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Stijn Brancart and his colleagues at the VUB Architectural Engineering research group are convinced that a different style of building is possible – one that generates far less demolition waste but that allows designers, architects and building companies just as much freedom and flexibility as traditional construction methods. Consider the renovation of old VUB student rooms into the soon-to-be-finished finished Circular Retrofit Lab, their Exhibit A.
Text: Linda A. Thompson
Photos: VUB / Thierry Geenen
The past few months, the office of researcher Stijn Brancart and his colleagues has shown the busy activity typical of a building developer’s office in the final months before a big project’s due date. “There have been a lot of phone calls to contractors, a lot of drawing up of schedules and a lot of site meetings with contractors,” says Brancart, a member of the research team behind the Circular Retrofit Lab.
That’s because the gleaming new Circular Retrofit Lab in the middle of the Etterbeek campus was designed like an actual building project from the get-go. To renovate the eight student rooms – which have a combined surface area of 192 sq. metres – Brancart and his colleagues embraced circular building methods. That means that they used demountable, adaptable and reusable building solutions so as to create as little demolition waste as possible.
Why does it matter that the Circular Retrofit Lab was designed like a fully-fledged, real-world renovation project? Because no-one else has attempted something similar.
“This is a pilot project for circular building; there are no existing examples of buildings in Europe that were renovated in this way at this type of scale,” Brancart tells VUB Today. “With the Circular Retrofit Lab, we really want to show researchers, the construction industry, architects and designers how we can start building in a different way, and how circular building is not that different from traditional building.”
A huge waste mound
The Circular Retrofit Lab is one of a handful pilot projects in the larger Buildings as Material Banks, or BAMB project as part of which 15 organisations in seven countries are investigating circular building methods and business models with funds from the EU’s Horizon 2020 initiative.
Led by professor Niels De Temmerman, the team behind the Circular Retrofit Lab comprises two postdoctoral researchers from the VUB Architectural Engineering department, two architects who worked on the project part-time, as well as an expert in heating, ventilation and air-conditioning.
Construction of the lab was preceded by months of prototype testing of the different circular building solutions. “We specifically tested whether we were able to quickly assemble and disassemble the products,” Brancart explained. “Doing that, we discovered that a small tweak to X made it that much easier to disassemble the product or resulted in even lesser materials going to waste.”
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Both circular and reversible building techniques have gained increasing importance in recent years as the construction industry’s ecological footprint has become ever clearer. When a building is demolished or thoroughly renovated, the glass, wood and plaster in it becomes waste rather than being reused anew in the same or in a different building. It’s why the construction industry is today responsible for a third of Europe’s waste. This makes decreasing the industry’s huge waste mound a critical challenge for any country trying to meet the United Nations’ sustainable development goals.
Yes, we can
At the same time, there are a lot of misapprehensions among architects and construction companies about what circular building is and isn’t and just how feasible it is to construct a building while generating as little waste as possible. Getting all those actors on board is going to be crucial if circular building solutions are to receive wide take-up, Brancart explains.
For Brancart, the Circular Retrofit Lab offers irrefutable proof that circular building is a viable construction method that doesn’t require any compromises on durability, creativity or comfort. “A lot of people think that this has a very limiting effect on architecture but we have found that this isn’t actually the case.”
The Circular Retrofit Lab’s facade was built using a modular system with prefabricated facade panels, developed together with Reynaers Aluminium, Beneens and Jonckheere Projects. For the Circular Retrofit Lab’s interior, the team used a dry floor system by Tarkett and four different wall systems developed by private companies like Saint-Gobain, Systimber, Geberit and JuuNoo: a demountable wall system, a wall system with wooden beams, a kit-of-parts system and a quick-to-assemble Velcro-based system respectively. The team also implemented smart heating, lighting and water supply services developed by companies like Jaga, Bao Living, Zehnder and the VUB spinoff Lumency. General contractor Groep Van Roey coordinated the overall project.
Because these are all reversible building solutions, their constituent materials can be disassembled, removed and used anew. Should the Circular Retrofit Lab need to make way for a new building decades from now, almost no building waste will be generated because the university will be able to recoup most of the used materials.
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The used reversible building solutions will also allow the Circular Retrofit Lab to evolve together with its users’ needs. For now, the building’s ground level will serve as an exhibition space for circular building and as event space for seminars, while the first floor will be used as office space for researchers from the Architectural Engineering department. But the building’s destination may change in the years to come, Brancart says. “That’s also the idea behind reversible building – that a building is able to serve different purposes. So the Circular Retrofit Lab may become office space entirely, or a laboratory space, or student rooms, or even eco guesthouses.”
The Circular Retrofit Lab is also meant to open the eyes of tomorrow’s architects, Brancart adds, pointing out that circular building techniques have been integrated into students’ curriculums. “If they understand and believe in circular building, they’ll apply these techniques once they are out there working, while an older generation of architects might be a little more resistant because they are used to working in a different way,” he says. “And that at the end of the day is the purpose of a university – to be a leader in innovation.”