We always try to design buildings that offer minimal environmental impact and maximum human comfort.
Lien Vansteenkiste, Groep III
Environmental changes and the EU Directive on 2020 energy efficiency targets are in- creasing the pressure on the construction industry to find sustainable and energy efficient solutions for buildings. The directive stipulates that all buildings built after 2020 must be zero energy buildings. This means that houses must be able to generate as much energy as they consume. Is this something that is hard to deal with, or is the concept of focusing on sustainable architecture one that you would apply anyway?
L.V.: Sustainable architecture has become an important aspect of contemporary architectural design. We always try to design buildings that offer minimal environmental impact and maximum human comfort. We have a mission statement that says that we want to inspire, encourage and support our clients in the design process. In this way, we can make the most of the environment and enhance it in a positive way. One way we seek to inspire clients is to emphasize the importance of sustainability.
Does “encourage” mean that the client is participating in the design process or is it more like giving advice?
L.V.: We give advice, inspire and we also make sure that they can follow every step of the design process, because sustainable design starts with the first concept.
Are the houses that you construct already able to produce as much energy as they consume?
L.V.: We try to find the balance between economic benefits and also environmental benefits. Zero energy buildings are the aim, but they are not always affordable. So we have to try to find a way and make it possible to improve the building later on.
What are the major sustainability characteristics of your project Groen Steenbrugge?
L.V.: In general, one of the aspects of any sustainable concept is to promote space efficiency. The basic concept of Groen Steenbrugge is urban density and multi-functionality. Space efficiency is a major factor in urban planning. On a plot of 3000 m2, our plans included eight houses with small private gardens and one office for two companies. There is also student accommodation with 12 rooms. In addition, there is a communal garden, which is used by all occupants and an underground parking area with direct access to each house. So, we have carried out a big project on a very small plot and maximized the space with attention to differentiation.
So the use of space is one main characteristic of sustainability in this project. Is this, in your opinion, an aspect of sustainable construction that should be more extensively developed in general?
H.V.: Flanders has become highly urbanized and the urban sprawl around its cities is expanding further and further. We now have the support of the Flemish Government Architect who has said that we cannot go on like this. Flanders already is “over-built”; there is no high quality open space. So we have to re-think how we plan and build. Space must be used more efficiently.
So in Flanders, is there legislation about the size of construction spaces?
H.V.: There are regulations, but they can differ from city to city. In the future, we will have to build nearer to each other, but that doesn’t mean that we cannot have more quality of living. And we have to keep in mind that individual space is important, even if the density of buildings is higher.
But this is surely a challenge: to balance comfort and privacy against the constraints of smaller spaces and energy efficiency. How does this influence your work?
H.V.: I think our project Groen Steenbrugge is a very good example. It demonstrates that it can be done. Of course, every project is unique. Using space responsibly, whilst maintaining high quality of design, is a permanent challenge for planning. Plus, alternative forms of housing, such as co-housing projects, transgenerational design, assisted living residences, etc. can provide an answer to this challenge.
What do you think architects could and should do to advance sustainable building concepts?
H.V.: We should advise clients and also inform them. In our office, we typically look beyond the site where the project is planned. For example, if it is a school we have to build, we want to find out what the architectural quality of the surroundings is like, what infrastructure is already there, and which functions are already active on the site. So we can come up with a masterplan which has added value and is more than just building a school.
Another aspect is choosing the materials, of course. Clay, as a natural material, is very popular and often used for sustainable projects – what are the advantages of using this material?
L.V.: We like to use clay because it’s made of natural materials. It is very versatile, comes in different colours and textures, and you can use it to create different architectural styles. It’s a very durable and robust material, which is a unique quality. We also design a lot of social housing where brick is popular for these qualities, and because of its economic benefits. In addition, comfort inside the building is an important issue, and clay has another unique quality which plays an important role in this – it has a high thermal mass. For example, when outside temperatures are fluctuating throughout the day, a large thermal mass inside a building can serve to “flatten out” the daily temperature fluctuations.
So using bricks provides something like a form of natural climate regulation?
H.V.: Yes, because the thermal mass will absorb thermal energy when the surroundings are higher in temperature than the mass, and give thermal energy back when the surroundings are cooler.
I find it quite natural to use bricks in my architecture.
Hein Verbeke, Groep III