Sustainability? It’s all about (re)using buildings
Who doesn't want to build and live sustainably?
To really guarantee this, we apply two principles. Firstly, we only look at sites and buildings that are in use or have been used already, or at least at the materials they consist of. And we reuse them. Literally. Secondly, we believe that a building is only sustainable if it also fulfils a social function within its environment. Local residents must be able and willing to use it for a relevant purpose. The structure of the building must stand the test of time. That means that it must also be flexible enough to change function.
Sustainability has become a buzzword in recent years. Everyone wants to be sustainable, so everything is labelled as such. Including in the real-estate sector. But beware, sustainability can be interpreted in different ways and not every claim merits the label. So where do we make the difference? We see sustainability mainly from the perspective of reusability. You can set up an office space highly efficiently and install top-quality insulation but if the company goes bankrupt a few years later, the office building will be empty, making it unsustainable. Sustainable building is therefore also adaptable building. That means thinking long-term and taking various scenarios into account.
People have known for centuries how to make buildings sustainable. For example, we hardly ever have to demolish churches and monasteries. Their structures and ergonomics lend themselves perfectly to reuse. We only need to rearrange the interior, by definition temporarily. For example, we are currently working on the design of an empty monastery and church. It will become a sound example of a sustainable redevelopment project featuring both residential and commercial units.
More recent industrial buildings, on the other hand, have to be demolished more often because the whole structure and layout of the building was geared to a single function. In that case, we engage in what we call ‘urban mining’. This means we assess which materials we can reuse, from steel beams to the smallest of screws, including the furniture. Bricks and wood are good examples of sustainable materials. By (re)using these kinds of sustainable materials, we create a circular economy process. The materials of an old building are not lost as waste: they become the building blocks of a new building.
But sustainability also requires ecological thinking. Many industrial sites are built using so much concrete that they heat up the environment tremendously, and they cause floods and heat stress. The paved, built-up mass does not cool down and prevents rainwater from seeping into the soil. We can tackle this by creating sufficient green areas. However, we also consider the energy requirements of buildings. The BEN standard (BEN is the Dutch abbreviation for ‘almost energy-neutral’) takes centre stage here: a building must be (almost) energy-neutral. But we also consider how we can capture and use water and energy on site.
Moreover, ecological thinking goes beyond the construction phase. A building can add value to the environment by fulfilling the right function in the right place. Nobody needs two butcheries next to each other. But if the nearest supermarket is a half hour’s drive away, a vacant building could be turned into a supermarket to reduce traffic. That is one of the first things we look at when we are asked to reuse a vacant building. A building has to add value to the whole neighbourhood. Buildings that everyone sees but no one utilises are of no use to anyone.
In our view, sustainability is therefore about having a long-term vision in terms of the building structure and the building materials, and in terms of how the building is or can ultimately be used. By taking all of this into account, we can truly profile ourselves as a sustainable architectural firm.