Sustainable, affordable housing is possible with adaptable houses

VUB research explores potential of low-cost, low-carbon, flexible living spaces

Sustainable building and affordable housing: two concepts that seem mutually exclusive. However, PhD candidate Charlotte Cambier of VUB’s Architectural Engineering research group has demonstrated that adaptable houses are actually cheaper than traditional houses. An adaptable building can be adjusted more easily, and with less building material and waste, to the changing living situations of its inhabitants. For example: living alone, a traditional family situation, "kangaroo" living, cohousing, working at home, etc. In this study for her doctorate, Cambier showed that all costs - from construction to demolition and including maintenance, repairs and replacements - are lower in an adaptable home.

The building sector is responsible for 39% of CO2 emissions. That’s why the Flemish government has decided that from 2023, new buildings must be low-carbon. This, on top of rising house prices, makes buying a home increasingly difficult. Recent research by Cambier, led by professors Niels De Temmerman and Waldo Galle (Architectural Engineering, VUB), shows that adaptable construction can play an important role in addressing both problems.

Planning change in advance

An adaptable building can be adapted to the changing needs of its occupants more easily and with less building material and waste than a traditional construction. It does so by organising spaces in advance so they are easy to change and by making components such as carpentry and internal walls dismountable and reusable. In Cambier’s research, the adaptable house starts from a small core that can be expanded in various ways. She compared different aspects of this type of house with an average Flemish terraced house.

The research shows that all costs are lower for an adaptable house than for a traditional house.

Cambier: "This is because the adaptable house starts with only those rooms that are necessary for the family situation at that time. This means that fewer materials need to be bought, which in turn reduces the purchase cost. But in the following years, maintenance costs are also lower because fewer building elements such as carpentry, finishing materials, etc. need to be maintained and repaired. For the same reason, the adaptable home is also more material-efficient and has a lower impact on the environment."

Sustainable building also goes beyond the quantity of materials, and takes into account the actual materials used. The house in the study was built using both conventional materials, such as concrete or brick, and demountable materials. The latter make modifications easier, for example by using lightweight materials that are connected with reversible joints (e.g. wood frame, bolts).

Cambier: "The use of other materials does not make a difference financially, but it can be more economical in the long term. You can sell on the dismantled materials after use and you are working in a sustainable way because the material can be reused. With conventional building materials and techniques, this is practically impossible and not financially interesting. Otherwise, there would not be a waste container at the ready for every renovation today."

Sustainable building: the VUB Circular Retrofit lab shows the way

In the same line of research, in 2019 the VUB Architectural Engineering research team inaugurated the Circular Retrofit Lab, where eight iconic student houses on the Etterbeek campus were converted into Europe’s first circular renovation project. Having demonstrated technical feasibility with this, the question was how to make circular building affordable. The team is investigating how making the right decisions during the design process can increase the circularity of buildings while reducing the long-term costs. Anticipating future renovations and using reversible connections appears to be a promising answer.

The World Needs You The Vrije Universiteit Brussel assumes its scientific and social responsibility with love and decisiveness. That’s why VUB launched the platform De Wereld Heeft Je Nodig - The World Needs You, which brings together ideas, actions and projects based on six Ps. The first P stands for People , because that’s what it’s all about: giving people equal opportunities, prosperity, welfare, respect. Peace is about fighting injustice, big and small, in the world. Prosperity combats poverty and inequality. Planet stands for actions on biodiversity, climate, air quality, animal rights... With Partnership , VUB is looking for joint actions to make the world a better place. The sixth and last P is for Poincaré , the French philosopher Henri Poincaré, from whom VUB derives its motto that thinking should submit to nothing except the facts themselves. VUB is an ’urban engaged university’, strongly anchored in Brussels and Europe and working according to the principles of free research.­eftjenodig

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