‘Good Living’ in Brussels

Since the creation of BOGDAN & VAN BROECK in 2007, we have been focusing on the realisation of caring architecture, the activism for a high-quality urban culture and the redefinition of the traditional role of the architect. However, it was my experience in politics in Romania that helped me most with my involvement in public policy in…the Brussels-Capital Region. My position as Secretary of State in Romania, coordinating the field of cultural heritage from the perspective of heritage as a strategic resource in 2016-2017, and as co-founder of a Romanian political party in 2017-2019 made me embrace a holistic approach to regenerative development.

More ambitious than sustainable development, regenerative development goes beyond merely reducing our negative impact on the planet and society. It uses whole systems thinking to create resilient and equitable systems that integrate the needs of society with the integrity of nature. The term ‘regenerative’ describes processes that restore, renew or revitalise their own sources of energy and materials. Thus the aim of regenerative development is to create a positive impact on the planet, on society and on human well-being and health. By now, we all know that our health and the health of our planet are one. To protect that health, we need caring architecture, which is inseparable from the relationship between humans and the ecosystem, as it helps to determine the balance between the two. Cities are the solution to finding this balance, but current and future residents, urban nature, rain water, cooling green-blue corridors and biodiversity all need space, while the available space is becoming increasingly scarce. It is with these ideas in mind that, in 2021, I got involved in the reform of the Brussels-Capital Region Urban Regulation (to which every project requiring a building permit should comply), as Chairwoman of the Expert Committee ‘Good Living’ for a future-proof city.

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The Cosmopolitan by BOGDAN & VAN BROECK © Laurian Ghinitoiu

The Expert Committee ‘Good Living’ has opted for an evolution from a currently defensive Urban Regulation aimed at making possible everything that is desirable and will be desirable in the Brussels-Capital Region: new forms of intelligent urban density, with high-quality and adaptable buildings, combined with more open space, more vegetation, more biodiversity and a more active urban plinth. And all this while reducing the emissions caused by the construction and use of buildings. The most recent IPCC report on climate change is clear: if we want a chance of avoiding environmental collapse, we must immediately use all available means of reducing emissions. This means that every project that requires a building permit must be seen as a regenerative contribution to the city as a whole. And that the assessment of projects should be done within a global vision, bringing together the strategic planning vision with regional programmes and international objectives such as the Sustainable Development Goals, which are at the basis of the European Green Deal, the New European Bauhaus and the EU Biodiversity Strategy 2030.

Although I am a Romanian who has lived in Belgium since 1999, it is with pride that I refer to Romanians who made a meaningful contribution to life on Earth. One of them is Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen, the father of ecological economics, who published ‘The Entropy Law and the Economic Process’ in 1971 and stated that "natural resources flow through the economy and end up as waste and pollution”, which means that “the Earth's capacity to sustain human population and consumption levels will decline". As a result, the Club of Rome, formed by former heads of state, UN administrators, politicians, diplomats, scientists, economists and business leaders from all over the world, published in 1972 their first report: ‘The Limits to Growth’. The 2030 Agenda is actually built on the work of Goergescu-Roegen.

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The Cosmopolitan by BOGDAN & VAN BROECK © Laurian Ghinitoiu

The EU Biodiversity Strategy states that by 2030 30% of land should be open, green and protected. Living closer and more compact is also more economic and sustainable. A larger number of dwellings in the same area limits the land share and the building and infrastructure costs per dwelling. More space is left over as open space in the city and for the protection of open areas elsewhere. Sustainable use of space and responsible densities therefore go hand in hand with quality of life. In this perspective, the ‘Good Living’ Expert Committee considered the regional spatial planning from the point of view of the existing open space and its qualities. Open space is no longer the ‘negative space’, as it is often called in urban planning, but rather the ‘positive space’, the space on which the survival of the regional territory depends, for it reduces the impact of summer heat waves, excessive rainfall and water shortage. The COVID-19 pandemic has furthermore demonstrated that the availability of open space, in all its public or private forms (park, square, boardwalk, garden, terrace, etc.), is a factor of resilience in the city.

This calls for a new Brussels culture of quality urban space. The preservation or, as the case may be, the improvement of the existing qualities of a place and the enhancement of new qualities must be the priority of any project that has a spatial impact. Therefore, the focus of the ‘Good Living’ Expert Committee was on results rather than means, for regeneration is not achieved by setting a cornice height. The targets are ambitious and restrictive, but leave enough room for creativity and dialogue. They can only be achieved though through a common vision of administrations and the government, shared with the communities and the society: a long-term vision for building a future-proof city that brings together the needs of people and nature. The fulfilment of this long-term vision requires a cultural change through an inclusive dialogue and a permanent professional and social debate on the future of Brussels and its interdependence on a global scale: climate crisis, loss of biodiversity, depletion of resources and thus of the soil.

Everyone in society today has the obligation to use as few resources as possible, but even more so the construction sector, which is one of the main generators of waste and greenhouse gases. In the pursuit of a circular economy, the recuperation and reuse of existing materials and products is becoming increasingly important. However, the fundamental circularity in the construction sector is foremost about maintaining existing building structures, which can save huge amounts of carbon emissions. Existing buildings are actually environmental resources. Moreover, an existing building invites the architect to dialogue and pushes towards more creativity. Unusual typologies emerge and lead to surprising solutions. However, as long as the carbon balance of the existing structure is not present in the financial equation, the adaptive re-use will be more expensive than demolishing and building new.

A legal and financial framework that ensures that we can make the best use of resources, including existing buildings, is thus crucial. Today, every market player moves within the market boundaries and that means maximum yield, minimum cost, because this is our current economic model. As long as the demolition of buildings is not taxed, even though this has a huge social cost, demolishing is much easier and cheaper than re-use, and the return from new construction is greater. Furthermore, recuperating and reusing materials in a circular way is much more expensive than working with new materials that roll off the assembly line. In conclusion, there is a lot of embedded CO2 in existing buildings, but as long as the 'polluter pays' principle is not applied, we hit the limits of the economic model. Market players cannot go much further in circular thinking because they will be played out of a market driven by maximum profit in the current system. The market boundaries must be much better attuned to the regenerative direction in which we must evolve.

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'Good Living' Brussels- Illustration by Batiste Museo. 'Good Living' Brussels- Illustration by Batiste Museo. © BOGDAN & VAN BROECK

In Brussels, there is a first phase of circularity being put in place. In the second phase, circularity will be compulsory in architecture competitions (which are the best environment to test this and to build up know-how), but not yet as a standard. It is very clear that only standards, regulations and/or taxes lead to a systemic change, so certain market boundaries have to be adjusted to achieve the goal of circularity. The comparison with passive standards, in which Brussels was a pioneer in the world, is worth making. It started with the government stimulating and subsidising exemplary projects, all against the grain. Therefore a know-how was developed before the regulations were introduced. In the third phase of circularity, the Government of the Brussels Region is planning to make the demolishing of buildings impossible by linking it to the social cost as of 2024. This is what we, the Expert Committee ‘Good Living’, have proposed, among other objectives, in the frame of the new Urban Regulation for the Brussels-Capital Region: “promote sustainability, circularity and resilience of the built environment by encouraging the adaptive re-use of existing buildings”. The demolition of an existing building will only be authorised on the basis of an analysis according to criteria such as the carbon footprint of demolition versus adaptive-reuse. The carbon footprint being the total consumption of a project over its life cycle expressed as CO2 equivalent. This consumption includes the grey energy required for the production and use of materials as well as the energy consumption of the building during its lifetime.

This exercise has been made by us, at BOGDAN & VAN BROECK, long before ‘Good Living’. In 2014, we won an adaptive-reuse competition organised by the real estate developer Besix Red. They took the risk of not demolishing the Assubel tower, a medical and surgical centre located in a zone defined by a master plan for urban development commissioned in 1962 by the municipal authorities in order to adapt the centre of Brussels to the changes required by the modern world. The proximity of Brussel’s Canal Zone and North railway station provided the impetus for redeveloping the building’s office spaces into 130 comfortable housing units ranging from compact studio flats to generous three-bedroom apartments higher up, with unique east and west views. Called ‘The Cosmopolitan’, the project relies on a soft mobility concept to go far beyond regulations and significantly reduce the number of car parking spaces from more than 150 to 50. Instead, it features 170 cycle parking spaces.

Following a rigorous and precise reinforcement of the structure, the existing building was extended by adding three floors, which emphasises the slim silhouette. The preservation of the existing structure offers unique ceiling heights of more than three metres in all dwellings. At the same time it drastically reduced the amount of rubble, which then limited movement of dump tracks in the city centre and lessened the impact on the environment. Our study estimated the weight of the existing building at 10.000 tonnes. In the case of a complete demolition, this represents about 500 trucks entering and leaving Brussels. By preserving the skeleton of the building, this volume could be reduced by half.

On the long east-west façades, a lightweight secondary steel structure is composed of a grid containing generous balconies. White perforated sliding panels serve as a protection against sun and wind, creating a permanent yet fluctuating play of light and shade that animates the façades that have become a landmark in Brussels’ skyline.

‘The Cosmopolitan’ is not only a forerunner of adaptive re-use in Brussels. It also shows that an inventive strategy of targeted adjustments⁠ can give a new lease of life to buildings from the post-war building boom era and help improve the quality of life in a densely populated, diverse city. Because the city of tomorrow is one that addresses global challenges on the metropolitan scale, ranging from public policies all the way to the scale of the individual plot. Each architecture project must be conceived as a regenerative contribution to the city as a whole. And this is exactly the aim of the ‘Good Living’ Urban Regulation: to use environmental requirements as opportunities to improve the quality of life in the Brussels Capital Region, including the health of the planet.

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The Cosmopolitan by BOGDAN & VAN BROECK (Before & After) © Jeroen Verrecht

About Oana Bogdan

True to her continuous activism for a high-quality urban culture, Oana Bogdan anchors the work of BOGDAN & VAN BROECK in the ongoing public debate and questions the traditional role of the architect. Her involvement in societal affairs, as well as in political debates, contributes to raising awareness of the holistic approach to regenerative urban development. She has been further building on her valuable experiences in architecture and politics in Europe as public speaker, judge of awards, member of design review panels for governing authorities, of several executive boards of non-profit organisations, and of committees for public policy such as the Urban Regulation for the Brussels-Capital Region.

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Image Courtesy of LifeCycles

Oana Bogdan is a speaker at the new LifeCycles festival, taking place in Ghent 28 to 30 September 2022.

Spread across 3 days and 3 stages LifeCycles will gather over 40 leading speakers, discussing the future of out cities, architecture and environment. 

More info and tickets on www.lifecycles.be

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Image Courtesy of LifeCycles

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Cite: Oana Bogdan. "‘Good Living’ in Brussels " 07 Jul 2022. ArchDaily. Accessed . <https://www.archdaily.com/984943/good-living-in-brussels> ISSN 0719-8884

The Cosmopolitan by BOGDAN & VAN BROECK  © Laurian Ghinitoiu


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