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BC-AS: ‘we design not only buildings, but the process of achieving those buildings’

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With offices in Ethiopia and Belgium, this firm seeks to challenge the established notions of ‘humanitarian’ architecture

Much of what BC-AS (BC Architects and Studies) aims to achieve with its architecture can be extrapolated from partner Laurens Bekemans’ choice of building material: earth. ‘It is a very accessible material, totally reusable, cheap, beautiful, healthy, contemporary, from high-tech to low-tech. It grounds us towards our natural habitat.’ And while this is not necessarily a means of building one would immediately associate with ‘designing architecture in the same way we design computer software’, it is at precisely this meeting point of open source, co-created and modular design with necessity and cycles of reuse that BC-AS operates – the hallmarks of technology, only without its trappings.

The firm’s first (and favourite) project, the Library of Muyinga in Burundi, East Africa, was born out of a case study undertaken with the OpenStructures (OS) project and aimed to ‘apply the concept of open-source to humanitarian architecture’. Based at the Vrije Universiteit in Brussels, OS sees its approach as akin to Wikipedia only, instead of contributing information, people can contribute modular parts based on the same shared grid – in short, to develop a system ‘that allows the broadest range of people to interchange the broadest range of modular pieces’. While this may come across as rather theoretical, or even utopian, it is fundamentally about flattening professional hierarchies and supply chains. As the village’s first library and forming a part of future plans for a school for deaf children, a participatory approach using compressed earth blocks and baked clay tiles aimed to keep the supply of materials as local and as inclusive as possible.

Because this is a means of making architecture accessible, it is no surprise that Bekemans is uncomfortable with the ‘narrow definition of the professional architect’, one that would see community organisation, material production and research as secondary activities. Asked to describe the practice, he opts first to describe an output of research and the offering of expertise – on materials, types and techniques. It is as a result of this approach that BC-AS, despite its size, has two arms à la OMA/AMO – BC Architecture and BC Studies – which feed into one another. As Bekemans states, ‘we design not only buildings, but even more so the process of achieving those buildings’. To this end, BC’s research arm organises everything from workshops into the use of rammed earth and consultancy, to imagining the shape that a future infrastructure of collaboration may take.

Theoretically, it’s clearly a shift in pace and outlook from the more conventional work the practice takes on in Belgium, having met and formed Brussels in 2012. It is an environment that Bekemans feels ‘pushes innovation’, and one in which many of the techniques the firm has gone on to use in African countries have been researched, developed and taught. 

BC-AS’s work in Africa has seen the opening of a satellite micro-office in Addis Ababa, as well as staff currently residing in Nigeria and Morocco to oversee projects there. But despite the applications of its work in African countries, BC does not brand these techniques as ‘humanitarian’ or make any distinction about where they can be effective – as Bekemans says, ‘we are conducting research now in order to start up a cooperative in Brussels that makes earth mixes for building materials from earth excavated on building sites’. Indeed, the product of the first Rammed Earth workshop in Belgium in spring 2012 – using techniques learnt from Martin Rauch and Anna Heringer – was a small hunting lodge made by participants, in an attempt to ‘prove that the triangle between architect-contractor-client can be modified to implement a more horizontal approach’. 

BC’s most recently completed project, a preschool in the village of Ouled Merzoug, Morocco, was built for the GoodPlanet Foundation and uses locally sourced earth, stone and adobe to create a simple bioclimatic structure. A mix of earth and gypsum helps to create a breathable interior while, on the south facade, cavity wall insulation and high thermal mass ensure the building will passively maintain a cooler temperature during the day while releasing heat at night. The classroom, sandwiched between two courtyards, acts as an addition to the existing school buildings.

Rather than distinct projects, BC’s work is all very much working towards an overarching goal – that of breaking down borders, whether they be professional, geographical or relating to established notions of ‘humanitarian’ architecture. As Bekemans says, they wish to be remembered as ‘those who were asked to design a building, and designed a construction process first’.