The WVDM Living Lab. Reconciling Heritage with Sustainability

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In 1971 Willy Van Der Meeren was commissioned to design 350 student homes for the newly established Vrije Universiteit Brussel in Elsene. Initially, Van Der Meeren proposed an experimental concept of movable units in polyester. However, in the end, he utilized a Swiss modular building system with precast concrete. After nearly half a century, the student homes had significantly deteriorated and faced an uncertain future. Abandoned by their original occupants, demolition plans were considered. Although a few units were indeed torn down, an opportunity arose to explore Van Der Meeren’s experimental concept: two modules were lifted by a crane (fi g.1), mimicking their original delivery method in 1972 (fi g.2), and relocated to another area on campus. While this experiment successfully demonstrated the technical feasibility of ‘mobilising’ these objects based on changing needs, they were deeply ingrained in the VUB campus: they had become an integral part of the collective memory of multiple generations of students, gaining iconic status and recognition as architectural heritage. The majority has been preserved – although this was motivated primarily by pragmatism rather than heritage concerns. Consequently, they already undergone or are currently undergoing transformations. This situation provides a unique opportunity to assess various degrees and forms of interventions in the ‘as found’. VUB Architectural Engineering and its partners initiated two research projects to further develop Van Der Meeren’s experimental approach: the Circular Retrofit Lab [1] and the WVDM Living Lab [2]. The latter, launched in 2017 and now nearing its completion (with the building permit approved in January 2023), utilized the former student homes as a testing ground for innovative renovation strategies. Balancing heritage values with sustainability challenges, as well as considering energy and financial aspects, was the central question. Through innovative collaboration and tendering procedures, different teams of architects, (reuse) experts and contractors designed, tested and evaluated several renovation strategies. Emphasis was placed on reversibility, while also exploring the off-site reuse of the original buildings materials. Design teams were indeed encouraged to challenge the traditional disciplinary boundaries of heritage studies and sustainable building, aiming to foster a circular turn in heritage, or a heritage turn in circular building – depending on the perspective.

[1] The Circular Retrofit Lab (2016-2019, funded by the European Commission) is one of the 6 international case studies of the HORIZON2020 project ‘Buildings As Material Banks’. See also
[2] The ‘WVDM Living Lab. Sustainable renovation strategies for post-war heritage in Brussels: the VUB student residences by Willy Van Der Meeren as Living Lab’ is funded by Innoviris and the European Fund for Regional Development. For more information, visit
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationAs Found
Subtitle of host publicationInternational colloquium on adaptive reuse
EditorsBie Plevoets, Hülya Ertas, Sofie De Caigny
Place of PublicationHasselt
PublisherUniversiteit Hasselt / Vlaams Architectuurinstituut
Number of pages2
ISBN (Print)9789089130839
Publication statusPublished - 1 Sep 2023
EventAs Found: International colloquium on adaptive reuse - University of Hasselt / Vlaams Architectuurinstituut, Hasselt, Belgium
Duration: 5 Sep 20237 Sep 2023


ConferenceAs Found
Internet address


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  • As Found

    Bie Plevoets (Chair), Hülya Ertas (Chair), Sofie De Caigny (Chair), Nadin AUGUSTINIOK (Organiser), Christel Heynickx (Organiser), Inge Lens (Organiser), Nusrat RITU (Organiser), Karen Snykers (Organiser), Chris Steinbusch (Organiser), Koenraad Van Cleempoel (Organiser) & Stephanie Van de Voorde (Organiser)

    5 Sep 20237 Sep 2023

    Activity: Participating in or organising an eventParticipating in or organizing an event at an external academic organisation

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