Insights from Brussels : Decarbonising our Built Environment

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Australia, amongst many other countries, can learn a huge amount from Brussels. They have managed to go from a city with some of the poorest performing buildings to a leader that other cities seek inspiration from. As expanded on in my previous articles on Vancouver and NYC, the key takeaway from my insights, was again, centred around the importance of building a strong community and support system within the industry and a symbiotic relationship with policymakers in government. This is how we can ultimately empower positive change at the scale of the city.

It is worth noting that both Vancouver and NYC sent a body of delegates, comprised of their own industry leaders and government officials, to Brussels to ‘learn their ways’ as they too began seriously tackling the carbon footprint of their own cities. So this opportunity to travel there myself through the Byera Hadley Grant was a rare privilege. Here is a summary of what Brussels can perhaps teach us in Australia:


Learn the Language of Energy

While in Brussels, I made sure to visit A2M Architects. Since 2000, they have been at the forefront of advocating for higher buildings standards in Belgium, linking the role of architects directly with climate protection.

Sebastian Moreno-Vacca, founder of the company, possesses the right mix of optimism, foresight and entrepreneurialism that was required to motivate a traditionally slow-moving industry to change their ‘Business As Usual’ approach from the inside out. After embarking on their first project aiming to meet the passive house standard in 2003, A2M began encouraging architects across the country to consider energy efficiency as an opportunity rather than a constraint. They even set up a quarterly magazine called BE.Passiv to educate, acknowledge and inspire high-performance building design across the country.

Energy should be seen as another dimension of architectural design. It is essential in the design of interior ‘space’. Julie Wilem, partner at A2M Architects, described it as the 4th dimension as it encompasses time — how the envelope behaves over the course of a day, season or year. How the interior is impacted by its performance and what impact then has on the experience of the inhabitant. These are all key aspects of ‘socially responsible design’. Energy efficiency is one thing, but the experience of a space is quite another, yet the two are very much entwined.


Expand the Horizons

Being open to new possibilities will unlock unforeseen opportunities of unprecedented magnitude. As architects we should inherently do this anyway, when untangling a client’s brief and extrapolating the opportunity that, often unbeknown to the client, is embedded within. It should also be considered from a career and personal development perspective. Sebastian is a person who exudes positivity. He stated himself that he is a ‘Yes-Man’. Basically, by saying Yes to an opportunity you unlock a whole trail of additional opportunities down the line. Some snowball into things you had never imagined — like the BE Passiv magazine, which essentially became a campaign in its own right to communicate how to unlock the potential within the built environment.

A2M has been the keynote speaker at several international events in recent years, focussing on how expanding the opportunities in the brief to address energy actually empowers architects. One of many key lectures worth listening to was called Beauty at Low Cost and the PassiveHouse Movement, which Sebastian and Julie delivered at the American Institute of Architects, New York Chapter back in 2016.


Power in Numbers

Persuasion is easier when there is proof…and better still if there is lots of proof. The scalability, replicability and transferability of a concept is a powerful mechanism. This was the approach that Brussels took in order to change their building codes for the better and, in turn, have a hope of reaching the climate goals it has committed to at a federal level — namely the Paris Agreement.

I visited the headquarters for the Environment and Energy Administration in the Brussels-Capital Region (equivalent to our state government in Australia) and met with Joke (Yoka) Dockx, Head of Promotion of Sustainable Buildings. She joined ‘Brussels Environment’ in 2002, shortly before one of the most successful initiatives was launched — the Exemplary Building Competition (BATEX). She explained that this was the cornerstone of the policy changes seen to date and marked the beginning of a new era of building standard in Brussels.

BATEX was a competition which both encouraged and rewarded developments that reached the Passive House Standard — a strategic move to ensure that buildings curbed their carbon emissions in a verifiable, achievable way. This provoked a shift in the industry, both to the surprise of those in the building sector themselves and those in government too it seemed. The success of the BATEX program was used to leverage an extreme improvement in the building code — leading to the adopt a ‘Passive Standard’ for all new developments from 2015 onwards. The program was supported by a series of initiatives and actions in parallel. These include a major training program for all involved in the design, construction and management of buildings, as well as the establishment of an Employment-Environment Alliance to stimulate the sustainable construction sector through the dissemination of knowledge and expertise.

Essentially, all of these efforts resulted in a portfolio of buildings across the region that met, and in some cases exceeded, the classic Passive House Standard, demonstrating merit in 4 categories; ‘Energy’, ‘Eco-construction’, ‘Profitability & Replication’ and ‘Architectural Quality & Visibility’. This body of work was a testament to what the buildings sector could achieve outside the bounds of federal policy and, off the back of this, it was easier to convince regulatory bodies to adopt this standard of building as ‘Business As Usual’. It is hard to argue that something doesn’t work if the evidence is indeed in front of you after all.


Pick Your Battles

Part of the successful implementation of such rigorous energy standards in Brussels is partly attributed to how they interrogated their local context and found aspects of their Business As Usual model which already aligned with the performance targets, or at least didn’t require substantial change in order to meet them. Yoka explained this did not happen by ‘accident or coincidence’, but by deliberate and meaningful consultation between government and industry. Together they identified a series of commonly used ‘traditional’ Belgian building materials that could be used to meet airtightness requirements, for example, saving the city millions on additional membranes. It turned out that the software also already existed to help plan the performance of buildings- it was just a matter of connecting the right skillsets in the design stage. A2M is just one architecture firm that provides cross-disciplinary competencies under the one umbrella of an architectural service.

This process saw the evolution of the ‘Brussels Passive Standard’ which has been tailored to the region’s construction sector. It is not always necessary to reinvent every wheel, but instead, draw inspiration from ones which are already well oiled. This standard has now been successfully adopted as regulation for all new buildings in the region.


In conclusion…

From seeing just a glimpse of the Passive Buildings across Brussels and meeting just a handful of people behind them, it is evident that the vocabulary of energy empowers design. It empowers us to deliver robust, resilient and socially responsible cities that can stand the test of time. Time, after all, is unfortunately not as abundant as the opportunities that are in front of us though.

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I would like to say a very special thank you to the following individuals in Brussels for being so incredibly generous with their time, insights and advice.

Joke (‘Yoka’) Dockx / Head of Promotion of Sustainable Buildings at the Brussels Administration for the Environment and Energy (“Brussels Environment”).

Sebastian Moreno-Vacca / Founder & Director at A2M Architects

Julie Willem / Director at A2M Architects

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This research was made possible by the Byera Hadley Travelling Scholarship awarded through NSW Architects Registration Board, Australia.

Author

Kate Nason
Kate Nason
Kate is an architect at ARKit Advanced Prefabricated Architecture and a Board Director at the Australian Passive House Association. She is…

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