Within the framework of the project The Persistence of Questioning, critical reflections for the future, and in response to the question ‘What is architecture?’, Ken De Cooman and Laurens Bekemans (co-founders of BC) argue for systematic and cultural change across the construction sector.
Human activity is broadly measured by gross domestic product (GDP) – a monetary indication of the market value of all the goods and services produced in a year, which is often used as a rough indicator when judging the state of a nation. It is supported by a paradigm of growth in which higher growth is considered better, and it presupposes a definition of value as: ‘that which can be counted in terms of market value’. It reduces human interactions to services and commodifies time into working hours. That which cannot be counted is left out of the GDP equation: justice, equality, ecology, sharing, caring. This focus on human activity leads to ‘overgrowth’: a focus on a limited kind of human productivity, while turning a blind eye to the long-term effects of extraction and exploitation of natural, social and human resources. How can this overgrowth model be changed?
A belief prevails that scientific knowledge and resulting technology will come up with a solution to make the overgrowth model possible within the limited production capabilities of our planet, either through new inventions, improved efficiencies or the inclusion of other nearby planets for human exploitation. We at BC are convinced that the faults in the overgrowth model are built into its structure and there is no technological innovation that could cancel out the effects of this model. The kind of change needed is systemic, and cultural.
Transition – the systemic change towards a regenerative and post-carbon world – needs to be learned as a practice. This is especially true for the culture within the construction sector: a behemoth of vested interests, high-risk works, physical and organizational complexity. It takes time for construction communities to imbibe certain kinds of knowledge – often accrued over decades of learning by making, collaborating, failing and succeeding. Once a construction culture is established in norms, insurance policies, tendering documents, energy regulations, building permit laws, material safety factors, educational programmes, and so on, it becomes very challenging to envision systemic change, but not impossible. New ideas and processes are needed to create spaces where the stuff of dreams becomes possible, for everyone involved. We fortuitously found a way: architecture as prototyping.
BC started as a collective of friends (“Brussels Cooperation”), curious about life and architecture, without any experience in design or construction, except for a master’s degree in architecture. We set up a non-profit organization in 2009 and self-initiated the Library of Muyinga project in Burundi, where we lived for just over a year. Luckily, we met Salvator Nshimirimana, a foreman and master builder with over 40 years of experience in the design and construction of community infrastructure such as churches, schools and local NGO offices. Through Salvator Nshimirimana, we forged connections with craftsmen and community. We learned from regional typologies in mostly rural areas, where industrial and often delocalized materials are not yet prevalent. Our perception of predominantly vernacular construction culture in Burundi, as well as a low, self-funded budget, encouraged us to adopt and adapt local materials, spatial typologies and bioclimatic principles. On top of that, and probably even more importantly, our total lack of design or construction practice, in combination with the free space within the Burundian environment, led to our discovery of architecture as prototyping. There was no set of finished plans to be checked by different specialized engineers and given to a contractor for execution. The design of the building grew as the process of construction took momentum, with members of BC, the local NGO, the labourers, the wider community.
To prepare the building site, we had to dig into the red earth of a hill with a team of labourers. There was a pile of earth ready to be used as earth blocks. The decision to make compressed earth blocks rather than adobe blocks was an explicit wish of the community, giving the building’s appearance a more “industrial and upmarket” feel. These compressed earth blocks were tested and improved with every iteration after construction had already started on the stone foundations; with constant input from Salvator Nshimirimana, we were trying out and choosing different masonry bonds on top of the foundations; we were redesigning the roof when the walls were practically ready to receive the roof structure. Design occurred through execution, and imagination ran riot in executing what felt right. It was messy, it was intense, it was intuitive, it was imperfect, it was not a problem – it was more like a solution, but we didn’t know to what exactly.
Passionate about these experiences and with the intuition we were onto something, BC ventured into other projects, mainly in Morocco and Ethiopia, always as a result of chance encounters that were acted upon, and helped by the online publications of the Library of Muyinga. Our experience of life and of architecture as prototyping was reiterated with and influenced by craftspeople, community leaders and builders. It became clear to us that we – the community around a building project – were engaged in acts of building: undertaking experiments and participating in a joint performance to erect community infrastructure. We learned to focus not only on designing but also on redesigning the process of generating this infrastructure. We learned to experiment with the role that each member of a community plays in the act of building. For us, a narrow definition of the professional architect no longer sufficed; we ventured into material production, contracting, storytelling, knowledge exchange, community organization – and design resulted from these ventures. Changing roles in the act of building created more understanding and empathy, more free space to experiment and prototype to achieve better design and infrastructure. Architecture as prototyping fast-tracked the process of establishing an alternative construction culture through intense learning by making, collaborating, failing and succeeding.
This period lasted for around five years. Our return to Europe came gradually, after initial ideas to settle in, for example, Ethiopia and Morocco turned out differently. This coincided with a desire to practice what we had learned in the context of Belgium. We established BC architects in 2012 in order to be able to take up required liability in a European construction culture. Not having worked so much for European architectural practices, we were intent on keeping our way of building economically viable in a higher wage construction culture. This required some creativity. In contrast to the classic solution to take on more projects to gain more revenue, BC’s response was to be more involved in each project. Expanding our role beyond design, we were acting as material consultants, organizing self-initiated workshops, producing materials and training (and being trained by) contractors in using new materials. These extra activities from the same project gave us extra budgets for communication, construction and research on top of a ‘standard’ architectural fee. We were trying to emulate our previous free spaces in a Belgian construction context; our acts of building were reaching and transcending the boundaries within which architects are permitted to operate in a European construction context. We were having sit-downs with the Order of Architects in Belgium who were at once weary and triggered by how we seemed to push all stakeholders in a building project (including BC architects itself) into project-based local material production and execution of works. This seemed to go against the law of 1939 defining the architect’s independent role in Belgium in the architect–client–contractor triangle. The law stipulates that ‘the architect’ can in no way whatsoever be linked to a contractor (which could include material production – this is a grey zone): an architect cannot execute works (cannot help “one finger” on site or on building materials) or cannot be directly linked to execution of works (cannot be employed by a contractor, or share a consortium with a contractor or have shares in a contracting business).
Our focus in these acts of buildings in Europe began to be on using more and more local materials such as earth and vegetal fibres. Their beauty, tactility, simplicity, honesty and natural circularity – all of this started to become the entry point, the lever, the catalyst, to generate a community in a construction, to engage in the act of building. In Bioklas in Edegem, Belgium, we produced 20,000 compressed earth blocks made from very local earth and 300 m2 of hempcrete in five weeks of workshops with over 150 people. In Luma we used limestone quarry waste to make poetically white rammed earth walls, and locally grown algae in earth plaster, with over 50 construction professionals who had only worked with concrete and steel up to that point. The attraction, tactility and obviousness of local materials, and the energy of prototyping together, make these experiments possible: everybody gets drawn into the project, ready to cross the boundaries of their own specialization to create a free space instead of cognitive dissonance. The systemic change in approach presupposed by these acts of building can also make the process slow because it deviates from existing norms and requires different risk management strategies. These materials always need to be thoroughly lab tested per project in an ever-expanding list of tests so that everyone feels safe in our risk-averse construction culture. The budget always needs to be approached creatively by pointing to added values and extra purpose, by searching for win-wins with educational institutions or workshops in exchange for free labour, by making efforts not counted in GDP calculations. The architecture of prototyping needs to balance unpaid efforts, education, labour, budget, quality of execution, innovation and exemplarity. This balance is imperfect, but through the lived experience by all stakeholders in an architecture of prototyping, the process is allowed to be imperfect or to be over budget or to be more demanding than initially envisaged, because it is not a problem, but a solution. A way out of overgrowth. An imaginative process aimed at imperfect systemic change.
After a set of public and private projects undertaken in this way, interest from other architectural offices and contractors increased, and BC decided to consolidate the activities of developing, producing and advising on local materials. We adapted the concept of using local materials on a project-by-project basis to a more systemic and scalable material stock production. In October 2018, we launched the co-operative BC Materials, transforming excavated earth from construction sites into building materials. These resources – around 36 million tonnes of excavated earth per year in Belgium with all the issues of transport and disposal – become beautiful, local, healthy, carbon neutral, zero-waste products such as clay plaster, earth blocks and rammed earth, sold on the Belgian market. Besides these stock products, BC Materials provides two further services: consultancy on bespoke projects, and workshops/training. These services are conceived to help architects, contractors and clients implement quality earth construction projects.
As such, BC Materials is not a normal material production company. It operates on a Brussels’ wasteland in a fully demountable and circular production hall, which can be transported to other wastelands in the Brussels region. It is governed as a cooperative of workers and sympathizers – our way of officially inviting people to try and systemically change the construction sector. BC Materials does not aim for the fastest possible sale of building materials with the highest possible profit margins, but rather has stated its mission to ‘grow the earth building market’ in the Benelux. This means communicating without holding back anything learned, investing in people’s education on earth building and making the market ready for competitors. The search for a balance between commercial activity and social mission keeps on driving our business model forward.
This whole ecosystem of activities – design, research, material production, contracting, community organization, business modelling – is expanding over time, in types of activities as well as in connections with those active in the sector. Today, BC is a team of 23 people working and learning and performing together in the three organizations. Many of these people combine the roles of architect and student and material researcher – let’s call them actors of change. Our most impactful act might be the storytelling of it all: designing education for over 500 architects at universities, workshopping with over 500 participants and telling our story to over 500 visitors every year. Sectorial activism or lobbying is a different storytelling activity, which we are learning to do, promoting bio-sourced and geo-sourced materials to institutions, in order to be included in normative Belgian documents. The development of new earth products such as an earth screed or acoustical plaster is being tested in laboratories and pilot projects.
We don’t do this alone. BC is operating within a fantastic network of actors including other earth construction colleagues , funding organizations , investors , laboratories , governments , architects , contractors , earth movers , standardization institutions , and universities . The fact that we do this very broad range of activities makes it possible to engage beyond standard practice with other actors: the fact that BC does contracting makes the conversation with contractors much more empathic. The fact that BC executes lab testing makes the communication for new types of tests for non-standard materials easier. We understand the challenges of each discipline and specialization in a heartfelt way, because we’ve “been there” and have “done that”. We didn’t choose to specialize. We chose to do ‘everything’ and that’s why we can go further than the real specialists, pushing back boundaries and creating free spaces for innovation and experimentation in acts of building with these specialists.
This results in prototype buildings: Bioklas Edegem was the first public building with loadbearing compressed earth blocks in Benelux; The Wall in Tienen was at 15.5 metres high the highest contemporary non-stabilized rammed earth wall in the world; the BC materials hall was the first demountable production infrastructure for temporary use on wastelands in the Benelux.
The prototype aspect of these buildings is misleading, since it just refers to the first time in our current construction culture. In fact, our ancestors did much better in earlier times. Earth blocks in Shibam, Yemen, support around 12 floors, and they date from the 16th century; Haus Rath in Weilburg Germany, built in 1828, has non-stabilized rammed earth walls 18 metres high; and until the beginning of the 20th century Belgian and Dutch farmers had fully demountable storage sheds with numbered oak posts and beams with earth infill, which moved around cultivation land as needed. In this sense, BC architects & studies & materials are doing nothing new. We are rediscovering best practices and trying to create new construction cultures out of these, today, in Europe.