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What if Lab: the circulair train station

What if... we design all (small) stations in the Netherlands from a circular perspective?

The Netherlands is preparing for a transition to a circular economy. As a country, we have set ourselves the ambition to cut the use of primary raw materials to 50% by 2030 and to be fully circular by 2050. The railways and stations have an important role to play here too: they facilitate sustainable accessibility for an annually increasing number of rail passengers. Journeys do not end in the stations; they are a connecting hub for travellers in reaching their final destination. 

Let us imagine that all stations in the Netherlands were to become fully circular. There are enormous opportunities here for completing the circle with a high daily impact and for achieving the ambition to make waste a thing of the past. Designers can contribute to this transition, which is already in full swing, with brainpower and innovative ideas. A station is a complex system in which problems intersect and solutions have to meet high standards. We cannot develop the circular station on our own and we will need to enter new collaborations.

The context

What if Lab
What if Lab is a Dutch Design Foundation programme in which connections are made between organisations and the design world so that, in collaboration, tangible answers can be found for current design issues. In What if Lab, companies, governments and service providers are given the opportunity to work closely with professionals in design and designers can sink their teeth into major, complex challenges. What if Lab has been developed as a testing ground in which designers and clients can explore the potential of future sustainable collaboration(s). This What if Lab has been commissioned by ProRail, NS Stations and Bureau Spoorbouwmeester. ProRail is the main contact on behalf of the commissioners. Dutch Design Foundation (DDF) supports the organisation and commissioners.

ProRail is responsible for the railway network in the Netherlands and, together with NS, for the construction and management of all stations. Together with transport operators, ProRail is committed to ensuring that passengers and goods arrive at their destinations safely and on time. ProRail wants more trains to run, safely and with less disruption, now and in the future. ProRail always does this with full attention for the social and environmental effects.

The Netherlands is becoming increasingly crowded, space is limited and the demand for sustainable mobility continues to grow. Public transport by rail is one of the most sustainable forms of transport. And as a rail operator, ProRail is constantly looking for ways to increase this sustainability. We use the space we have intelligently. We run more trains along the same tracks and ensure good connections for getting to and leaving stations. We minimise the railway’s CO2 emissions. We do this through saving on energy consumption and emissions throughout the sector and through encouraging the circular use of materials. We also generate energy, for example on platform roofs. And we are a good neighbour for our surrounding environment. We take many measures to contribute to a pleasant living environment for people and for nature.

NS Stations

Stations, large and small, are important for mobility in the Netherlands. As part of the complete door-to-door journey, stations fulfil an important role. NS has various responsibilities in the stations and in the station areas. In recent years, these have developed to become pleasant multimodal hubs. As a result, public transport is more popular than ever; the number of rail passengers is growing and their satisfaction with services has increased enormously. Together with its partners, NS has created stations that are pleasant places to be.

Bureau Spoorbouwmeester
Bureau Spoorbouwmeester was established in 2001. It was an NS and ProRail management board initiative, set up as an independent advisory body for design and design commissions within the rail sector. Bureau Spoorbouwmeester comprises a small team of consultants and is led by the Spoorbouwmeester. Since it was founded, the office has employed and worked on the Spoorbeeld.

Spoorbeeld: the rail sector’s design policy
Spoorbeeld describes the rail sector’s design policy. Compiled from a passenger and environmental perspective, it presents the general, supporting visions, frameworks and design principles that relate to the experience and handling of the railways. The Spoorbeeld focuses on the entire route: the journey experience, transfers and waiting in and around the station and railway. The Spoorbeeld promotes the concept that each task is part of a larger whole. Consistency improves overview and ease of use. Spoorbeeld stimulates sustainable design within the rail sector. Focusing on three cornerstones:

  • circular designs
  • energy-neutral design
  • green, climate-adaptive and biodiverse design

The circular station: a contribution to a healthy future

The first step towards sustainable train stations has been taken. This is clear from the way in which the reduction of CO2 emissions has been tackled and the completion of the first energy-efficient and energy-producing stations. In the meantime, the next step is already underway: making the railway network and stations fully circular. This is a complex task that concerns many different aspects of the railway and stations of which much still needs to be discovered and developed.

Illustrative for the circular challenge is the statement made by Cradle to Cradle concept promoter William McDonough: "There is no such thing in nature as waste: all materials given to us by nature are constantly returned to earth without even the concept of waste as we understand it. Everything is cycled constantly." In light of this, NS and ProRail have a beautiful 'materials bank' comprising more than 400 stations and 3,400 kilometres of railway track. Each year, a lot of maintenance and renovation takes place at and around all these stations. The coming years will continue to see billions in investments. This is how NS and ProRail ensure the stations remain up-to-date and are made more comfortable and safer for all passengers.

This still leaves a lot of questions unanswered. What other opportunities are there for circularity in stations? How do we ensure that products and materials are reused? How can raw materials retain their value? How can we ensure that, in future, no waste is generated inside the station? And what does all this mean for the architectural design? What is certain is that circularity will fundamentally change the design.

Lagenmodel Steward Brand applied to a small station

What is a circular station?

Given the significant quantity of materials usually used within the station, the potential impact of good circular design is enormous. Choosing the right principles could make a substantial contribution to our health and well-being, while negative effects on climate, the environment and biodiversity could be limited or even completely avoided. With this in mind we could describe a circular station. This would be a station building and surroundings that have been constructed based on the following principles:

  • We prevent all forms of waste; we don’t do anything that we don’t need to do;
  • We design keeping in mind the pureness of resources and focus on a maximum reuse of raw materials, products and building components;
  • We design adaptive and modular resulting in a maximum lifespan;
  • We make use of existing buildings, products, materials and resources (so we minimalize the use of primary sources);
  • We optimise the use of renewable (biobased) resources;
  • We us non-toxic fabrics and materials and substitute polluting materials;
  • We aim for a 100% waste-free build.

ProRail and NS embrace circularity and actively share knowledge and involve partners and stakeholders. This year, together with Civic Architects and Mieke Oostra, Bureau Spoorbouwmeester wrote the essay 'Circular Stations', which discusses opportunities for the circular station: different angles of approach, design strategies, case studies and example projects. This essay (in Dutch) can be downloaded via the link down below and is a rich source of inspiration for the assignment in this What if Lab.

The design question

The commissioning parties are looking for innovative ideas, concepts and designs that embrace circularity for Dutch train stations. The What if Lab Circular Train Stations shapes this vision and relates to the innovation of a circular, small station designed on the basis of the principles in the previous paragraph. What does this mean for the design? What innovations are possible?

Designers are asked to create a design focused on one of the themes described below. Up to ten designers will be given the opportunity to develop a concept, for each theme, within this What if Lab. Imagine circular platform paving, a canopy made from bio-based materials or perhaps a lease station, which can be relocated when it reaches the end of its useful life.

The organisers explicitly request the designers to look beyond current regulations and solutions. We are looking for innovative proposals that stimulate experimentation and venture in the future. New solutions and techniques can be developed on the basis of ideas that look beyond current practice.

The themes are:

  • Sustainable Materials: reducing and optimising the use of materials for small stations to make the circular station feasible. Which materials are currently used that are not reusable? Where is the material impact highest and where can similar results be achieved through redesigning with less material? Can waste materials from the railway sector be given a new function in a station? Are there circular material replacements for steel or concrete? We are looking for material designers, bio-designers and material specialists to work together in finding the circular materials of tomorrow.
  • Circular Products: what products cannot (yet) be developed in a circular way, or could be developed to improve their circularity? These could include platform paving slabs, equipment (furniture and travel information), structural elements and lighting. How can we ensure that at product level a fully circular station is realised with products that increase the comfort and enjoyment of use of the station? Are there products that are still missing that could make small stations more sustainable and/or user-friendly and still be circular?
  • Systems and Strategies: how can we redesign small stations to be completely circular? Which systems and (design) strategies can we deploy and what does an example station that emerges from this look like? Should we employ a modular system that can be moved and rearranged? Will the entire station be biodegradable? Should we design a station specifically for easy maintenance and modification?

The small station

There are currently about 400 train stations in the Netherlands, 350 of which can be described as 'small' stations. In this What if Lab we want to focus on these small stations. Experimentation in this relatively simple, manageable environment may well serve as a model for future larger-scale innovations.

A small station always has a number of basic elements. These are the ingredients for the design challenge that is being posed. We have provided a schematic description of the basic components for a small station below. In terms of shape and material, concepts may of course differ from stations as you know them, but the elements described are the minimum necessary for a properly functioning station.

A small station comprises the following parts (not all of which are always present at every small station), see the drawing below and the section Inspiration and useful documents, later in this briefing:

  • travel area: two side platforms, each provided with 'sheltered waiting' of approximately 10 metres and on each platform 2 benches, lighting, waste bins, clock and travel information (static and dynamic) possibly with elevators/stair/escalators and a passengers' tunnel or traverse in case there is no passage;
  • reception area: one small reception building/canopy with ticket machine, travel information, a waiting area, possibly including coffee vending;
  • surrounding area: (simple) green space, bicycle storage and P&R site.
Visualisation the small station

Who are we looking for?

The main goal of What if Lab Circular Train Stations is to creatively develop new possibilities for making stations more circular. So we are looking for designers (industrial designers, architects) with experience or interest in working with sustainable materials, circular designs and/or strategies. We emphatically invite young design agencies to consider this challenge. Stations are environments used by thousands of people every day. So designers in this What if Lab will not only consider form and technology, but also how passengers and station managers will use these designs in daily practice.

Safety is a priority for stations. ProRail and NS Stations are consequently confronted with regulations and conditions for the design and execution on a daily basis. In the What if Lab, we want to create space for unexpected, innovative solutions. This is why we will ask the designers to look beyond daily practice and truly embrace the What if.... concept. Then, together with the designer, we will look at how we can achieve the desired future.

The objective during the What if Lab, is to start a cooperation in which knowledge and skills from both parties are exchanged and deployed. This is why interim meetings have been planned at regular intervals, so that developments proposed by the designers can find support from the commnissioners and, if necessary, be linked to ongoing developments or innovations. In addition, it is good to regularly fine-tune expectations, test technical feasibility and involve the commissioners in the design process. Working  towards a product that (in the future) could be deployed in Dutch stations.

Programme, jury and guidance

Following the deadline for registration on 12 January 2020, the commissioners will select a maximum of ten designers (-studios) to work in this What if Lab. They will be invited to a masterclass, after which they will work independently developing a concept over the following eight weeks. During this period, meetings have been planned with the organisers to discuss progress and to check criteria, expectations and practical feasibility.

These ten designers will present their concepts ('pitches') on 14 April 2020 to a jury comprising the commissioners and SuperUse Studios. On the basis of the presentations and the contact during the project, the jury will select which concepts deserve continued development within the What if Lab.

The designers of the selected concepts continue the development to produce a final concept: a detailed design. An eight-week period has been allotted for this, with various interim meetings and test moments. This final concept will be presented to the jury on 27 May 2020.

The final concepts will then be realised and exhibited during Dutch Design Week 2020 (DDW 2020). The designers themselves will be present during DDW 2020 to explain the concept to visitors. The form of this exhibition will be determined on the basis of the selected designs and the way in which they have been developed to produce a prototype, model or other type of visualisation.

After DDW 2020, the commissioners will consult with the designers to determine what the next steps might be in the continued development of the results and their use in practice.

The jury comprises:

  • Astrid Bunt, Director Stations, ProRail
  • Rosalie Nijenhuis, Policy and Development Manager, ProRail
  • Reinout Wissenburg, Programme Manager Sustainability, ProRail
  • Liesbeth Boeter, advisor and architect at Bureau Spoorbouwmeester
  • Katelijn van den Berg, Programme Manager Sustainability NS Stations
  • SuperUse Studios

Dries van Wagenberg (on behalf of DDF) and Roger Mariën (on behalf of ProRail) will supervise the process.

Registration and procedure

Registrations are open until Sunday 12 January 2020 23:59 via this link and professional designers and architects may apply.

In this application we request that designers provide references for 3 to 5 relevant, previously executed projects or designs and a motivation for participation in the What if Lab: the circular station in which you describe how this assignment fits you as a designer/design studio, your motivation for participating and where you see opportunities in this design brief (max. 800 words). It is not yet necessary to present design solutions.

Designers can register for different themes: Sustainable Materials, Circular Products and Systems and Strategies.

A maximum of 10 designers will be selected from the registrations. The shortlisted designers will be notified on 24 January 2020.

The 'Terms of Participation What if Lab: The Circular Station' apply. Registration is an automatic agreement with these terms. The conditions of participations can be downloaded. The conditions have been drafted in Dutch, if you have any questions concerning the conditions please contact Dries van Wagenberg or Roger Mariën.

The working language is Dutch. The communication during the design process as well as the designers’ presentations may be in English if required. Documentation and notes need to be submitted in Dutch.

Conditions of participation


Design criteria

The concepts and design solutions will be assessed by the jury on 7 April and 28 May, employing the following criteria:

  • the concept/design is in line with the starting points for the design of a circular station (as described earlier in this briefing);
  • the concept/design is for small stations as defined in this briefing and the masterclass;
  • the concept/design is innovative and opens up new possibilities for ProRail, NS Stations and Bureau Spoorbouwmeester;
  • the concept/design has impact; what are the expected energy and CO2-emission reductions in the chain?;
  • the concept/design costs (lifecycle) are (in the long run) proportional to the economic and ecological benefits;
  • the concept/design is scalable and has not been developed for an individual station;
  • the concept/design is scalable and has not been developed for an individual station;
  • the concept/design takes into account a good station experience for the station users.


The maximum of ten selected participants will each receive an amount of €3,000 ex. VAT for attending the masterclass, any travel expenses, development of a concept with accompanying interim meetings and a presentation (in addition to the 'live' presentation also to be shared as a PDF with the commissioners) on 14 April 2020.

A number of participants will then be selected to develop the concept into a design with detailed visualisation (for example in the form of a prototype, model, 3D animation or video) and an accompanying report on the process, analysis and the results in the form of a PDF/book. These participants will receive a fee of € 10,000 ex. VAT. This fee is to compensate for the hours worked, travel expenses, material costs and costs incurred for the elaborated visualisation, corresponding interim meetings and the presentation on 27 May 2020.

For the realization (materialization) at DDW 2020, new agreements will be reached between the organisers and designers related to the final concepts.

Intellectual property rights

The intellectual property rights of the concepts not selected by the jury for further development on April 14th 2020 will remain entirely with the participants. The commissioning party is only granted the right of use for non-commercial purposes (e.g. publicity purposes), which may be used after informing the relevant Participant. The name of the creator must always be stated.

For the concepts selected, the commissioning party is entitled to use the intellectual property rights from the concepts selected for further development free of charge. As a result of this transfer, the commissioners have unlimited rights to exploit the design, without any compensation other than the remuneration for participation in the What if Lab. However, if the commissioners decide to continue to develop the design after What if Lab, the commissioners shall first and foremost enter into exclusive discussions with the designer in question in order to investigate whether the designer could and would like to develop it further.

An extended version of the terms and conditions regarding Intellectual Property Rights can be found in the 'Terms and Conditions What if Lab: The Circular Station’

12 January 2020 Deadline submissions
24 January Announcement selected participants

Phase 1: development of concepts (max. 10 designers)
11 February Masterclass
3 & 4 March Feedback session 1
24 & 25 March Feedback session 2
14 April Pitch and selection of 3 designers for phase 2

Phase 2: development of concepts (selected designers)
23 April Feedback session 3
15 May Feedback session 4
27 May Final presentation 3 concepts

Phase 3 (materialisation of designs)
June Start of materialisation to present at DDW 2020
17 - 25 October Dutch Design Week 2020

Throughout the process, Roger Mariën will be available for consultation, feedback and support on rail-specific topics. Where necessary, Roger will involve colleagues from ProRail, NS Stations and/or Bureau Spoorbouwmeester.


If you have any questions about this What if Lab, please contact What if Lab Programme Manager Dries van Wagenberg and/or Project Manager Roger Mariën.

If questions arise during the open call, of which the answers are relevant for interested parties and not yet sufficiently addressed in the present briefing, the answers to these questions will be published on 8 January as an addition to this briefing.