Biense Dijkstra, the builder with a never-ending drive for innovation

04 June 2018

Biense Dijkstra strides purposefully into his factory in an industrial district of Dokkum, a town in the proud province of Friesland in the Netherlands. There stands a gleaming new automated production line. The metallic arms of Robi-One are flashing with movement, a robot that attaches stone veneer. The trusted smell of wood permeates the hall, alongside the shriek of saws and the rapping of hammers. Mark Knopfler of Dire Straits sings: “That ain’t workin’, that’s the way you do it. Money for nothin’ and your chicks for free.”

Dijkstra’s index finger leads to the first station of the production line for building facades: the framing machine. “It saws by itself, it makes the recesses, it frames and it mills. Exactly according to the drawings. Normally you would see two men leading six carpenters for a station like this. You don’t find them here anymore.” “We’re following the automobile industry”, says Dijkstra. But it takes practice. Within three weeks the production line will be in full swing, the building group has to upgrade 350 houses. “Currently we produce eight units per day. If we set the machine to 100%, we will reach one unit every 45 minutes.” Such speed is necessary as the Netherlands needs to accelerate its energy transition. According to the Friesian entrepreneur, this requires robots in the building industry. Along with production time, the price also comes down, “man-hours are a high-cost component” says Dijkstra.

The idea for a facade robot was already around three years ago. Dijkstra, an enthusiastic Friesian who uses his eyebrows and hands to give weight to his words, was keen to invest, but only if the facades were appropriate for renovation as well as new build. “Otherwise we never would have started with the robot.” This way it makes no difference if a corporation wants to build a new house or upgrade. The building group made a call to H&M Wood – a company from the city of Sneek who produce manufacturing machinery and further invited Smart Robotics to the table. Together, they breathed life into Robi-One. “This is the first robot made this way.”

The first seed of Dijkstra’s drive to modernise had actually been sewn much earlier. Hennes de Ridder, former professor and pioneer of prefabrication techniques in the building industry, had a hand in the process. De Ridder came to speak at the opening of a new building by Dijkstra Draisma in 2002 in Bolsward. “Hennes explained how badly organised our industry was” Dijkstra reflects fondly. Dijkstra stayed in contact with De Ridder, who continued to challenge and defy building industry norms, just as Jan Willem van de Groep, founder of Stroomversnelling, later did. Dijkstra became convinced, especially when crisis hit Friesland.

Dijkstra orients the building group further towards the customer

Working “abroad” (outside the provinces outside Friesland) became one of the life buoys. More importantly: Dijkstra oriented the building group further towards the customer. That meant thinking cooperatively with the client. “Design and build suits us well, that is more that 70% of our work these days. Multidisciplinary contracts involving energy, installation, design and construction. We want to work in teams that complement each other and offer each other contracts, we don’t work with buyers.”

We walk further along the production line, past the stations for insulation and window frames. Suddenly Dijkstra’s attention is drawn to a robot further along. The arms of the Robi-One hang still. An employee kneels over a facade that is half clad with a veneer, half prepared with glue. The man has a spatula in his hand. “He is removing glue” observes Dijkstra. Is the robot broken? Teething problems? It proves to be the latter. “That goes with the territory”, Dijkstra walks further.

Yet more ‘back to the future’: The robot can read a drawing, but then who makes the drawing? A drone of course. Dijkstra Draisma has already been experimenting with this. With a 50 or 100 megapixel camera, one pixel in the camera is 1mm in the real world explains Folkert Linnemans, an innovator with Dijkstra Draisma. “We make a point cloud that gets loaded. The frame machine uses this information to make a facade.”

Next stop. Outside the factory. In the middle of an asphalt terrain stands a house that was entirely made in the factory, complete with robot facades. “We haven’t cleaned it” apologises Dijkstra as we enter. A few days before there was a celebration to open the new factory, glasses were raised to the transportable house. “This one is soon to be relocated to 22 Lombokstraat in Leeuwarden. The home is demountable and can be loaded onto a truck to be reassembled in another location. We have made dry connections, everything is able to be plugged in, the fuse box, the heating centre, we can pull it all apart and put it back together again.” Construction of the dry-stack-system is like stacking lego blocks. The floor is laid and the walls put in place. The prefab toilet with attached kitchen is hoisted into place. The components are secured to each other with a fastening system. ‘Cable trees’ are plugged in on each floor. Dijkstra offers one word to describe the demountable house and Robi-One: “powerful.” “I am living my dream,” he adds later as we talk further in the office adjacent to the factory. “That all these people here can enjoy doing what they are good at. It is my hobby. When your hobby is your work, what more could you want?” He goes on “this house was erected within two days.” It took five days to demount it. Linnemans comments that this needs improvement, especially the prefab wet cell. “We stood on the side-lines in the development of these prefab components, but we want to move to a more central position in the development, so that we can achieve the quality and production speed we want. The ideal situation is that once things are hoisted into position, someone walks around it and – click, click, click – it is finished. To date, no prefabbers have got this far. You get a half-made product where the builders still have a lot to do.” Dijkstra nods: “Things you can do before hand should not be done on site. Two weeks to completion on location is not what we want anymore.”

What will building look like in 2030? Don’t ask him

The building time will be less of an issue for clients; reusability will be much more interesting for them. Does the owner want to relocate the house after 10 years? That’s possible. Pack up, move, reassemble and get on with your life. Dijkstra: “A perfect system, but you have to be honest: You have to tick all the boxes and meet the rules before you can claim that it is circular. We know now that this building is 100% reusable, but actually that is if we think in the short term, because will that also be true after twenty years? Maybe in twenty or thirty years we think: “Shit, actually it should have been electric, oops.” Anyway, nobody can predict the future, including Biense Dijkstra. “I am not a man of the world, I am a practical Friesian with both feet on the ground” What will building look like in 2030? Don’t ask him. “No idea. You’re better off orienting to what you know now than following what you think will happen and what larger organisations predict.”

But the future is circular, that is something Dijkstra is sure of. And everyone in the construction industry is taking the idea and running with it. “That bothers me.” Circular is the new buzzword and corporate teams want to score with it. “The term is sufficiently vague that everyone makes their own thing out of it.” Yes, the NEN is working on standards for it, but the building industry still doesn’t have a definition of circular building. So, now there is a rule book for green building, with all concepts listed from A for All electric, to Z for Zero waste. Dijkstra Draisma is also working on something similar for circularity. In a nutshell circularity consists of three phases:

1) Use of reusable materials 2) Actual reuse 3) Auxiliary materials, energy and emission.

If the sector won’t define the rules of play then we will, thought Dijkstra. “We want to stimulate discussion in the sector.” Why does Biense Dijkstra want to write these sorts of things down? “My father always said that the bluntest point of a pencil is always still sharper than the sharpest memory.” According to his own rules the robot facade is now 83% circular. Soon to be 92%, if they replace the current insulation material with cellulose, which the building company is now testing. The closer they get to 100% the more difficult it gets. Linnemans: “True circularity remains a serious technical challenge. Just think of paint. How often do we use paint in the Netherlands? On just about everything. A requirement of paint is that it doesn’t degrade, so there you go. Paint is essentially not a circular product.” Dijkstra: “Products that require high temperatures to make them and break them down also pose a problem. Bricks, insulation materials such as stone wool which requires temperatures of 1500 degrees to make.” Linnemans: “Yes, stone wool is reusable for one or two cycles, but it needs to be infinitely reusable.”

Sustainability is in his genes

It is blatantly obvious. Dijkstra is obsessed with sustainability. To the extent that he abandoned his trusted political party and voted for the party which, according to him, had “the best sustainability programme.” He admits that sustainability is probably in his genes. His grandparents on his mother’s side were farmers from Appelscha, a tiny Friesian village, and pioneers in biodynamic gardening. “I admire how such people dealt with the world. When I was young I thought: you can overdo it. Building a fire because they didn’t want to use gas; if you wanted to use the toilet you first had to fetch a bucket of water from the canal. My father, a local village contractor, drove a second hand Mercedes 200 diesel. My grandmother though this was terrible. A capitalist car. My father was the personification of capitalism. I thought: dad doesn’t have such a big car. The steel producer from another village has a 300 diesel.” Later he came to the realisation: “Wow – those people were doing great work, they were getting on with things in their own way. Those delicious Dutch donut balls, ‘oaljekoeken’ as my grandmother in Applescha called them, they were made from their own flour. More delicious than any donut ball I ever tasted. That was because their heart and soul lay in generating sustainable products and circular practices. Practice what you preach. I have respect for that.”

Practice what you preach. Dijkstra had to embrace that himself. Two years ago he traded in his two racing cars, Porsches, for his sustainable beliefs. “My only hobby.” Dijkstra raced circuits. “I find it incompatible now, it doesn’t fit with sustainability.” Really? Well… he hopes that an electric race car emerges. With a boyish look he shares: “There is already a Tesla race car, but it is quite heavy, 1600kg. Actually a race car shouldn’t weigh more than 1100kg so that you can corner hard and brake late. Weight can spell disaster on a circuit.” So sustainability, but also a genuinely better product. With this goal in mind, Dijkstra Draisma is going beyond the installation companies and talking with the manufacturing industry in the Netherlands. They want to interfere with the installation products.

Not a single builder has found the holy grail yet

That interference is necessary due to the performance guarantee Dijkstra Draisma offers on it’s houses and utility buildings. Because it is not just, bang, throw a water pump in and, bang, a ventilation system alongside and, hey presto, it works says Linnemans. No, not a single builder has found the holy grail. Everything is linked together. The cladding on the facade, the heat emission system and the ventilation. If you want to offer good comfort levels you have to test, test and test again. Dijkstra Draisma does that. There has even been a freezer unit hired to test the facades. In addition, seven electrical systems have been put under the spotlight and two collective heating systems.

“New build homes should be net zero energy in any case, we shouldn’t even be discussing that, and we need to move away from gas. Further, the infrastructure for energy needs to be improved. We need system choices per building, per neighbourhood and per city. You make different choices for different conditions, depending on what is available in the neighbourhood. All electric seems like a good option for the countryside, and district heating networks where that is possible.” Dijkstra Draisma is itself investing in geothermal in Friesland, amongst other things in Leeuwarden. The building group wants to be able to offer heating via a heating network in the city. If the politicians make the choices, and that has to happen says Dijkstra, then the industry can offer its propositions. “Otherwise we’ll stay in the pilot phase.” Sounds like an electricity company. Dijkstra doesn’t deny it. “If sustainable heating isn’t on offer then we need to be bold enough to offer it ourselves. We are not going to take on all of the risk, but we’ll beat the drum and get things started.” He happily beats the drum of modernisation, as one of the few in construction who does. But don’t put him on a pedestal. “I don’t think we’re special. I think that it is special that what we are doing now can be seen as so special. It actually indicates that our sector is very traditional. And, let’s be honest, that is where our opportunity lies.”

First published in Dutch at by Marc Doodeman

Net zero retrofits in Leeuwarden by Building Group Dijkstra Draisma

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