Usquare.brussels: conversion of former barracks picks up speed, with emphasis on reuse of materials

11 May 2022
The building that has been demolished on Avenue de la Couronne and a simulation of the future new entrance to the site, for which salvaged bricks will be used. (© sau-msi.brussels and © evr architecten, BC Architects, Callebaut Architecten)Seen from inside the Usquare.brussels site, the building that has been demolished on Avenue de la Couronne and a simulation of the future new entrance to the site, for which salvaged bricks will be used. (© sau-msi.brussels and © evr architecten, BC Architects, Callebaut Architecten)© sau-msi.brussels (DPMN Digital)© sau-msi.brussels (DPMN Digital)© sau-msi.brussels (DPMN Digital)© sau-msi.brussels (DPMN Digital)© sau-msi.brussels (DPMN Digital)© sau-msi.brussels (DPMN Digital)© sau-msi.brussels (DPMN Digital)© sau-msi.brussels© sau-msi.brussels (GlobalView)Usquare.brussels: conversion of former barracks picks up speed, with emphasis on reuse of materials

The Minister-President of the Brussels-Capital Region, Rudi Vervoort, the rector of ULB, Annemie Schaus, the acting rector of VUB, Jan Danckaert, and the director of the Urban Development Corporation, Gilles Delforge, took stock today of the state of progress of Usquare.brussels, the transformation of the former Fritz Toussaint barracks into an open, mixed and multifunctional district. Together with the mayor of Ixelles, Christos Doulkeridis, a representative of the European Commission’s Directorate-General for Regional and Urban Policy (DG REGIO), Carlo Girlanda, and representatives of the project designers and the contractors involved in the work, they visited the construction site with the media, taking particular interest in the operations to salvage materials such as bricks, windows, plumbing fixtures, tiles and so on with a view to their reuse on site.

The work launched last January by ULB and VUB, which will run until the end of 2023, concerns the conversion of the complex of six buildings fronting onto Boulevard Général Jacques to create a 9,000 m² university hub shared by the two universities. The site’s owner, the Brussels Region, has granted the two universities a long lease on these six buildings.

In September 2022, the Urban Development Corporation (SAU), which is coordinating all conversion work on the barracks and managing some of the phases itself, will start renovating the shell of the barracks’ old Riding School, whose 1,600 m² of space will ultimately become a sustainable food court. In November 2022, the SAU will initiate work to overhaul all utilities (water, gas, electricity, telecoms, sewers) and create an underground heating system. Coordinating closely with progress on the successive conversion projects relating to the other buildings, the SAU will also subsequently carry out the redevelopment of the site’s public spaces. Beliris has also started the process of removing asbestos from certain buildings, which will continue in phases until 2023.

The Minister-President of the Brussels-Capital Region, Rudi Vervoort, says: ‘I’m delighted with the progress in the university part of the project, which concerns the two façades of Usquare.brussels that face the city and are most visible to the general public. With the demolition of a building that will be replaced by the new main entrance to the site on Avenue de la Couronne, passers-by at the corner between Avenue de la Couronne and Boulevard Général Jacques can now see the Region’s decision to convert the site and open it up to the city taking concrete shape. The work will be followed, in particular, by the construction of family housing, which the regional government has decided will be all public, around the edge of the former barracks. Within a few years, Usquare.brussels will have become an open, diverse and dynamic district that is urban and welcoming, university-centred and international, sustainable and innovative, and for which the Region, the universities and the SAU have set ambitious objectives in terms of both showcasing the site’s architectural heritage and circular construction based on the reuse of materials. I would like to express my gratitude to ULB and VUB for their crucial involvement in this ambitious project for the Region, and to the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF), which is supporting the work on the future university side of Usquare.brussels and the future food court.’

A long-term link between the city and the two universities

Annemie Schaus, rector of ULB, and Jan Danckaert, acting rector of VUB, recall that this project ‘underlines the importance of the collaboration of our two universities with the Brussels Region, which was already of clear symbolic value. It embodies our common desire to contribute to the development of a site fully embedded in the urban fabric. The university activities that will take place in these buildings will focus on the city and its citizens, in addition to the links with the community created by our two fab labs which are already active on the site.’

The renovation of the complex formed by the six buildings on Boulevard Général Jacques will lead to the creation of a variety of facilities: the Brussels Institute for Advanced Studies (the first institute of its kind in Belgium, where international researchers will be able to stay); the Centre for Research in Urban Studies, Sustainability Sciences and Environmental Transformation; an International Reception Centre (providing services to students, researchers and professors coming from or travelling to other countries); and a Citizen and Participative Science space, a unique forum for participation and dialogue between the universities and the city.

Annemie Schaus and Jan Danckaert emphasise: ‘The people of Brussels can already see the place undergoing gradual physical changes and beginning to open up. We hope this will help create links between local residents and our universities as the work progresses. We are also very happy to have new research premises specialising in urban themes and designed to welcome and bring together different publics. The architectural consortium consisting of evr architecten, BC Architects, Callebaut Architecten and VK Engineering, appointed through the public procurement process, has developed plans tailored to the universities’ requirements, combining a contemporary approach and the showcasing of the architectural heritage. In terms of both the premises’ layout and access arrangements and the idiom employed to impart a new identity to these iconic buildings, the architectural plans for this renovation reflect the universities’ wish to create ever closer links with the city.’

Environmental ambitions: reuse of materials and geothermal energy

Gilles Delforge, director of the SAU, points out: ‘The work that has already been started or will be started this year will be followed by 2028 by a number of other stages in the site’s conversion, including the construction of family housing by the SLRB-BGHM and citydev.brussels and the creation of student accommodation, for which the SAU has launched a public procurement process in consultation with ULB and VUB. The SAU, which is coordinating the site’s conversion operations, is also the project manager for several of them. After the renovation of the old Riding School, it will oversee the process of getting the food court up and running. This will definitely be one of the flagship elements of Usquare.brussels and a very useful shared facility for residents of the neighbouring districts, which is one of the key objectives of Usquare.brussels. Another vital element is the desire to ensure the project’s sustainability and the integration of the circular economy. Of the 26 buildings on the site, 18 will be preserved and renovated and 2 will be raised in height, whereas just 3 will be demolished and rebuilt and 4 demolished without being rebuilt, in order to ensure that there is plenty of high-quality public space, including the creation of an open-air public garden. Supported by the non-profit organisation Rotor, the SAU has also defined a circular strategy at site level. The general objectives are to manage the material resources within the project in an exemplary manner, by making do with what already exists, maximising the reuse and recycling of materials from the demolition, choosing quality materials and so on. The universities subscribe to this approach and these principles are fully integrated in the work in progress, which ULB, VUB and the SAU have awarded through a public procurement process to the contractor BPC – Bâtiment et Ponts Construction.’

Annemie Schaus, rector of ULB, and Jan Danckaert, acting rector of VUB, emphasise: ‘The universities are particularly happy to have had the opportunity to help develop new knowledge in the field of the circular economy and contribute to the study of renewable energy by setting up a partnership between their researchers and the engineering firms. This fruitful cooperation will ensure the achievement for this first operation of the ambitious objectives set by the Brussels Region and the universities for the entire Usquare.brussels site, thanks in particular to the recovery of bricks from the dismantled buildings in order to create the structures of the new entrances and the grand monumental staircase which will replace the Avenue de la Couronne building, and the geothermal test drilling, which will ultimately make it possible to connect the converted buildings to a heating system supplied by renewable geothermal energy. This will reduce the carbon footprint of ULB’s and VUB’s activities on the Usquare.brussels site.’

Last summer season of See U temporary occupation programme

Gilles Delforge, the director of the SAU, also stresses: ‘The activities of the temporary occupation programme See U, which the SAU initiated in consultation with the Region, the municipality and the universities, will continue until the end of summer 2022. The SAU is thinking about the best way of preserving the collective, open approach that See U has established between the site’s occupants and local residents in the area around the old barracks.’

Christos Doulkeridis, the mayor of Ixelles, takes a positive view of this project which is drawing to an end: ‘The transitory occupation of the barracks site by See U is one of the first of its kind in the Brussels region. It is transitory in time, between two very different types of occupation, but also transitory in space and in the city, in that it has created bridges between the district's different functions: discovering, encountering, nurturing, learning, being prompted to take action, and building a community by valuing diversity to create ever more exchanges. See U has formed a link between a closed and secure site and a new district that is open to all, focusing on knowledge and the sharing of knowledge.’ The mayor sees the site’s future of the site as equally inspiring: ‘I’m pleased that the Usquare.brussels project will strengthen the universities’ presence in Ixelles. There is a definite mindset of openness to the local area and a spirit of diversity of uses and audiences that we welcome. The transformation of this historic and strategic site is a fine example of innovative collaboration between several public actors and the academic world, for the sake of a city that takes an inclusive approach to its citizens.’

The Regional Secretary of State for Urban Development and Heritage, Pascal Smet, believes: ‘The temporary occupation has breathed new life into the place, the start of the work offers fresh prospects and the reuse of materials underlines the image of a region where demolitions are minimised and the circular economy is promoted. Respecting our heritage and the past while building the future: this project proves that this is possible. A new neighbourhood is being built here. By relying on our strengths – the VUB and the ULB – we will give this place an international reputation.’

University, regional, federal and European funding

The conversion of the first seven buildings on the site by the universities and the SAU (the six on Boulevard Général Jacques plus the Riding School) is being made possible by a large European subsidy, supplemented by additional budgets provided by the two universities and by the Brussels-Capital Region. The European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) is contributing 1,391,398.10 euros for the conversion of the Riding School and 9,033,200 euros for the conversion of the buildings on Boulevard Général Jacques. The ERDF is supporting this project on the basis of its environmental ambitions, as it will lead to the creation of a research centre specialising in sustainable development issues, a sustainable development visitor centre linked to the research centre, the Brussels Institute for Advanced Studies (BIAS) specialising in sustainable development, and a sustainable food court.

BELIRIS has contributed 137,000 euros to the removal of asbestos from the buildings.

In addition, the focus on the reuse of construction materials and on new circular economy practices in this project gained it a be.exemplary subsidy in 2019 (325,000 euros for special studies and work).

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