Sustainable Design Principles

“Natural processes create additional benefits”

Nature-based design

The ‘Nature-based design’ principle means that natural processes are used to strengthen the design. Working with nature instead of against nature. This will help prevent unintended negative side effects and result in additional benefits, for instance in terms of nature values. It may also result in cost savings.

The ‘Nature-based design’ principle requires engineers to gain insight into the natural processes occurring in a project environment by determining their physical, chemical and/or biological characteristics. Negative effects on these processes can then be avoided in the design phase, while such processes can also be used to create additional benefits. This principle is called ‘Building with Nature’. It is applied by performing a system analysis to consider the project in a broader context. Such an analysis involves determining the dominant processes, identifying key factors that can influence these processes, and finally identifying effective measures targeted at those key factors.

System analysis

When applying the sustainable design principles, system analysis is a much-needed ally. A water system, a soil system, a financial system, a computer system or a social system – taking effective measures that will influence a system in the right way is not possible until you understand how the system works.

A system analysis involves looking at the condition a system is in relative to any processes that influence that condition. That is what ecologist Sebastiaan Schep has been doing for the past thirteen years. ‘For instance, we regularly analyse water systems by closely examining its present condition (What flora and fauna does it provide a habitat for?, What is the water quality like?, etc.) and identifying the (environmental) processes that potentially influence that condition. We subsequently analyse these processes – such as the external water supply, phosphate load from agricultural sources – to see if that actually provides an explanation of the condition the water system is in. That ‘dialogue’ between condition analysis and process analysis is repeated for as long as it takes to identify those processes that provide the best possible explanation for the condition. That is when ‘system-wide insight’ is achieved and effective measures can be identified. Measures that target the relevant processes but also measures that directly affect the condition.’

Flexible design

The ‘Flexible Design’ principle means that a design can be easily adapted if circumstances change in the future. This may concern different climatological conditions or a change in people’s needs and preferences. By making a design flexible, creating added value in the future will become easier and more cost-effective.

By creating flexible designs, Vatten Pro can anticipate future developments and factor in uncertainties. We take account of long-term scenarios and developments, and work with our clients to look at whether upcoming changes and developments can play a role in the design. That could concern physical changes, such as climate change resulting in heat, drought, intense precipitation and sea level rise or soil subsidence, but also societal changes resulting from changes in policy or behavioral standards as well as consumer trends and new scientific insights and technological developments such as autonomous cars. The functionality and value of designs by Vatten Pro will therefore be preserved throughout their life cycle in a range of future scenarios.

Three perspectives on flexible designs

Robustness, adaptability and resilience are three perspectives to take into account when drawing up flexible designs. A robust ‘first time right’ design lasts the entire life cycle. This may be necessary in the case of a flood defence structure that needs to be reinforced to add 50 years to its life cycle, or for adding transmission capacity to a high-voltage line in anticipation of the energy transition. An adaptable design meets the applicable requirements during part of the life cycle, and can be easily adjusted when circumstances change. This may be necessary if software or equipment have a major role as in, for instance, drive mechanisms and/or infrastructural operating systems. And, lastly, rather than focus on the strength of an object, a resilient design will focus on the resilience of the system this object is a part of. This means physical solutions may not always be the only answer but that, for instance, taking out flood insurance, buying options or investing in relief and reconstruction plans instead of prevention plans are also investigated. 

Circular design

The ‘Circular Design’ principle is about making choices for the current and future life cycles and ensuring closed material chains by making allowances in the design for the use of waste as a raw material. Circular design is aimed at minimizing the depletion of natural resources.

Circular design is about making choices that take account of current and future life cycles throughout the entire process: from the initiation phase through to exploration, design, execution, management and maintenance, followed by the next life cycle. That means thinking ahead about design and materials usage, at all levels and in all phases of a structure’s life cycle. In addition to the technical life cycle, designers learn to also consider the functional life cycle. Circular design is also about ‘closing the loop’ by using waste as a resource in the design process.

Multi-functional design

The ‘Multifunctional Design’ principle encourages engineers to look for multiple functions and ways to combine as many functions as possible, and to ensure the design addresses all of them as effectively as possible. The crucial point is to surprise stakeholders with an additional function and thereby with more added value to society by a comparatively small adjustment in the design.

The ‘Multifunctional Design’ principle encourages engineers to consider adding functions to a design. Questions like ‘How can I make optimal use of the space available?’ and ‘How many functions can be added and how do they reinforce each other?’ are important in that respect. It is also essential to make optimal use of existing values in an area, such as cultural/historical, landscape, recreational, social and nature values. Finally, careful consideration must be given to a future-proof design, for instance by using a clear urban development or landscape framework, and by reflecting on the future value of the spaces created and the materials used. There is commonality with the ‘Flexible Design’ principle.

Participatory design

‘Participatory design’ means that you do not design for the surroundings, but with the surroundings. This increases support for the project, thereby making it more efficient and the design more in line with the wishes of those who live and work in the surrounding area.

Stakeholders are given an active role in the design process. We facilitate this by organising meetings, one-on-one discussions and online participation platforms. We collect input (ideas, concerns and interests) from the local area, take it into account during the design process and then give feedback on trade-offs made to the stakeholders. We use this stakeholder input to improve our design and at the same time we use our design to create satisfaction in the surroundings. Through this integrated approach, whereby content and process are inextricably linked when it comes to spatial challenges, Vatten Pro creates added value for both the design and the participation process.


The ‘Trias’ principle means that the use – i.e. depletion – of energy and raw materials is minimized and optimised. This will also reduce the life cycle costs of the design.

The ‘Trias Energetica’ design principle is aimed at minimising the use of finite (i.e. non-renewable) resources. It is a three-step strategy for producing an energy-efficient and resource-efficient design, and consequently also a strategy for reducing CO2 emissions. The three steps of the Trias Energetica are as follows:

  1. Limit demand and prevent unnecessary use and waste
  2. Use renewable sources for energy, and use waste as a resource
  3. Make efficient use of any non-renewable sources needed to meet the remaining demand

Socially responsible design

The concept of ‘socially responsible design’ means that, as an engineer, you should think about how you can increase the societal impact of your project by not limiting yourself to technical measures.Engineers are used to generating societal benefits with smart technical interventions, but sometimes more is needed – such as behavioural and socio-economic measures.

The best way to alleviate traffic jams, for example, is not always to lay even more tarmac, but to introduce behavioural measures such as speed limits. Likewise, widening a beach to increase water safety will not automatically lead to additional recreational benefits, even though there is now literally room for this. For that to happen, we need the right socio-economic conditions: can entrepreneurs obtain permits and funding, for example? If the right conditions aren’t there, they have to be created, and that means incorporating socio-economic measures. Engineers who are mindful of this can greatly increase the societal impact of their projects.

Experienced project leaders often have a good idea of the societal context of their project, which enables them to identify the most relevant societal measures. The trick is therefore to ‘do something with what you can see’.