"Densification in Brussels must be much more qualitative" - ​​Trends-Tendances sur PC

“Densification in Brussels must be much more qualitative” – ​​Trends-Tendances sur PC

The rise in prices and population shows that Brussels remains attractive. A new, more ambitious vision of the city is however hoped for. In such a way that the issue of the densification of the building is mixed with those of improving the quality of life, the greening of the city and the sustainability of the habitat.

They have already met but have not really exchanged. Sunita Van Heers is founder and CEO of Sureal, a sustainability consultancy for property developers. Antoine de Borman is director of perspective.brussels, the center of expertise of the Brussels-Capital Region, responsible in particular for the territorial development strategy. They are part of the Brussels new wave.

They have already met but have not really exchanged. Sunita Van Heers is founder and CEO of Sureal, a sustainability consultancy for property developers. Antoine de Borman is director of perspective.brussels, the center of expertise of the Brussels-Capital Region, responsible in particular for the territorial development strategy. They are part of the Brussels new wave. TRENDS-TRENDS. The debate in Brussels around how to densify the city has been particularly intense and divisive lately. Can he find a positive outcome, given the ambivalent positions? ANTONY DE BORMAN. We have to, we have no choice. Opposing biodiversity and housing makes no sense because the development of the city is a strong response to the loss of biodiversity linked to urban sprawl. It is above all necessary to propose a vision that combines quality of life and intelligent densification. We observe that the city remains attractive given that there are more and more inhabitants and that real estate prices are far from falling. A change of approach is therefore mandatory. SUNITA VAN HEERS. Cities clearly have a major role to play in the climate debate. Especially since the next big crisis concerns biodiversity. Compared to other large cities, Brussels could indeed be further densified. But that is not why it will be less attractive or less pleasant to live with. Living in the city is an asset. I also think that the Brussels regulations could go much further in terms of densification. These ambitions will then have to be accompanied by a global strategy in terms of public spaces, facilities and green spaces. Except that densification retains a very negative connotation… ADB It’s true. When we talk about densification, everyone thinks of towers. However, between the villa with four facades and the 40-storey tower, there is a multitude of possible habitats. And maybe we haven’t explored all these alternatives enough yet. However, this could make it possible to create a more balanced density, while leaving room for quality public spaces. But Brussels should not be ashamed of the improvements it has experienced in recent years either. We tend to focus on what’s wrong. For my part, I have always lived in Brussels and I have clearly seen the progress made. The city has improved significantly, although I am aware that there is still a lot of things to do. Half of the inhabitants of Brussels meet the conditions for access to social housing. There is a dualisation of the city. A whole part of the population is poorly housed. Should more housing be built to respond to the housing crisis or does Brussels have enough empty office buildings to be able to respond to it, as some claim? SVH This question is more complex than it seems. Many office buildings were not designed to be converted into housing. And we must admit that if we leave the choice to the developers, they will more easily turn to an office renovation because it is faster and more profitable. Especially since there is still a strong demand for sustainable offices located near a train station. Fortunately, we are seeing more and more mixed projects appear (residential and office), and this intermediate solution is a very interesting development because it makes it possible to energize cities. What is the status of the study launched by perspective.brussels which is to analyse, out of the million square meters of vacant offices, the proportion that could be converted? ADB It is being finalized. It should in any case make it possible to put an end to some nonsense heard lately. In particular the idea that, with the increase in teleworking, thousands of square meters of office space have been freed up and could massively be used for housing. It is far from being as simple as that. Some owners may have been able to make adaptations and put certain spaces up for rent. But before leaving an office building, there is a lease. And it is not because we are witnessing a 20% increase in telework hours that we are going to reduce spaces by 20%. It’s not as mechanical as that. Many vacant spaces are also not located in areas conducive to a change of use. Finally, few buildings are completely empty. However, converting a single floor to transform it into housing when the rest of the building remains the office is complex. If we analyze the overall vacancy and the number of buildings that are completely empty, we quickly go from 400 to 30 completely empty buildings. Then it is necessary to determine who the owner is and see what his wishes are. In short, it is far from being so simple. Not to mention the technical issues… SVH Indeed, conversion is also sometimes complicated architecturally: ceiling heights that are too low, a lack of light, traffic difficulties, etc. In the future, however, the objective will be to manage to anticipate retraining. This will also be included in the next municipal planning regulations for Brussels. ADB Believing that it is possible to respond to the housing crisis solely through office conversions is a decoy. We must also produce new housing to have an impact on prices. Just as we must also evolve towards a city that highlights the adaptability of spaces according to different uses. They do not have to be determined for a single use but can be shared. SVH This aspect already exists to obtain BREAM or other certifications. They require research to be carried out to find out whether the building will be reusable in the future. By planning, for example, to be able to increase the area by 30%. Urban.brussels, the administration that grants planning permits in Brussels, wants to put a stop to demolitions/reconstructions in favor of renovations. Do you share this position? SVH Demolishing a building and rebuilding it is no more sustainable than renovating a building. For example, it is now possible to measure the CO2 impact of demolition/reconstruction. The answer is not clear: it may indeed be cheaper, it may be easier, but the overall environmental impact, especially in relation to the use of materials, is not better. Although I applaud this new Brussels strategy, it could nevertheless leave a series of buildings in a canker state. Because, in some cases, the interest of embarking on a renovation operation makes no sense financially or in terms of the overall carbon footprint of the intervention.ADB If you want to live in a quality city, it does not you no longer need to build buildings for 20 or 30 years. But good for 100 years. Furthermore, I am quite surprised to see that the political authorities are not aligned on these issues. There is a very proactive Brussels Region in this area. And a federal level that reduces the VAT rate for demolitions/reconstructions, which is quite paradoxical to achieve sustainability objectives. SVH I think that setting up incentives is necessary to move towards more sustainable choices. The conversion of offices into residential is often less attractive financially. On the other hand, if it is said that compliance with certain rules makes it possible to obtain a permit more quickly or leads to a reduction in VAT, these may be driving forces for witnessing a change. Do new neighborhood projects go far enough in terms of sustainability? ADB All new neighborhood projects are particularly successful. They respect the rules in force, and sometimes even go beyond them. But it’s a dynamic vision, it’s constantly evolving. Today, we can no longer content ourselves with concentrating on energy performance, but we must also anticipate heat peaks, for example. The Tivoli district (Laeken) is exemplary and has obtained certification as the most sustainable district in the world in 2020. But the techniques are constantly evolving: if it were redesigned today, we would certainly go even further in terms of sustainability.SVH However, I think that Brussels is not ambitious enough. When we analyze the data of climate change, we are already in the forecasts of 2050. If everyone does not make significant efforts, it will very quickly become unbearable. Whether it is in terms of flooding or the management of high heat in buildings, we are not ready. Same thing for the circular economy. On the other hand, in terms of energy performance, we are well advanced in comparison with other world cities. The renovation of buildings in Brussels seems to be a gigantic challenge. How to raise it when households do not have the means? ADB The frame is old and not adapted to a series of standards. We will have to juggle incentives and regulations to live up to the ambitions. Getting landlords to renovate their homes is a real challenge. Is it normal to put on the rental market housing that is energy strainers? No. But beware: being ambitious on the environmental level should not penalize accessibility to housing. SVH It is possible to carry out large-scale renovations, either on the scale of a street or a neighborhood. Banks also have a role to play through rate reductions for energy renovations. The question of membership also arises. Residents are much more open when we talk to them about improving their living comfort rather than sustainability or energy performance.

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