Circular building project in the centre of Ghent
The Ghent-based team of Abscis Architects renovated a historic building in the centre of Ghent and opted for a circular approach.
The Ghent-based team of Abscis Architects worked on the renovation of an iconic commercial building in their own city. In coordination with the owner and the City of Ghent, they renovated the building that used to house C&A, with three facades, giving access to Veldstraat, Voldersstraat, and Korte Meer.
They opted for a circular approach, including a new timber-framed floor and a multifunctional layout. We spoke with Arthur Van Cauwenberghe about their vision for this project.
For those who haven’t heard of Abscis Architects, who are you, and what sort of projects do you work on?
Abscis Architects is a team of about forty designers: (ir-) architects, urban planners, landscape and interior architects. Our office was founded in 1988, in a house on the Visserij in Ghent, after which it grew further in a historic building in the Hoogpoort, diagonally across from the City Hall. In 2000, we moved into the former train station of Sint-Denijs-Westrem and, currently, we are looking for a new location in the bustling center of Ghent.
Even though our projects are spread all over Flanders and Brussels, our office is strongly anchored in Ghent. As our office has been in Ghent for many years, we have mainly attracted employees who live in and around Ghent. In addition, we are fortunate to have a constant influx of committed staff members who have enjoyed one of our established Ghent architectural schools or young international architects who are eager to settle in Ghent. We are also very receptive to the ‘progressive mindset’, so inherently linked to the identity of people living/working in Ghent. This translates into a strong interest in innovation, with a focus on sustainable building. We also try to bring different sectors together in one mixed project, within the city.
Ghent is certainly known for its progressive mindset, thanks to various initiatives by the city and the knowledge institutes on innovation.
What was the vision for the hotel and shopping complex in the heart of Ghent?
The existing, monofunctional shopping complex contained very large, non-divisible shops and unused space with no residential quality. Together with the owner of the property, we looked for ways to turn it into a flexible and future-oriented building. We wanted to adapt it completely to today's needs, with the emphasis on flexibility, so that the space would be able to evolve. Thanks to a limited number of load-bearing walls, the spaces can still be adapted and used for purposes that we cannot yet anticipate. Together with our client and the City of Ghent, we also wanted to improve the possibilities for people to stay in the city center, to keep the shopping streets animated even after the shops have closed.
Working in the historic center of Ghent is inherently linked to certain challenges. Fortunately, this was not our first rodeo. Thanks to our extensive experience, we were able to anticipate some problems before they occurred. For example, we’ve already renovated the building where Zara is located. This is a mixed project in Veldstraat-Bennesteeg-Sint-Niklaasstraat, with a roof garden and townhouses above it.
This experience taught us that it is best to limit the number of interventions to what is strictly necessary, because this not only reduces the nuisance but also the use of materials and the budget. In addition, it was not easy to find optimal use of the three different façades, with entrances from three different streets: Veldstraat, Voldersstraat, and Korte Meer. Each street has its own characteristics and they also differ greatly in terms of function. On Veldstraat, for example, we did not want to sacrifice any commercial frontage width for logistical purposes or evacuation. In Voldersstraat there are both retail and catering establishments, which makes a hotel appropriate here. Korte Meer, on the other hand, is the only street with traffic and a particularly narrow street profile. Therefore, we decided to pull our façade back a little and bundle all the supporting entrances and functions for the entire complex. In this way, we have tried to combine the various functions of the building without creating any inconvenience. We hope that we have succeeded in our goal.
Working in the historic center of Ghent is inherently linked to certain challenges. Fortunately, this was not our first rodeo. Thanks to our extensive experience, we were able to anticipate some problems before they occurred.
We already mentioned it in the introduction: this project is a strong example of circular construction. But exactly what makes it circular?
The circularity lies mainly in the fact that we’ve tried to preserve the existing structure as much as possible. The necessary interventions were truly precision work.
Moreover, we wanted to offer as much flexibility as possible. Thanks to removable partition walls, other functions can easily be accommodated here, without too many alterations and the associated material flows.
In addition, we worked with lightweight wood frame constructions. Not only did this allow us to build higher in the inner layers, thanks to the limited additional load on the foundation and the existing building. But it also contributed to a compact and energy-efficient floor, wall, and roof structure. For this structure, we prefer to use materials that grow (and thereby often absorb rather than emit CO² - think of wood, wood wool, flax, etc.) to mineral and certainly petrochemical materials. These can then also be disassembled again into the basic material.
Finally, we made a strict selection in our choice of materials, based on the entire life cycle. Thanks to the Nibe classification, supported by our own research, we were able to make a selection of the materials. However, we do not follow strict rules. For example, the choice to rebuild the city façades with natural stone and concrete was more aesthetic than circular.
Do you see other architectural firms in the area that are already embracing this circular approach? If not, what do you think is holding them back?
We can certainly see frontrunners, who have already been experimenting for years with a clear circular ambition. We have also noticed an increase in the demand for circular solutions in many government tenders. Unfortunately, for the majority of architects, circularity is an additional complexity, which they cannot easily take into account. Especially if this is not a specific requirement.
The fact that the architectural landscape is so fragmented, makes it difficult for the smaller firms – with smaller resources - to set up an internal research group to develop a circular methodology. Moreover, circularity did not feature in the basic training of most architects.
We, architects, are used to thinking about the very long term, but we also have to think about what might happen even further in the future. Not only with the building but also with the materials used, for when they become obsolete. If you combine this with some critical questions about the origin and production of the materials, we can begin to think about a circular story.
We started by looking at life cycle analyses of the least visible materials, such as insulation. From there we moved on to the reduction of cement products, as they are very energy-intensive and difficult to dismantle. Thanks to our own research, we are still learning every day, and we will continue to take steps in this direction.
We, architects, are used to thinking about the very long term, but we also have to think about what might happen even further in the future. Not only with the building but also with the materials used, for when they become obsolete.
Your mission is "to help build the city of the future". What does that future look like?
Well, we don't have a crystal ball (laughs). Nevertheless, we are meeting more and more clients who ask us to think about this future. Construction projects are very capital-intensive and leave a mark for the very long term. That requires us to have a vision of the future of the city, and everything indicates that it will be predominantly urban. That is why we focus on the city of the future. It is very diverse and inclusive, vibrant, with space to meet but also emptiness to be able to retreat. It is also very compact, but still retains contact with nature and is also connected to other cities and capitals.
Ghent often inspires me. When I cycle through Ghent, I see beautiful old buildings that are no longer adapted to today's needs. There is even no longer a need for large parts of these buildings. A few smart interventions in some building structures and the combination of different functions would only improve urban life. I spontaneously think of the former school on the corner of Lindelei and Coupure, where Nucleo now provides studios for artists.
We are also inspired by (major) cities around us and establish our vision of the future within a broader historical framework. The past teaches us that a vision of a healthy city is not a fixed fact, but dynamic and constantly subject to change. Therefore, our designs must facilitate this. For Ghent, we see a greater mix, a higher density, and more qualitative (and green) open space in the future.
The past teaches us that a vision of a healthy city is not a fixed fact, but dynamic and constantly subject to change. Therefore, our designs must facilitate this.
What advantages does Ghent have to offer to entrepreneurs and how can the City of Ghent support them?
It is very pleasant to be in Ghent, we cannot deny that. Despite its small scale, we have a fairly large international appeal and very good educational and knowledge institutions. In these times of great scarcity in the labor market, that is an asset. Ghent is also centrally located and, thanks to public transport, the other major cities are easily accessible. This means that entrepreneurs have a wide reach from Ghent.
Ghent is certainly known for its progressive mindset, thanks to various initiatives of the city and the knowledge institutions concerning innovation. However, large-scale construction projects in Ghent still encounter many difficulties and the City of Ghent could help with that. We would also like to see more ambitious plans for the urban space and to create greater support for them among the inhabitants. We also think that the time has come to provide more office space in the vibrant city center so that the mix of living-working-recreation is better integrated and a healthier ecosystem is created. We are happy to contribute to this with our housing and building project in the trading premises where C&A used to be.