Checklist reversible design
Checks and balances for a spatially and technically reversible building design
Commissioned by Brussels Environment, VUB Architectural Engineering developed a hands-on checklist on reversible building design. With this instrument, clients, designers and contractors are empowered to collaborate on circular design choices, contributing together to Brussels' shift to a zero-waste region.
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Last update: 30/09/2022
1.1. Shifting to a zero-waste region
The Brussels government wants to reduce the use of natural resources, produce less waste in construction and demolition projects and emit fewer greenhouse gases. Therefore, they see buildings as a valuable 'bank of materials'.
That, as earlier research and practice have shown, means that buildings must be designed in a reversible way allowing easy adaptations of the building to future uses and enabling the recovery of materials. The goal is to preserve, reuse or recycle buildings as much as possible.
1.2. Building on BAMB
Brussels Environment coordinated the EU H2020 "Buildings As Material Banks" (BAMB) project from 2015 to 2019, implemented by 15 partners from seven European countries. Reversible building design was one of the central concepts studied in the project and resulted in the realisation of the Circular Retrofit Lab at our university.
Through BAMB, innovative solutions for the circular economy have been developed: tools for reversible design, material passports and circular business models, as well as policy recommendations. The checklist we developed builds on one of those results: the Reversible Building Design Protocol and Guidelines.
1.3. The assignment
The assignment for VUB Architectural Engineering included the development of the "reversible design" checklist prototyped by Brussels Environment. The goal was to make this design tool intuitive and user-friendly for the target group of designers and building owners, to enable its widespread adoption, and to increase its impact in practice.
In this assignment, VUB Architectural Engineering developed and guided the user consultancy process, the definition and validation of the individual design criteria, as well as the coherence among them, the implementation of the digital checklist instrument, and the supporting communication. We did so in three languages: English, French and Dutch.
2.1. Not just another checklist
Reversible, circular construction obviously requires some major changes in the way buildings are designed, built, and managed. As Charlotte Cambier has shown in her doctoral research, design instruments, such as checklists, can have a useful impact to support such changes. Yet, these instruments must be effective, suitable, and meaningful to practitioners.
Share of 70 surveyed stakeholders that expect added-value of a checklist (click on the legend and select your target group) according to our survey:
2.1. With and for practice
A participatory process with the future tool users and a continuous dialogue with the client (Brussels Environment) were central to the learning research and development approach of VUB Architectural Engineering. Not only the preconceived research plan, but the impact of the results has led to this process.
Practically, two user groups were established at the start of this assignment: one with internal stakeholders (11 employees working in different departments of Brussels Environment), and one with external stakeholders (76 clients, architects, consultants, ... ). They provided essential input and feedback at one or more steps of the participation process.
They were recruited aiming at diversity and representativeness. The selected users are active in Brussels in different roles, have various backgrounds (in terms of language and education, organizational structure, and scale) and are involved in diverse projects, which are representative of the Brussels context in terms of size and typology. The list was submitted, through contact by the client, and completed by the administration of the Brussels Government Architect.
2.2. Empirically supported and validated by science
First, as an exploration and entry point, a survey was created to gauge which tools are currently being used in the field of circular construction and how the public perceives those tools today. Then, during three online group interviews with stakeholders, we mapped their needs and expectations. With the input from this survey and interviews, we were able to draw up different working hypotheses and tool variants, which we evaluated during interactive A/B testing.
After these three steps, in consultation with the client, we were able to make the most important decisions – scientifically supported by empiric evidence – and the content and format of the checklist were worked through. Finally, the beta version of the tool was validated in two cases (the specifications for Greenbizz II, and a retail project of Blieberg architects), and was further refined based on their feedback.
3.1. The checklist at work
The checklist consists of two sections: spatial reversibility and technical reversibility. At the top the building client must first formulate its ambitions and goals for both sections and customize the checklist with "must haves" and "exclusions. In turn, the design team can explain its design vision, and describe its approach.
For spatial reversibility, the desired and (un)expected use scenarios can be defined; what should a building be able to do at its location? What do we expect from it today, and what do we expect from the building in the future?
The corresponding criteria are no longer formulated in a generic way, but for achieving the objectives set for them: "the clear height is at least 3 meters" thus becomes "the clear height allows the predetermined use scenarios."
For technical reversibility, one can indicate which building elements and connections should be rethought and to what extent accessibility, disassembly and reuse are then desirable. For each of the relevant elements (roof, facade, floor, ...) and connections (between roof-facade, floor-facade, ...) one can formulate a separate ambition (client) and approach (design and construction team).
To do that, the checklist does not focus on counting the number or percentage of dismountable joints, independent layers, etc. but asks to formulate and elaborate the appropriate design strategies for the relevant construction elements.
3.2. It's the process
It might be clear that, based on the input from the consultations, the checklist was conceived as a qualitative design tool that can be used early in the process, for example from the definition of a program of requirements. It is also a guide when making the first design sketches and when following up on the ambitions throughout the different phases. Therefore, four choices were made:
a) From generic ambition levels to project-specific objectives.
b) From a criteria scorecard to a considerate catalogue of design strategies.
c) From a longlist of requirements to a structured overview.
d) From a tool to a three-step process in line with every project workflow.
With this tool, we also provided an objective framework to compare design proposals. The checklist can serve as a basis for a qualitative evaluation of different approaches, for example in a public tender or competition.
3.3. Future outlook
In consultation with Environment Brussels, we created a spreadsheet-based instrument. At the same time, we made a profound analysis of what the additional possibilities and advantages could be of a future browser-based instrument. We explained the strategic advantages of this and set out a framework for its development. Yet, the current version is developed in such a way that it can also be integrated in existing sustainability frameworks such as GRO.
This project is a tendered assignment (nr. 2020F0250) of Brussels Environment to VUB Architectural Engineering, we’d like to thank Caroline Henrotay and Molly Steinlage, who supervised the project, for their intensive and professional cooperation. We also wish to warmly thank the participants from both user groups for their enthusiasm and their valuable input, which determined the outcome of this project.