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    The Building with Nature Guideline Introduction

    You have reached the start page of the Building with Nature Design Guideline. This Guideline aims to provide its target reader groups with guidance on how to introduce the Building with Nature principles in surface water infrastructure development processes.

    The concept of Building with Nature is based on the principles that shifting the development paradigm for surface water infrastructure towards Building with Nature Design requires not only a redefinition of what to do and what to aim at, but also of how to do it: a change in thinking, acting and interacting.

    The mission of BwN: "To show that it is possible to create opportunities for nature and, where possible, utilize natural processes while developing infrastructure."

    Generic strategic BwN objective is: "To deliver and/or utilise ecosystem services while delivering engineering services."

    An elaboration of how to attain this mission and objective is presented in the BwN Philospohy

    The purpose of this Guideline is to give guidance on how to introduce and integrate BwN water infrastructure developments..

    Who are the target reader groups?

    The guidance in this BwN Design Guideline is specifically targeted to the following reader groups:

    -        Project owners / Proponents, Ecologists, Engineers, Consultants, Wet Infrastructure Contractors with a stake or responsibility in project design and development processes

    -        Authorities, Policy Makers, Politicians, Administrators, Standards Institutes, NGO's, Financiers that can potentially influence the design criteria and thus the challenges posed to the primary reader group.

    This guideline assumes that its users have already been introduced into the basics of the Building with Nature philosophy and are looking for a more in-depth treatment of the subject. For a general introduction the reader is also referred to the Building with Nature Booklet.

    The Structure of this Guideline

    The core of the information can be found in the ‘BwN Building Blocks’. There guidance on how to develop BwN opportunities in various settings is presented based on various sources of research. In support of the ‘BwN Building Blocks’ case examples are presented under ‘BwN Pilots and Cases’ and the section ‘BwN Toolbox’ provides numerical or practical models or tools to be used in developing BwN opportunities; an assembly of other useful sources of information is collected under ‘BwN Knowledge’.

    The Building with Nature concept assumes that options to develop BwN can found in each of the various phases of a project. In each phase a systematic 5 step approach  can be taken to identify feasible opportunities.

    Putting these general design guidelines into practice may be approached from three distinct, albeit interrelated, perspectives: from the environmental perspective , as a project developer or focussing on governance aspects.

    The making of these guidelines

    These guidelines are composed by participants of the Building with Nature innovation programme. The development of new material is done in a wiki environment, viewing rights in this wiki environment are restricted to Building with Nature participants. Contributions adhere as much as possible to the Style guide.

    A specific BwN Review procedure has been developed to ensure proper quality control and quality assurance for new contributions.It is very well possible that more and other research results have been collected and field experiences have been obtained that can contribute to the presented BwN knowledge. If you have any additions or suggestions for improvement, they are most welcome. Please contact the Editorial Board. if you have any! Also for comments and question please contact the Editorial Board


    The Building with Nature philosophy 

    With 80% of the world's population living in lowland urban areas by 2050, climate changing, sea level rising and societal demands increasing, surface water infrastructure development in those areas is facing new challenges. A paradigm shift from building in nature to building with nature is necessary to ensure a sustainable future.

    New challenges to surface water infrastructure development

    People and economic activities keep on concentrating in large urban areas, mostly located in coastal, deltaic and riverine areas (named 'deltaic areas' hereafter) (Cohen et al., 1997). Not only do land and water use in these urbanizing areas intensify dramatically, also flood risk and climate sensitivity are significantly enhanced. Moreover, society increasingly demands safety, prosperity and sustainability (Vitousek et al., 1997; Ehrlich and Ehrlich, 1997).

    This demand cannot be met without developing new infrastructures. Coasts need to be protected while sea level rises. Rivers need to provide for safe conveyance of ever more extreme floods while remaining a suitable fairway for an intensifying transport. The capacity of harbours and access channels needs to be increased. The quality of water bodies and subsoil needs to be guaranteed. Natural resources need to be used sustainably. This puts increasing demands on the development of surface water infrastructures and calls for innovative solutions in project development, hydraulic engineering and water system management.

    The past decades have shown that the realisation process of infrastructural works is characterised by the following developments:

    • We want more (multifunctional designs, including environmental aspects);
    • We know more (knowledge of natural systems has increased enormously); and
    • We can do more (increased technological capabilities enable new approaches)

    whereas at the same time:

    • We have to operate more carefully (legal restrictions have increased);
    • We have more difficulty getting things done (complexity of decision making has increased); and
    • We have to meet increasingly complex functional requirements (modern society has high demands).

    These developments bring challenges as well as opportunities. Building with Nature aims to meet these challenges by taking advantage of the opportunities offered by nature. An integrated approach and stakeholder involvement from the early stages of project development onwards are essential features.

    Ecosystem services

    In recent literature, the links between nature and the economy are often described using the concept of ecosystem services, or flows of value to human societies as a result of the state and quantity of natural capital. The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (2005), and more recently 'The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity' (TEEB) studies, provide guidelines for the application of the concept of ecosystem services in planning and design.

    The TEEB approach is to show how economic concepts and tools can help equip society with the means to incorporate the values of nature into decision making at all levels. TEEB shows why prosperity and poverty reduction depend on maintaining the flow of benefits from ecosystems. It also demonstrates why successful environmental protection needs to be grounded in sound economics, which includes explicit recognition, efficient allocation, and fair distribution of the costs and benefits of conservation and the sustainable use of natural resources. These points match with the BwN philosophy. Nature valuation tools based on the concept of ecosystem services are included in the BwN toolbox.

    The essence of the BwN-approach is that surface water infrastructure development works with nature rather than against it. This requires a change in thinking, a paradigm shift in all aspects of project development.

    The importance of a new paradigm was already noted by Mitsch (1996), in his publication on Ecological Engineering. He states that " the design of sustainable ecosystems intends to integrate human society with its natural environment for the benefit of both". He furthermore poses that: "The state of the environment, combined with a dwindling of nonrenewable natural resources available to solve environmental problems, suggests that the time has come for a new paradigm in engineering that deals with questions and solutions on the scale of ecosystems and landscapes. There are a great number of environmental and resource problems that need an ecosystem approach, not just a standard technological solution. Ecological Engineering will play a significant role in a sustainable society. "

    A paradigm shift: from building in nature, via building of nature to building with nature

    The relationship between surface water infrastructure development and the environment is shifting from minimizing negative environmental impacts, via neutrality by compensation, to optimizing on a positive balance. In other words: from doing not too bad, via doing no wrong, to doing good.


    Early infrastructural works used to be realized without paying much attention to the potential environmental impact:  building instead of nature . In the 1970's interest for the environment increased and legislation was developed to make sure that environmental impacts were taken into consideration. As a consequence attention was focused on minimizing the environmental impacts caused by infrastructural works:  building in nature . Early examples of such projects are the Afsluitdijk (completed in 1932) and the construction of the Flevo polders (completed in 1968). The Delta works, with the construction of the Eastern Scheldt barrier (completed 1986) as the supposed pinnacle of impact minimization, mark the end of this period, at least in the Netherlands (Van Koningsveld et al., 2008).

    Since the 1990's, European environmental legislation adopts the principle: prevention, mitigation and compensation of residual effects. The compensation of any residual nature loss yields a nature neutral approach, but also  building of nature . Legislation emphasizes preservation of existing nature and puts much emphasis on the precautionary principle. As a consequence, projects are still dominated by impact minimization, extended with mitigation and compensation measures. An example from this phase is the design of the Maasvlakte 2 project, which has been designed to minimize its environmental impact, while residual effects are compensated by additional nature development.

    The next step in the development of hydraulic engineering is to create opportunities for development of new nature, up and above what is required for mitigation or compensation:  building with nature . The credo is no longer doing less bad, it now becomes doing good. Early examples are a.o. the Grensmaas project (in Dutch) (2010 ongoing), where flood protection and gravel mining are combined with river restoration and nature development, and the strengthening of the Delfland coast (completed 2009), where nature development was used as a starting point for sustainable coastal strengthening.

    Where opportunities for nature development are created one can speak of  building for nature  (providing ecosystem services). Examples of projects where this has been applied are the Eastern Scheldt revetment project and the 'Levende waterbouw' cases: Rich Revetment and Harbouring Opportunities.

    In cases where natural processes have actually been used to assist in creating (part of) a development one can speak of  building by nature  (utilizing ecosystem services). Examples of projects in this category are the Sand Engine Delfland (started 2011), where natural processes distribute sand from a large man-made deposit over shore, beach and dunes, and the Gorai Re-excavation Project, where dredging triggered natural river deepening, thus providing the Sunderband nature reserve with fresh water and creating new economic activity around the river.

    Above two options are combined in the generic strategic objective for Building with Nature projects:

    "To deliver engineering services while delivering and/or utilising ecosystem services."

    Project development

    The usual approach to large hydraulic projects, once the general objective has been identified and the direction of solution has been chosen, basically follows the steps:

    1. Plan a project or activity,
    2. describe the effects on the ecosystem,
    3. optimize the design to minimize or mitigate detrimental effects,
    4. compensate by building of nature, and
    5. execute the project in strict adherence to preset norms and regulations.

    The alternative ecosystem-based Building with Nature Design approach boils down to:

    1. Understand system functioning ('read' the ecosystem, the socio-economic system and the governance system),
    2. identify the system’s envisaged functions (present as well as future, societal as well as ecological) and plan a project or activity accordingly,
    3. determine how natural processes can be used and stimulated to achieve the project goals and others (using the power of nature),
    4. determine how governance processes can be used and stimulated to achieve the project goals (using the power structures in place),
    5. monitor the environment during execution, analyse the results statistically, make risk-assessments and - if necessary - adapt the monitoring program and/or the project execution (monitoring and adaptive management), and
    6. monitor the environment after completion, so as to assess the project's performance and (if necessary) adapt its management, and to learn for the future (experience harvesting, knowledge development).

    This alternative approach reflects the notion that the best choices from an overall project performance point of view are not necessarily optimal to the individual project phases (early project planning, design, construction, post-construction). Rather, one should balance long-term costs and benefits, in monetary and non-monetary terms.

    Finally, EcoShape recognises that the societal trend towards sustainable development triggers other organizations to develop similar philosophies. Pioneering work has been done by Dr. Ronald Waterman (Waterman, 2008), and excellent other examples are the Working with Nature initiative developed by PIANC and the Engineering with Nature initiative developed by USACE.

    The three Building with Nature principles

    Shifting the development paradigm for surface water infrastructure towards Building with Nature Design requires not only a redefinition of what to do and what to aim at, but also of how to do it: a change in thinking, acting and interacting.

    Think differently

    Man-made projects are an inherent part of the environment. They provide a unique opportunity to induce positive change!

    The Building with Nature Design approach requires all parties involved to think differently and take a new perspective on the project at hand. Evaluation of a number of successful Building with Nature cases has revealed that this new perspective can be characterized extending the  problem solving  approach of traditional engineering with an ecology-inspired and governance-sensitive  opportunity seizing  attitude.

    From a project development perspective this means starting with the system in mind, not with the intervention. 'The system' in this case includes the physical (biotic and a-biotic) as well as the socio-economic and governance sub-systems. Equipped with system knowledge the BwN project developer and stakeholders interact to explore opportunities for win-win solutions. This requires an open mind, daring use of creativity and a trans-disciplinary approach.

    Throughout the development process the BwN designer should continuously rephrase the most fundamental project objectives. For instance, the common design objective "Design a safe and cost-effective hydraulic infrastructure with minimal impact on the environment" can be rephrased to "Design a safe and cost effective hydraulic infrastructure and optimize the mutual delivery of services to and by the environment".

    Practical implementation requires policy makers, stakeholders, biologists, ecologists, economists and engineers to jointly approach the project development challenge, looking for win-win solutions. The best BwN designs deliver the primary functions for which the project was initiated in the first place, but provide optimal added value from an ecological and economical perspective, as well.

    It should be noted that opportunities to add such value are present in any stage of a project. Obviously, the potential impact of Building with Nature Design is greater when the concept is embraced earlier in the process.

    Act differently

    Natural processes can be used and stimulated to achieve an optimal and sustainable fit of a man-made project in its environment!

    Most hydraulic infrastructure is regarded as a static element with a predetermined lifespan, designed to withstand a number of predetermined environmental design conditions. The design process is aimed at finding the most cost-effective solution that provides the required functionality. The envisaged win-win solutions that were addressed in the previous section require more than that: they commonly involve catering for more than one function and extending traditional and proven design approaches with the utilization of dynamic environmental processes.

    Building with Nature Design considers the planned intervention as part of a dynamic environment. This means that the physical processes at work and the associated timescales must become part of the ultimate design.

    Sand Engine Delfland is a practical example of a project that aims to use natural processes to achieve a predetermined management objective. Rather than applying regular sediment nourishments at various locations along the coast, the Sand Engine project aims to apply one very large nourishment, thus allowing natural processes to gradually redistribute the sediment over the coastal system. As a benefit over the traditional practice of sediment nourishment, this innovative approach foresees a more natural coastal profile, less net disturbance of the coastal ecosystem, the development of valuable habitat, an increased freshwater reserve in the dunes and potential recreational value.

    By definition, the explicit inclusion of natural processes in surface water system development involves the introduction of uncertainty and potentially even risk. Adequately dealing with this uncertainty, by generating more knowledge, by including proper contingency measures or by introducing flexibility allowing for adaptive management, is crucial to the feasibility of a solution. Taking a life cycle approach helps to bring forward potentially more efficient solutions.

    Interact differently

    Realisation of Building with Nature projects cannot be achieved without interdisciplinary collaboration and early and active stakeholder involvement!

    In every project development phase adjustments can be made. The earlier the BwN Design Principles are incorporated in a project, the more can be achieved. Nonetheless, it is never too late to start. Experience has shown that ecological optimizations can still be made during construction or even maintenance phases. The Rich Revetment concept, which has been introduced during large scale dike maintenance works, serves as an example.

    Yet, building with nature cannot be achieved without early and active stakeholder involvement. Relevant stakeholders should be involved in the design process to assign economical value to ecological opportunities, for example. Another reason for involvement can be their experience in the local physical, ecological, social and/or administrative environment. Involving stakeholders in the process of developing Building with Nature Designs offers them the opportunity to integrate their knowledge and ideas in the program, thus making them co-owners of the problem as well as the solution.

    Building with Nature Design, in other words, calls for a pro-active collaboration between all parties and disciplines involved. Only with the right team, Building with Nature Design opportunities can be seized. The Building with Nature designer should operate across sectors and disciplines.

    The changes in attitude and approach advocated above ask for a type of 'governance' that allows for a certain degree of flexibility and covers the project development from scratch. Present governance settings may be less suitable for this concept, so changes may be necessary, even if they are time-consuming.

    Also criteria and contract types to involve market parties should fit the dynamic, adaptive approach. Traditional contracting may be less suited. Modern types of contracting, based on some form of 'partnership', provide more flexibility and more mutual commitment to really achieve BwN-targets.

    Five basic steps for generating Building with Nature designs

    Project development, though a cyclic process, generally goes through a number of consecutive phases. Building with Nature Design may be introduced in each project phase in the form of ecologically preferable and more sustainable approaches. The earlier the approach is embraced in the project development process, the greater the potential impact.

    Although project development is usually a cyclic process, a number of phases can be distinguished’, e.g.: ‘initiation’, ‘planning & design’, ‘construction’, ‘operation and maintenance’ and ‘dismantling & removal’. In each phase there will be opportunities to adopt an BwN-approach. A lifecycle approach, looking forward to later phases, enables optimising on them.

    Analysis of practical cases has revealed that five steps are invariably taken when developing Building with Nature Designs. The steps together outline a basic creative process that can be followed in any phase of the project realization process.

    Step 1. Understand the system (physical, socio-economical and governance)

    Acquire a better understanding of the system in which a project is planned. In depth knowledge of the physical system (biotic and a-biotic), as well as the socio-economic system and the governance context are crucial to identify potential win-win solutions.

    • The system to be considered depends on the project objectives: Be clear about the primary objectives and realise that finding win-win solutions creates room for flexibility in catering for secondary objectives. Note that looking at the primary objective alone may restrict the system to be considered. Adding secondary objectives will force consideration of other system characteristics: other temporal and spatial scales etc.
    • Information about the system at hand can be derived from various sources: It is important to realise is that acquiring knowledge about a system is not a prerogative of scientists. Valuable information can be found everywhere, for instance by
      • talking to people with local knowledge (fishermen, harbourmasters, waiters, elderly people, etc)
      • delving into historical records to better understand the evolution of the system as a whole and to think of approaches that build on historically available expertise
    • Think multifunctional: Remember to look for user functions beyond those covered by the primary objective.

    Step 2. Identify realistic alternatives

    Identify realistic alternatives that provide true win-win solutions providing services beyond mitigation and compensation, alternatives that make maximum use of the system’s potential (physical, socio-economical and governance-wise) while safeguarding or even enhancing sustainability.

    • Building with Nature Designs take an inverted perspective: Turn a traditional reactive perspective into a proactive one (problems are opportunities). This may lead to genuine eye-openers. One way to come up with such innovative 'inverse' ideas is to answer a number of basic questions:
      • Delivering services to the ecosystem:  How can we strengthen the functioning of the receiving system (ecology, recreation, landscape)?
        • Larger scale: how can a project deliver benefits to the overall system in which it resides?
        • Smaller scale: how can the project (with small adaptations) be more eco-friendly?
      • Utilizing services provided by the ecosystem:  How can better use be made of locally active (natural) resources: tide, waves, gradients, sediment availability, flora, fauna, economy, cultural values, etc?
        • Can available resources be utilized to lower construction and maintenance costs (more flexible solutions)?
        • Can available resources be utilized to come to more sustainable solutions (PPP solutions: less energy, less material, multi functional)?
        • Can the system’s dynamics be used as a positive rather than a negative aspect (utilising natural forces and expected changes as a means to achieve one’s goals, use available time to achieve necessary change gradually rather than at once with associated over-engineering)?
    • Solutions are transdisciplinary from the start: Involve academic experts, field practitioners, community members, business owners, decision makers and other stakeholders in the formulation of alternatives.
      • o Involve all relevant disciplines in the design process as soon as possible (which disciplines should collaborate given the system at hand, how should they collaborate in order to be most innovative/effective)
      • Seek open-minded rationality, open to the unknown, the unexpected and the unforeseeable while rejecting dogmatism, ideology and intolerance (see also Wikipedia: Transdisciplinary studies).

    Step 3. Valuate the qualities of alternatives and pre-select an integral solution

    Assess the inherent qualities of the alternatives and combine them into one optimal integral solution. Valuate the BwN alternatives and compare them with traditional designs.

    • More value does not imply higher construction cost: When looking for win-win situations, small adjustments to an existing design may produce more value for less or equal money.
      • More for less is possible! Try to get great value gain with little investment.
    • Creativity pays off: Dare to embrace innovative ideas, test them and show how they work out in practical examples.
      • Tell the story of successful implementation of creativity
    • Uncertainties must be identified and handled: Building with Nature solutions by definition involve natural dynamics and inherent uncertainties. Handling these uncertainties is a normal part of the Building with Nature Design process.
      • Remember that, although a solution as a whole may be innovative, its components may be based on traditional know how.
    • Involve stakeholders in the valuation and selection process: From Negative to Positive, from NIMBY (not in my back yard) to PIMBY (please in my back yard)!
    • Perform a cost-benefit analysis: Take into consideration construction costs and maintenance costs, as well as benefits for all functions involved. Compare the BwN-solution with a traditional (usually mono-functional) one.

    Step 4. Elaborate selected alternatives.

    Elaborate selected alternatives considering practical restrictions and governance context.

    • Consider the conditions/restrictions provided by the project: Make sure that an innovative idea is elaborated in such a way, that it may actually be constructed.
      • Take execution aspects into account (workmethods, availability of equipment, etc)
      • Identify important timing aspects (growing seasons, closed seasons, time for ecological components to evolve to desired state, etc.)
      • Tell the story. If you have proceeded to implement an innovative idea, make sure that you tell your story to the project team, the stakeholders and the public. Think of access routes to a project, guided excursions, information panels, press releases, media coverage, etc.
    • Implementation of solutions requires involvement of a network of actors and stakeholders: such a network needs to be established
      • Effectively involve stakeholders in the design and realisation process
      • Use existing examples that people can use as inspiration, as building blocks for future projects. Solutions should be of an 'open source' nature. In networks ideas cannot and should not be protected, but open to use by others. Share costs, expertise and ideas. Don't be possessive.

    Step 5. Prepare the solution for implementation in the next phase on the road to realisation

    Handle the practical bottlenecks to get the solution included in the next phase on the road to realisation: inclusion in request for proposals, inclusion in the detailed design, inclusion in the project delivery, inclusion in maintenance and monitoring scheme.

    • Translate solution to a technical design: What would you need to actually implement the proposed solution (lacking knowledge, available materials, sustainability criteria etc.).
    • Translate solution to request for proposals or contract: How to reformulate the request for proposals (TOR) so that the innovative solution will be proposed or constructed.
    • Organise required funding: Try to involve stakeholders in the search for additional funding if required.
    • Identify permitting requirements: Identify as soon as possible potential bottlenecks in terms of permitting and organise necessary input (required knowledge, required support by stakeholders).
    • Prepare risk analysis and contingency plans: Building with Nature is dynamic almost by definition. Make sure the project takes this aspect into consideration (adaptive execution, adaptive management)

    For questions about the content of this Guideline please contact

    Ecoshape Office
    Phone: +31 (0)78 6111 099

    Burgraadt Gebouw
    Burgemeester de Raadtsingel 69
    3311 JG Dordrecht



    • Ehrlich, P.R. and A.H. Ehrlich, 1997. The population explosion: why we should care and what we should do about it. Environmental LawWinter, 1997.



    • Example outcome of BwN design approach - Ecoshape
    • Realized example of Rich Revetment concept - Levende waterbouw
    • Construction of shell fish reef pilot - Ecoshape
    • Result of ecological mining pit pilot realized at Maasvlakte 2 - Ecoshape
    • First fullscale project designed conform BwN principles - Van Oord
    • Overview of the project realisation phases - Ecoshape
    • Basic structure of the BwN design guideline - Ecoshape
    • Five basic steps for generating BwN Design ideas - Ecoshape
    • Birds at beach nourishment site - Ecoshape

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