right, so you want the demolition contract. Here is a €2m demolition project to start with and you start next week.”
A week later, I was with a social housing company. They said, that’s a good idea, we trust you, lets work together for five years and you demolish 1,000 social houses.
I literally hotfooted it to register the company in October 2015 and New Horizon was born.
Did you have any concerns when you set up New Horizon?
I promised my wife I would do this on my own; that I’d never hire anyone and work three days a week, not seven like before. I said: “I’m going to change the world and I’m going to do it on my own. I’ll do this for five years. Then the market will understand the concept, they will copy it and I can do something different. I’ll be able to go fishing again and think about a new company. I will never do anything for more than five years again.” I have kept all my other promises to my wife but not this one.
Today, the team is growing every day. I work six days a week and we’re already seven years down the line and making real progress.
It’s a tough world though, especially when you’re making changes like this. It takes a lot of energy to get this transition to happen. I’ve experienced threats from some major players in the market and seen first hand, industries using best practice guidance documents to prevent our products being specified, even though we put them through a rigorous certification process. And not everything is working but we’re learning more all the time.
Can you explain how New Horizon works and what makes your approach to building products more circular?
The most logical way to start was to take the most polluting material in a building first, which of course is concrete. The key was to find that competitive angle with which to enter the market.
Working alongside the inventor of the Smart LiberatorTM, an innovative concrete processing technique that recovers the original, pure primary components from harvested concrete (sand, gravel and cement) during the dismantling of buildings, our urban mining concrete is co-produced using new circular poured concrete produced from these recovered raw materials. It has the same quality as traditional concrete, but with much less CO2 emissions under KOMO certification.
Other building materials we’re producing now include bricks, bitumen, metals like aluminium as well as secondary products such as plasterboard, insulation and even down to wooden floors, kitchens and doors.
Tell us about the partnership with WICONA?
Whilst aluminium is not the biggest in terms of volume, it is one of the most energy intensive when it comes to production, which is where the contact with Hydro Building Systems (the WICONA parent company) started.
Like New Horizon, Hydro has a circular mission and together the two companies are collaborating to close the aluminum façade loop.
Broadly, the process of getting each material into a ‘loop’ is the same and right now we’re working with Hydro to understand better what we can do on the demolition side.
What about your first urban mined ‘harvest’ of aluminium?
The first harvest of aluminium has been sourced from the former Amphia Hospital in Breda, a city in the southern part of the Netherlands.
The Hydro team visited the site and discussed with our team the best way to dismantle each aluminium product type. For example, for some it’s better to remove the door or window, take out the rubber elements and the glass and then supply to Hydro. For others, it’s best not to even start splitting it. Instead, we put it in a different container and let Hydro do the splitting using the company’s established processes and techniques.
The harvested aluminium is converted into Hydro CIRCAL. Currently, Hydro Hydro offers CIRCAL® 75R, containing at least 75% aluminium from post-consumer scrap – one of the smallest carbon footprints in the world: at 2.3 kg of CO2 emissions per kg of aluminium. This is 6 times less than the global average for primary extraction.
What’s next for the collaborative WICONA partnership?
Essentially, we need to ensure we’re providing the best material flow to Hydro’s manufacturing site. So that’s what we’re doing now. The first shipment of aluminium is complete. And having evaluated this, we will adjust our inspection process.
We do a lot of inspection work of buildings that are going to be demolished in about 3-5 years. Now we know what we need to look for and what specifications we need to provide to Hydro, we can forecast the exact volume and quality of material supply in the pipeline.
Also though, as we’re talking to developers at the demolition stage we’re able to provide recommendations for circular material solutions, which they can use to brief the architect in the design of the new building. This provides our material partners, like Hydro, with the opportunity to deliver the recycled materials back into the market in the form of aluminium façades, doors and windows for complete circularity.
Is this kind of circular approach to architecture and construction happening globally or just in the Netherlands?
Architecture is different globally, in developed countries architects have a blank page and broadly it’s always about the design of a building with endless specification options available. It really depends on the budget. In less developed countries, people are looking at what materials and skills are available around them to create buildings. I hope what we’re doing here in the Netherlands shows other countries how the industry can work differently, in a more sustainable way.
What’s your message to architects and specifiers?
The most valuable promoter of the urban mining principle is the company or person that looks for building materials with a low environmental impact.
These materials will come from either the bio based industry or urban mining.
So when you, as an architect or project developer, brief a main contractor the top priority is to specify a building with very low environmental impact.
And because many building materials are finite, urban mining suddenly becomes viable and the more urban mining demand means more investment in the sector.
Why is it so important for urban mining to happen now?
Including urban mining into the construction process will result in the CO2 reduction that we need NOW.
A lot of future discussion is about detachable construction, material passports for buildings and reusing materials in the future. And whilst we have a lot to learn about demolishing buildings that were never built for easy demolition and reconstruction. All those principles are about delivering the circular economy in the future.
That’s 40 years from now. Our first mission is to get the CO2 emissions down NOW because we only have a few years to achieve the 2030 goals.
Name two practical ways architects and specifiers can make an impact and help spread the urban mining word?
Firstly, the biggest impact you can make is really looking into the environmental impact of every building material you specify. You can reduce the impact by using bio-based materials and urban mining materials. Base decisions on facts, consider CO2 reduction and use validated, certified data.
The second way is to tell the stories of these recycled and upcycled products. One recent example I can give you is the front doors of the houses built on the site of the demolished hospital I mentioned. The doors have been manufactured from the wooden beams that prevented the beds from banging against the hospital walls. Of course, this didn’t result in the biggest CO2 reduction. But the recycling message travels onward. Because every mother, father, sister, brother or friend that walks through that front door will hear that story and likely visited that hospital at some point.
We do of course need to base decisions on fact but encouraging the companies we work with to tell stories like this about reusing what’s already in the building and the benefits of building responsibly means together we will make change like this happen.
Find out more about 'Closing the aluminium loop' within the interview with Steven Helsen, HBS.