WVDM Living Lab

Sustainable renovation strategies for post-war heritage in Brussels: the VUB student residences by Willy Van Der Meeren as Living Lab

The student homes at the VUB campus were built in 1971-1973.

Mockup of consortium AAC architecture

Mockup of consortium Castillo De Groote Architecten

The Living Lab is funded by Innoviris through its 'Test it' campaign-

In the WVDM Living Lab, researchers and project managers joined forces with practitioners to develop and show sustainable renovation strategies for the post-war heritage of Brussels. Using the student residences as a testbed for this development, we created a toolbox for practitioners and demonstrated innovation in construction and in cooperation.

Last update: 05/12/2021

1. Context

1.1. Challenging refurbishments

Vrije Universiteit Brussel (VUB) aims for a sustainable approach to manage its architectural patrimony. The renovation of the student residences, found in the centre of its main campus, presents an important challenge. These residences, designed by architect Willy Van Der Meeren in 1971-1973, are recognized as architectural heritage, yet they are also in need of thorough, economically feasible and future-oriented interventions to enhance their energy performance.

The same challenge applies to many buildings in the Brussels Capital Region. Here, the number of housing units, as in the rest of Europe, increased significantly during the post-war period. A peak occurred at the end of the 1960s, when more than 7,000 new housing units were built annually. Like the student residences, these housing units are the witnesses of an innovative past but raise questions on thermal inertia, safety of accessible roofs, performance of aluminium window frames, façades holding asbestos, etc.


1.2. Finding synergies

The WVDM Living Lab aims to answer this question by developing innovative renovation strategies in which four aspects are considered: energy, heritage, sustainability and affordability. Convinced that in a sensible, pioneering renovation project these aspects cannot be considered in isolation, but - contrary to what is sometimes assumed - are compatible or can reinforce each other, the lab’s ambition is to pinpoint and demonstrate synergies amongst them.

Demonstrating such synergies is important because today's practice shows that there is a lack of resources and time to develop and compare alternative renovation strategies, which lowers the ambition in terms of heritage, energy, sustainability and affordability. The opportunity to take part with this project in the Test-It call by Innoviris, funded by ERDF and the Brussels Capital Region, with complementary investments from the infrastructure and patrimony office of VUB, created capacity to break through this lock-in.


Watch the project ambitions in this video.


1.3. Tendering innovation

Answers to such questions cannot be created from behind one’s desk. They require collaboration between the adventurous researchers of VUB Architectural Engineering, project managers of the infrastructure and patrimony office of VUB and experienced practitioners. However, tight by European rules on public procurement, VUB cannot collaborate with just any design office, contractor or expert. Therefore, on the imperative of Innoviris, the novel procedure of an Innovation Procurement was adopted with the support of a legal expert office, CMS De Backer.

After a public call for consortia in May 2019, in January 2020 four teams were invited to send in their offer for the design, development and realization of four to six innovative renovation strategies. Since the tendering price was fixed, their proposals were evaluated for their level of innovation and replicability to other buildings in the Brussels Capital Region. As a result, two teams were appointed in May 2020 to start their research. After a final evaluation in July 2021, one consortium was charged to execute its plans.


Get to know the partners in this video.


1.4. Learning by doing

Another strength in addition to the collaborative nature of this project is its hands-on approach. The opportunity to work towards a real-life refurbishment elevated the efforts of all parties involved. The development of divergent refurbishment strategies into tangible construction solutions, their mock-ups and eventual realization challenged consortia and researchers to be precise and take decisions. Yet, dialogue and reflection among all participants also resulted in strategic lessons and insights presented below.

Key in this learning process was the steering committee. Composed of stakeholders like fellow researchers and project managers, as well as heritage experts and student representatives, they challenged the relevance and replicability of the proposed refurbishment strategies with their critical questions. Simultaneously, they proved to be important channels themselves for sharing and replicating the lab’s experiences, for example through Brussels’ Bouwmeester Maître Architecte.


Meet the steering committee.

2. Results

2.1. Design strategies

The two appointed consortia each developed four renovation strategies. As suggested by the tender they did so by giving priority to two or more of the highlighted aspects, including energy, heritage, sustainability and affordability. The result is a colourful spectrum of design propositions and concepts, ranging from a radical protection and conservation, over a careful set of minimal interventions, to a future-proof makeover of the former student residence into new housing units.

Although both teams started from the same research question, it is striking how different their approaches have been. The analysis of the two independent trajectories shows how the proposals depend on the team members’ prior knowledge and experiences, as well as on self-defined priorities and values. Also, the team’s choice of which assessments are conducted greatly affected their discourse and the corresponding outcomes; a crucial factor to consider from the beginning of each development process.


2.2. Prototypes and mock-ups

To study the feasibility of the design alternatives and corresponding solutions, the consortia built multiple mock-ups and samples. In consultation with the Scientific Office of Innoviris’ Test-It program, set-ups of for example reused internal partitioning walls, demountable window systems and 3D-printed cladding panels have been documented and evaluated. One part of these mock-ups will be integrated in the final refurbishment, others will be on display as models, but some are no longer visible. They have been assembled and reassembled to show exactly their reversibility, a key quality in both the idea of heritage preservation and circular material management.

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2.3. Construction

From 2022 onwards, construction works will start.
Stay tuned and follow our progress through this blog post:

WVDM Living Lab’s construction blog


2.4 Decision framework

Because not just one team of designers, contractors and experts was appointed in the Innovation Tendering, but first four, and later two teams, a wealth of data could be collected, and divergent approaches could be observed by the researchers of VUB Architectural Engineering. By reviewing the deliverables of the consortia, as well as through observations and inquiries of the teams and their individual members, insight was generated about how decisions were made during each step of the innovation process.

These insights have been translated into a decision framework for multidisciplinary design and construction teams. This framework supplies the building blocks for defining, assessing and comparing renovation strategies for valuable post-war buildings in Brussels. It aims to encourage synergies between energy, heritage, sustainability and affordability and to facilitate the selection of the most appropriate strategy.

As known from previous research (Cambier et al. 2020), design practice, like the built environment, is too diverse and complex to be generalised. Therefore, the framework is not a prescriptive method, but a toolkit to tailor to each team’s needs and habits. It is composed of three different elements, a tool matrix, tool sheets and debates, and is spiced with triggering testimonies. This set is made available here in its current state but must develop further together with practice and our built environment.


A Tool Matrix provides an overview of existing instruments and methods of value for defining, assessing and comparing renovation strategies. Sorted according to purpose and relevance throughout the design and realisation process, it is possible to filter, explore and select those instruments and methods that can fulfil one’s specific needs.


Explore the tools here, filter by topic, and click to see more details.


Individual Tool Sheets provide a brief explanation of a selection of the identified instruments and methods. This information is complemented by the take-aways of their adoption in practice. Highlighting the advantages but also the risks and shortcomings of their application, one can critically make use of readily available tools. Each sheet is provided with examples and applicable reference projects.


Debates organised during the WVDM Living Lab aim to enrich and open the research and design process. After all, to some questions there is no simple or objective answer, but only well-informed dialogue will allow us to move forward. A series of critical statements and summaries of responses by a variety of construction actors offers triggers for discussion and reflection.


Explore the debates here.


Testimonies on the collected tools clarify, based on short interviews or quotes, how existing tools are used in practice today; unromanticised but hopeful. Besides designers and contractors, the insights of building owners and other actors within the construction sector are key for the success of sustainable renovation strategies for the post-war heritage in Brussels and beyond.

3. Conclusions

3.1. Innovation in construction

The different consortia of designers, contractors and experts effectively developed and prototyped new design and construction solutions. Their proposals for the renovation of post-war heritage in Brussels included the adoption of reversible connections, reused materials and 3D-printed products. According to the steering committee, researchers and client, the cross-fertilisation between heritage and other design aspects was however not radical. Probably, risky research and development is needed; safely protected from laws and standards.

The resulting palette of design alternatives and practical renovation solutions that has been elaborated by both appointed consortia, ranging from minimal interventions to the complete wrapping of the existing building, provides inspiring and validated options for practice. The variety of proposed solutions further corresponds to the diversity of possible and necessary renovation scenarios for the post-war building stock of the Brussels Capital Region, calling for the results’ replicability.

Further, based on the observations by the researchers, it became clear that the tools and methods used by the consortia to develop and assess their design strategies and alternatives are remarkably diverse too. A clearer distinction can be made which tools and working methods were used for determining the materialisation of the different solutions. With this observation also come some recommendations; these are included in the decision framework that is presented above.


3.2. Innovation in collaboration

Since the competitive nature of the Innovation Tendering procedure, public communication about the WVDM Living Lab was largely restricted, and the formal appointment of two teams to execute a project was quite an administrative hurdle that eventually was overcome. Two downsides of this procedure.

Nevertheless, in a brief survey by VUB Architectural Engineering, the consortia indicated that their mission to innovate was not only innovative in terms of results, but also in terms of their own organisation and design process. Inspired by this experience, both the consortia (construction team) and the infrastructure and patrimony office of VUB (client) are convinced that working more closely together from the start of a construction project supports innovative sustainable construction.

In complement, both consortia emphasize the importance of including the heritage value of an existing building in the prescribed program. This valuation should be done by a heritage expert or architect who advises the client as an independent party but might become part of the design and construction team. With these take-away’s all partners of the WVDM Living Lab are empowered to accelerate the transition towards an energy-efficient, environmentally friendly and societally valuable building stock.



This research is made possible thanks to the Financial support of Innoviris, the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) and the Brussels-Capital Region for the research project WVDM Living Lab. We thank all designers, experts and policy makers for their participation in this research as a member of a consortium or of the steering committee. We also want to thank the scientific office, the dissemination partners and channels, as well as all interested visitors, colleagues and students. Special gratitude goes to Nic Van Craen, Ludo Lemmens, Linda De Backer and Iwein Baeyens for safeguarding the necessary investments to execute the construction works.