Bleckmann’s circular warehouse becomes the norm in Europe

circular warehouse

More than a year after completion, Bleckmann has celebrated the opening of the Netherlands’ first circular warehouse. Karl Lagerfeld is the first customer who has consciously chosen to move to this warehouse in the Dutch town of Almelo. What sets it apart is the fact that almost all building materials are fully documented and reusable. The construction method used in Almelo even serves as a guideline for a circular construction standard currently being developed by the European Commission.

By Marcel te Lindert

A ‘circular’ warehouse implies that all materials can be reused again. This is only possible if the building is designed for disassembly. For example, the roofing is not glued on, but screwed on. And the columns are not cast in concrete – the usual method – but screwed into the floor. If you knock away the thin layer of concrete around a column with a hammer, you can see the bolts. “The steel structure is completely demountable,” says Mark van Onna, General Manager Real Estate at Bleckmann. “In addition, the façade panels are much thinner than normal. That not only saves on space, but also on transport of the panels.”

To enable reuse, all the materials used were recorded in detail. Not only Bleckmann, as owner of the property, has that information, but also the municipality of Almelo. The suppliers of the materials reportedly have a take-back obligation. “A circular warehouse is definitely more expensive than a conventional warehouse,” admits Van Onna. “That has to do with the limited availability of the materials used. But that is a matter of time. As the demand for circular construction increases, the availability of materials will also increase. Then suppliers will in turn invest more in further development of those materials, which will have a positive effect on costs.”

Karl Lagerfeld

So will circular construction become the standard for all Bleckmann’s new warehouses? The answer is yes if it is up to Van Onna himself, but he cannot give a guarantee. “Normally we rent our warehouses, but we developed this building entirely in-house with the help of VDR Bouwgroep and Palazzo Architects. This gave us more influence on the choices made and allowed us to put our intrinsic motivation into the project,” Van Onna explains. “We chose a circular warehouse because that’s what we wanted and because no one else had done it yet.”

Bleckmann’s customers are definitely showing great interest in the circular concept. Fashion house Karl Lagerfeld deliberately chose to move its operation to this 45,000-square-metre warehouse. “This customer is very conscious of this issue. This is reflected in the clothes designs and the materials used, but also in the use of sustainable transport for the last mile,” states Van Onna. “Don’t forget that the sector in which we operate – fashion – is not always portrayed in a positive light when it comes to sustainability. All links in the chain are taking steps to improve things, and warehouses are part of that.”

Circular will become the standard

Other Bleckmann customers have expressed an interest in taking a look. “We like to inspire our customers to become more sustainable. Such as with our repair service, which allows us to give returned clothing a second life. We want to be part of the solution, not the problem,” says Van Onna, who stresses that Bleckmann did not have to make any concessions on logistics for the circular warehouse. “That was also our starting point. The user must not notice any difference, because then circularity would be a hindrance and the whole concept will not work.”

The warehouse in Almelo is based on Nexteria, the concept for circular construction developed by VDR Bouwgroep back in 2018. Spiritual father of this concept was Cor van Dijken, who since then has founded the Building for Good foundation and chairs the NEN Circular Construction Committee. He represents the Netherlands as a member of the European standards committee working on standards for circular construction. “The building constructed here is now becoming the standard. The principles applied here are going to be written into a standard,” Van Dijken says.

Unable to get a bank loan

Van Dijken points to the European Green Deal, a package of policy measures that, among other things, promote the circular economy. Part of this is the revision of the European Construction Products Regulation, which also includes agreements on sustainability performance. “Everything in it will be adopted in the Building Decree. From 2025 or 2026, all parties in the construction sector will be affected by this. We will also be affected by the Corporate Sustainability Reporting Directive (CSRD). The companies that have to comply with this will start asking for circular construction. Those who do not will soon find their annual reports not being approved. And so they will no longer be able to get a bank loan, or at the very least they will face higher interest rates.”

The warehouse houses the operations of three customers in total, including Karl Lagerfeld. The second customer is Donna Karan, a fashion house that is part of the same company as Karl Lagerfeld. As the clear height in the building is 15.20 metres, Bleckmann was able to fit part of the warehouse with four mezzanine floors. In this area with shelving and racks for hanging garments, picking and packing takes place. The bulk stock is in a narrow-aisle section of the warehouse that is so high that the design of the narrow-aisle trucks had to be adapted. In addition, the floor is so flat that in the future – as volumes increase – an automatic storage and order picking system such as AutoStore can be installed.

Amazon is a customer

The third customer is Amazon, whose operation is housed in a part of the warehouse that is physically isolated from the rest. It is one of Bleckmann’s three operations for the e-commerce giant, with the other two taking place in the UK. Rather than garments, the shelf racks contain other products, ranging from vacuum cleaners to foodstuffs. Notably, there are 18 containers to store hazardous materials such as cleaning products. The fact that Amazon is currently making only limited use of the total square metres it has rented suggests big growth ambitions in the Netherlands.