Sustainability: Buildings and Disasters?


Last activity of Kivi Niria I organized was hosted at the Hogeschool Utrecht, where they have some really great sustainable examples in their labs and even on their roof!

Key points I took home from this networking event are that the transition in our buildings to sustainability is going to be quicker than for our mobility and that the greatest changes in (Dutch) history required a disaster to set it off.

Buildings vs EVs

Never having wondered about the speed of change before, it made sense to me hearing Ivo Opstelten say the change in our sustainable building will be ready before the mobility transition is complete. There are so many buildings getting solar panels and sustainable solutions are being applied at a much larger scale there than what we see being done to make our transportation more sustainable. That is not to dismiss the efforts done in our mobility, but the momentum is currently a lot bigger in our build-environment.

One reason for this could be that transforming your house with solar panels is a financial investment only. It creates the visual link between the generation and consumption of electricity, but does not require people to change their normal habits. An electric car is seen as something that requires people to change their habits. While that is true to some extent, the change is less than what is perceived. The other main difference is the economies of scale that are already more in effect with solar panel production than they are with EV production. These two reasons are why we will probably see sustainable, power generating buildings become mainstream before we will see electric vehicles being adopted by the vast majority.

Disasters and Shock

The last thing which resonated with me was that at least in the Netherlands, most big changes in the system came after some sort of a disaster. Our famous Dutch dikes really came into full effect with the ‘Delta-Plan’. This plan was put into place within 2–3 years after a big flooding of the North Sea here in the Netherlands in 1953.

Map of Delta Plan

Map of Delta Plan

If we really want the transition to a more sustainable future (buildings, energy, mobility) to speed up, we would need a disaster first before we become bold enough the put a ‘Delta-Plan’ into effect. In the US after Super Storm Sandy we could see an increased awareness of smart grids and other plans to prevent or mitigate the effects of a future, similar disaster striking the US coasts again.

All this ‘disaster first, followed by big radical change’ sounds quite like a revolution, but it also reminds me of the book I read ‘Shock Doctrine’ by Naomi Klein. In her book she describes how economic reforms in a country can be put into place after the country has been in a shock, either by a large (natural) disaster or a war. The people are in shock, survival becomes priority number one and people are not focused on resisting these economic reforms or to be actively involved with politics.


If a disaster is really necessary to promote the sustainable change this world needs, I hope not. The change will be a lot quicker after such a revolution, but some changes are best introduced while giving plenty of thought on how to execute the change and set up the (smart) system properly.