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BC Architects, Studies and Materials: the architects of BC go beyond building purely aesthetically pleasing buildings. Their focus is, among other things, on earth construction. Working from an ecologically aware optimism, they thoroughly research materials, invest in circular logic and stimulate co-creation while trying to transform the entire construction sector along the way.
Four architects - Nicolas Coeckelberghs, Wes Degreef, Ken De Cooman and Laurens Bekemans - studied architecture together at Sint Lukas Brussels (now LUCA Campus Brussels, KU Leuven), and then decided to group their ambitions through a non-profit association called ‘Brussels Cooperation’. After their graduation, three of the founders initiated a trip to Burundi, to construct a new library. In the village of Muyinga, they started working with the local community - without a governmental commission, a contract or any kind of permit. With a raised budget of only 20,000 euros, their traditional Western architectural training - which is mainly based on expensive and CO2-intensive materials - turned out not to be so useful. This experience made the young architects rethink their entire practice, which we were able to discover during a visit to the office in the new Brussels hub around Tour & Taxis. Anton Maertens, Business Developer at BC materials guided us around the site.
AM: The way we constructed the library in Muyinga, couldn’t be more DIY. The majority of what we learned in school wasn't applicable in this context: you can hardly start cutting down a bunch of local trees to bake bricks. But thanks to a local contractor, Salvatore, we learned how to make brickets - bricks from unbaked earth. That became the main ingredient from which our design departed. Together with volunteers, local craftsmen and residents we were able to build the library. This felt like quite a revelation: linking modern architecture to ecological use of materials through a focus on earth construction. The building was featured in international architecture magazines such as Dezeen, triggering our desire to work in a similar way in Belgium.
Horst: How do you translate such a culture-specific tradition to the Belgian context and reality, while retaining an ecological and an economic logic?
AM: We've actually been building with soil for centuries in the West as well. It only became possible to produce bricks on a larger scale after the Industrial Revolution. As from then, we lost a lot of tradition, knowledge and insight in building with earth, but at its roots, it is not something that is alien to our culture. We decided to investigate this further with BC materials: a separate non-profit venture that researches and produces building components from soil.
As we began to work more often on construction sites, we became aware of how they generate masses of excavated earth that gets transported and dumped in mines and quarries. This transport is expensive and implies unnecessary CO2 emissions, while at least half of that earth could be used efficiently. The construction industry is one of the most polluting ones globally, responsible for 30% of global waste, 40% of total CO2 emissions, and 40% of overall use of natural resources.
People finally start to acknowledge that this cannot last, and that the sector has to become more circular. Rather than importing the desired materials from some place far away, thus using up a ton of fossil fuel, we want to work with local soil that we can transform ecologically into circular building materials. For the contractors it's convenient; they can bring their 'waste' to us, instead of having to transport it elsewhere.
Building with local soil also generates a form of cohesion: people enjoy working and building with their local earth. Since BC is about local materials, collaboration and local jobs, we build a community with every new project.
Anton shows us the modular construction unit, which was placed next to the office on the site in 2019. This is the place where the soil arrives from other construction sites. A structure has been set up to produce plaster (for walls); rammed earth (for floors and walls) and loam brickets (alternative to bricks). A showroom has been set up in the office with samples and exemplatory applications of the material.
AM: We won the Pioneer Award (Belgium Building Awards) this year: a wonderful recognition for our work, but also somewhat remarkable in our trajectory. By setting up BC materials, we mainly wanted to enable the reuse of soil and production into new materials. However, there was a lot of scepticism about those plans, to say the least. Now it gives us great satisfaction to see that we have reached a point where architectural firms, construction companies, and even government agencies come to us for expertise and cooperation. This production site was needed to expand our operations and to be able to produce and sell directly - continuously and independently from our other specific projects.
BC studies is our way of igniting motivation to work with earth, and to link hands-on practice to theory in architectural courses. Last year for example, we collaborated with Building Beyond Borders, the Postgraduate course of Hasselt University, to collectively go to Morocco with students and build a centre for women in Ouled Merzoug. We raised money in Belgium, and were able to work with the local community on site in an intuitive and spontaneous way. It’s exactly the small-scale village life that facilitated an open exchange. Even though the people in our team already teach at various universities, BC studies allows us to implement this research into reality, and in various contexts throughout the world. You can consider it a way to expand the open-source mentality that is so characteristic of earth building and circular economy.
Horst: How do you retain this idealistic approach while setting up an economically sound company?
AM: We are still very much at the beginning of our story and want to grow organically with our start-up. BC was created thanks to the help of family, friends and fools, a diverse group of investors who believed in us. In addition, the support of the Brussels Region has been crucial in our story: they properly stimulate circular construction through numerous subsidies, support impulses and competitions (such as B-Circular). We have to mention the impact investors, who support us financially because our project has a positive ecological, social and economic impact. Finally, our customer base is expanding as well: a growing number of people want healthy and acoustic materials in their living environment and are therefore drawn to constructions with earth. Thanks to these circular champions - the clients who support our ecological methodology - we can continue to work on an appealing portfolio with clearly achievable projects. We consider this to be the antidote to a fatalistic pessimism that might just as well cripple the construction sector by thinking “it’s all ruined anyway”. We want to show that it can be done.
Of course we’re aware of the costs that come with this kind of architecture. The prices for our loam plaster and log are competitive with the market, the brickette is a bit more expensive. Though, should you take into account the costs from pollution (CO2, water use, fine dust,...), our materials would actually be cheaper. We think it's important to remain approachable for various types of customers and always cater to personal needs and desires - but do so from an ethical point of view in which every collaborator throughout the process is fairly remunerated. What's more, circular is becoming the new norm in an accelerating way, so it will revolve into a new binding (the EU is already working on that), which will increase the supply in a controlled way, and which will see the market adapting itself.
Horst: What are the ambitions for BC in the future?
AM: We are in full go to market for our materials and want to pick up that process - which was briefly interrupted by COVID-19. With our sample boxes, we continue to go on "tour" to those architectural firms and construction companies that ask us for more information about earthworks and the products we make. In the longer term, we hope to become the ‘go to’ circular partner in the Benelux. Amsterdam for example, in addition to Brussels, has enormous potential for circular construction, given that they are currently developing the Doughnut model economy.
Finally, we will also be launching a financing round for support soon, as we want to expand our production site for larger orders. People and organisations will be able to buy shares from our cooperative. And if we’re talking very long term - though now I’m dreaming out loud - we’re envisaging to work with a franchise for a number of urban regions in the EU, as to locally process earth materials and transform them into circular building materials. Tomorrow’s cities can be built with local earth.