RPCE : Brussels buildings go circular


Summer 2019

Our traditional economic model does not seem to have a response for many complex challenges such as the depletion of natural resources, huge amounts of waste, climate change and social inequality. Several large European cities, amongst which the Brussels-Capital Region, see a solution in the circular economy. The construction sector – a significant producer of waste and user of resources – is an important player for a successful circular transition.

The policymakers in Brussels regard the linear model – that of mining-production-consumption-waste – as unsustainable and harmful for the environment. But it also makes their region heavily dependent on scarce raw materials from elsewhere.

The Brussels-Capital Region sees the need, and in it also an opportunity, to evolve towards a circular economy: one of recovering, producing, consuming and reusing. Managing the flows of goods better will make the city less dependent on external resources, and will provide answers in terms of environment, local economy and employment.

RPCE regional programme
That is why, three years ago, Brussels’ politicians launched the Regional Programme for a Circular Economy (RPCE). This programme brings together different players on its territory. It contains a wide range of concrete actions. For instance the ‘Be Circular’ call for projects, which gives financial support and guidance to local companies for their circular initiatives.

The results so far are promising, not least in construction. This sector shows great resolve to set up innovative business models and projects. Since the start of the RPCE, 21 'circular' construction sites have been launched.

From waste to raw materials
The construction industry produces 628,000 tonnes of waste per year in Brussels. True, 91% of this is recycled and then used, for example, in foundations. But this is downcycling: the materials decrease in value. The RPCE plan strives for a shift from waste management to raw materials management, in order to maximise resource efficiency.

This can be achieved through the hierarchy of maintenance, reuse, remanufacturing and upcycling. The latter refers to the recovery and transformation of materials that are no longer used into materials with a higher quality or value. An example: Dzerostudio Architects used ‘waste’ from construction and renovation projects to build their 'Tomato Chili' greenhouses.

New business models, more jobs
The Brussels-Capital Region is also keen to see new business models emerge. Companies should aim to extend their products’ life cycle and thus decrease the use of raw materials. They may, for example, provide products as a service, including extras such as maintenance, repair, leasing and take-back schemes. Or they may share materials, labour or buildings. This is how two adjacent construction projects in Brussels, notably Deswaef and Debatty, deployed their trainees and site installations optimally. Companies should also exchange information better, and architects and contractors work together from the design phase.

The RPCE program also foresees positive effects on employment. In the future, students and jobseekers will find and keep jobs much easier. This is because new economic activities and expertise are being created, such as reversible conception, drawing up material inventories, dismantling materials and preparing them for reuse, and manufacturing new products with recovered materials.

The building as a materials bank
Rather than demolishing them too quickly, the sector could see buildings as materials banks, according to the RPCE. Maintenance and repair, re-use, overhaul and transformation are then carried out for as long as possible. Thanks to inventories and materials passports, any material could be located at any moment within the Brussels territory. Materials would be easy to dismantle and move, as each design would be adaptable and reversible.

The Horizon 2020 Buildings As Material Banks (BAMB) project promoted this new vision in the construction sector (see earlier articles in this magazine). It started in 2015, ended in February of this year and was coordinated by Brussels Environment. Six pilot projects tested reversible building design and circular building assessment tools that were developed during BAMB. This generated insights for new business models. Brussels carried out two of these pilots: the Circular Retrofit Lab (CRL) and Build Reversible In Conception (BRIC). More information on the BAMB project and tools: www.bamb2020.eu.

BRIC, CRL, Modüll 2.0
The Build Reversible in Conception (BRIC) building was designed as a materials bank. It will have three functions in three years’ time. The first version was a 70m2 office. The rebuilding of BRIC into a 130m2 trading space finishes in June of this year. In 2020, BRIC will be transformed one last time.

BRIC is built, deconstructed and reconstructed by students of the efp training center in Brussels. The concept is adaptable and reversible; materials are easy to assemble and disassemble. And it already proved to be sustainable: in the dismantling of BRIC 1, only 3.5m3 of waste was generated. Moreover, if each version of this building were to last 20 years, the greenhouse gas emissions would be halved.

Circular Retrofit Lab was installed in eight old student modules on the campus of the Vrije Universiteit Brussel. The VUB Architectural Engineering research group renovated the modules, which would normally have been demolished. Together with industrial partners, they developed and tested new renovation solutions based on existing products, as was the case for the partitions and façades. The reversible construction involved a higher initial investment, but will in the long term be costefficient, thanks to the longer life cycle of the building and its transformations.

A third inspiring example of circular practices, apart from the BAMB project, is Modüll 2.0. In this challenge, set by Brussels’ professional reference centre for construction, students of various schools developed an autonomous and modular construction. Various circular objectives were tested in it, such as resource and energy use and choice of materials, as well as long-term ideas for optimising deconstruction and assembly.

Tools for professionals
To support construction professionals in their circular efforts, the Region offers several tools. The online Brussels’ Sustainable Building Guide, for instance, provides tips for dismantling, reuse and recycling of construction materials (www.guidebatimentdurable.brussels), as well as information on Life Cycle Analysis and on materials choice.

Another online application, the Tool to Optimise the Total Environmental impact of Materials or TOTEM, allows to see the impact of construction and renovation projects on the environment and to choose the right materials and techniques to reduce that impact. To date, more than 1,400 people have used the tool and 240 architects have been trained to do so (www.totem-building.be).