Fort V in Edegem is a former military warehouse that was once part of the old line of defences around Antwerp. It is here that BC Architects realized a bio-class, a shared learning space where children can explore nature and ecology. Although small in size and limited in budget, the project became a laboratory where the cooperative of architects could translate their experience in self-build projects with non-standard materials into a European context.
While the city of Edegem imagined a free-standing building in the vicinity of the warehouse, the architects proposed to build a structure within its perimeter. The warehouse became a protected area, a covered garden from where excursions into nature could start. The vernacular architecture of the former military site was translated into a project where experimentation was the driving force. Inspired by the masonry of the fort, the bio-class is composed of structurally arched walls in a modular system of 6 by 6 m rooms. Two construction techniques were used. The walls and vaults are made of compressed earth blocks excavated from a local clay quarry. The insulation for the façades and roof is made of hempcrete and left apparent as finishing. As the raw earth bricks are almost neutral in their carbon footprint and the hempcrete is carbon positive (as it captures and stocks CO2), the building has an almost positive carbon balance: it extracts almost more than it produces.
Experimentation often becomes possible when a client is willing to take the plunge into the unknown while a tight budget necessitates the creative use of resources. Both conditions were met in Edegem. BC experimented with materials, construction techniques and human labour. The clay for the compressed earth blocks was given for free, the formwork was paid with parts of an exhibition budget, and experimentation made it possible to produce the building materials on site. To keep the price low, the architects organized two series of workshops with more than 150 volunteers: the first focused on making the 19,000 blocks needed for the project; the second realized and implemented the 312 m2 hempcrete insulation. The workshops provided the project with free labour but also generated a learning environment regarding the materials and techniques in use. As Belgian law proscribes the execution of one’s own project, the realization process was further split up: BC architects drew up the design, BC studies led the workshops, and subcontractor Leemniscaat carried out the execution of the building.
BC’s experimentation led to renewed conversations with stakeholders and contractors. Edegem’s bio-class is exemplary. The architects’ involvement in the production of the building’s materials, for instance, and their role in the construction process challenge the traditional ideas of labour and authorship. One could claim that the authorship of the bio-class lies as much in the design of the building as in the workshops organized as in the supervision of the building process as in conversations enabled by the client. American architectural theorist Peggy Deamer advocates in Architecture and Labour for forms of ‘deprofessionalization’ of architecture on the grounds that they would make it possible to transcend ‘the brutal division of labour and expertise’. It is here exactly that projects as small as bio-class are crucial as they make it possible to deviate from existing paths and bring architects, contractors and clients together in rare and precious moments of experimentation.