Profits of not-building

This leaflet contains a summary of the ‘Profits of not-building’ study commissioned by Creative Industries Fund NL. The research team includes RE-ST (Antwerp, BE) in collaboration with Topotronic (Rotterdam, NL), UHasselt research group ArcK (Hasselt, BE) and Fakton (Rotterdam, NL).


The objective of this study is to look for an alternative spatial development model. This is based on a hypothetical building freeze, as a result of which our spatial needs will have to be met using the existing building stock. The not-building approach is examined as a possible financially profitable method. Moreover, the study is based on the premise that not-building can also generate profit.

Ten tactics of not building have been developed based on various practical examples. These tactics are not new but, by bundling them together and naming them, they can become a tool for all parties within the construction process in the search for solutions to the spatial demand. The research clearly shows that not-building can indeed generate financial gains. Firstly, as an effective balance between costs and benefits, and secondly, as notional savings. This leaflet should be read as a plea in favour of a not-building culture.

The research was prompted by the economic crisis in the Netherlands and the spatial crisis in Flanders. Both signal the need for a radically different building culture. The question of how to manage the existing claim on space is becoming more and more important. What if the declaration of an absolute building freeze becomes imperative soon? Today this may seem like a radical idea but if we do not drastically change our construction culture, this will probably become a necessity soon. Our expansion of the existing building stock is approaching its limits from the financial, spatial and ecological perspective. Even today, these limits are very much present and visible.

The ‘Profits of not building’ study anticipates these limits and is a plea for space-neutral design and construction as part of a not-building culture. It tries to offer an alternative for satisfying our spatial needs without the need for extra cubic metres. We live in a world where accommodating the continual growth and mobility needs of the world’s population is expected to become the most pressing issue of the future. We do not have an endless amount of space on earth. Smart use of this space will be essential. This also applies to the Netherlands and Flanders. But what kind of responses and solutions can we generate in times of economic stagnation? Today, the recovery and revival of the traditional financial growth-based building industry is the order of the day. Considering that the building industry is one of the most conservative and ecologically polluting sectors, isn’t this an excellent time to rethink it? Perhaps we should now consider shifting to a different type of building industry: one focused on not building.

The study started by defining the concept of ‘not-building’. What are the motives? Who are the stakeholders? What are the expected effects? This resulted in a two-fold definition. Firstly, not-building involves identifying and utilising space that has been made available for a certain purpose and/or can be made available through restructuring. Secondly, not-building also means looking for processes that can reduce our spatial needs by adapting our spatial consumption behaviour. The term ‘not-building’ can also be understood as ‘space-neutral construction’.

What are the different tactics that can result in space-neutral construction? This question led to the formulation of ten tactics for the use of available space based on research of various model cases: intensive use, multi-functional use, demolition, restoration/renovation, adaptive reuse, splitting/merging, temporary and interim use, reversible use, deliberate non-utilisation, and finally, clearance. These tactics are not new in themselves but, by explicitly grouping them together and naming them as part of an integrated strategy, they can be applied in a better and more conscious manner.

The research reveals that the conditions for not-building are very diverse, both in terms of scale (building, plot, site, district, city, region, etc.) as well as context (from inner city to rural areas). There are private and public stakeholders involved in the not-building approach, operating in a bottom-up as well as top-down manner. These are the same as those involved in the building approach. Everyone realises the importance of not-building. The reasons for not building are usually also the same as those in favour of building. There is always a spatial need that needs to be met. Via a more in-depth study of this need as well as a better understanding of the existing building stock, one of the ten tactics of not-building can be applied in the search for a spatial solution. The various model cases that were examined show that this is possible.

Moreover, the research is about more than just not-building. It is primarily an attempt to identify the possible financial gains for the various stakeholders. Here, we distinguish between two kinds of profits. Firstly, we note that profits can indeed be generated through space-neutral construction. These profits are often similar to those obtained from regular construction. They involve small gains for the various stakeholders. The profits can be made visible through subcalculations from the point of view of the different stakeholders. It is the sum of these many small gains that enhances the scale of the overall profit. In addition, studies show that the biggest gain is mostly notional in the form of cost savings. By applying the above-mentioned tactics, savings can be made on the acquisition, building and operating costs. We have determined that these savings and profits may be either collective or private. The lack of funds avoids the creation of debts. Or if funds are available, they can be invested elsewhere. The study describes a method for calculating profits and savings as well as graphically displaying the collective and private profits or losses. The private profits have been specifically explained from the perspective of the owner/investor, because this party is crucial in a not-building culture.

The argument for space-neutral construction is a significant final conclusion. Our spatial needs are only expected to increase in future. To assume that these can be accommodated solely by building more, would be to deceive ourselves. Consciously applying the tactics of not building (on a large scale) can lead to both collective savings and ecological corrections. This seems the most logical thing to do. Why not first try to solve our spatial needs within the limits of the existing building stock?

Profits of not-building
Stimuleringsfonds voor Creatieve Industrie
Study completed
Topotronic (Rotterdam, NL), UHasselt research group ArcK (Hasselt, BE) and Fakton (Rotterdam, NL)