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Down to earth: earth building in Europe and Africa by BC Architects & Materials & Studies

Breaking out from the narrow confines of the typical architectural practice, BC has branched out to encompass material production, contracting, storytelling and community organisation

‘Human activity’ is measured by Gross Domestic Product, a monetary measure of the market value of all the goods and services produced in a year. It is a rough indicator used to judge the state of a nation.

It is supported by a paradigm of growth in which higher growth is considered better, and it presupposes a definition of value: that which can be counted in terms of market value. It reduces human interactions into services and commodifies time into working hours. What cannot be counted is left out of the GDP equation: justice, equality, ecology, sharing, caring. This perspective on human activity leads to ‘overgrowth’: an ongoing increase of a limited kind of human productivity, turning a blind eye to the long-term effects of extraction and exploitation of natural, social and human resources.

Bc architects case design rammed earth workshop architectural review 01

Bc architects case design rammed earth workshop architectural review 01

Source: Dieter van Caneghem

Student workshop, part of the BC ecosystem of teaching and research

Oslo architecture triennale bc architects materials studies architectural review

Oslo architecture triennale bc architects materials studies architectural review

Source: Dieter van Caneghem

Workshop at BC Materials to make objects in rammed earth for the Oslo Architecture Triennale 2019

No technological innovation can overturn this model. The belief is that scientific knowledge and resulting technology will come up with a solution to make the overgrowth model possible within the production boundaries of our planet. Histories of technological innovation, such as the work of Professor Vaclav Smil, counter this belief.

The current model cannot decouple economic growth from the material and social externalities it is supported by. It seems like the defaults in the overgrowth model are built in to its structure.

Change itself needs to change. Transition needs to be learned as a practice. It takes time for communities to acquire certain kinds of knowledge. This is a tacit knowledge, which comes through learning by making, learning by collaborating. It is what the word ‘practice’ means to BC: a collaborative knowledge through making, an act of ‘getting close’ to a material and a method, through processes of trial and error. Through making, the architect can acquire knowledge about aspects of architecture that cannot be easily grasped in other ways. Making offers BC the opportunity to, in time, regain a close relationship to the sources and resources that constitute our materials, elements and buildings.

Bc architects rammed earth workshop architectural review 02

Bc architects rammed earth workshop architectural review 02

Source: Thomas Noceto

The process of drying, sieving, crushing, humidifying, mixing, compressing, testing and prototyping to arrive at certified earth building products for the European market

Bc architects rammed earth workshop architectural review 03

Bc architects rammed earth workshop architectural review 03

Source: Thomas Noceto

Production of 19,000 compressed earth blocks to be used in loadbearing walls for an educational building in Antwerp

This tacit knowledge does not hold one scientific truth, but rather lives in a wide community of practices involving large communities of citizens, crafts(wo)men and builders. Making buildings is so much linked to the complex and diverse construction cultures of peoples and disciplines.

BC started building elsewhere, outside Belgium. Projects in Morocco, Burundi, Ethiopia and Benin used local materials and techniques such as earth blocks, fibres, wood, natural stone. The practice tapped into locally available craftsmanship and typologies in mostly rural areas, where there is not yet a prevalence of industrial materials. The culture of construction of the place encouraged us to adopt and adapt vernacular and bioclimatic principles. Together with the site’s foremen, community members and partner organisations, BC rethought how buildings were made, what economic models they presume, what role they will take in the future, and how they will be perceived.

Bc architects rammed earth workshop architectural review 04

Bc architects rammed earth workshop architectural review 04

Source: Thomas Noceto

BC Materials’ centre of operations in Brussels, where it stocks and processes excavation earths from construction sites

The resulting architecture belongs to our globalised time, emanating from the multiplicity of perspectives of the people involved. The repetition of architectural elements, the simple lines and forms, and the structurally coherent tectonic approach, produce an efficient architecture in terms of budget control and resource management. However, local materials such as earth, stone, hemp and others appear very different from what are generally conceived as ‘industrial’ materials. Local materials are textured with fibres and grains, they have colours like their local landscapes, they are unprocessed and low-tech. As such, they are generally seen as a thing of the past, rather than as a thing of progress or modernity. A ‘contemporary vernacular’ arises from this tension between an architectural form of our time realised in local, traditional materials.

BC subsequently brought these experiences back to Europe, intending to find a solution to keep the practice economically viable in a higher wage construction culture. In contrast to the classic solution to take on more projects, BC’s response was to be more involved in each project. Expanding our role beyond the professional commission to design and supervise, BC are also hired as material consultants and asked to organise workshops on how to build with local materials, spreading the knowledge about them, and encouraging their use. Local materials such as earth and hemp are not necessarily expensive, but the labour involved in their transformation and implementation can be, and workshops provide a way to lower the costs of construction: people interested in these materials can participate and learn the technique by implementing it in a live BC project.

Ouled merzoug bc architects materials studies adobe architectural review 02

Ouled merzoug bc architects materials studies adobe architectural review 02

Source: Courtesy of BC Architects & Studies

Granite stones for walls were sourced on the site

Ouled merzoug bc architects materials studies adobe architectural review 03

Ouled merzoug bc architects materials studies adobe architectural review 03

Source: Courtesy of BC Architects & Studies

Clay soils for the adobe bricks were from the neighbouring oasis

Ouled merzoug bc architects materials studies adobe architectural review 06

Ouled merzoug bc architects materials studies adobe architectural review 06

Source: Courtesy of BC Architects & Studies

Formwork is made from local timber

Currently, the practice is evolving into a hybrid office. BC Architects is now supplemented by the activities of two administratively independent structures designed to overcome the legal obligation for architects to only do ‘architectural work’ as inscribed in Belgian law. BC Studies, a not-for-profit organisation, is a place for experiment, research and education, the activities of which led to a spin-off in October 2018: the co-operative BC Materials, which transforms excavated earths from construction sites into building materials.

Different excavation earths from different geological layers and sites are mixed in recipes which require a level of local craftsmanship. This means that the work cannot be delocalised, neither can it be fully automated nor fully industrialised. BC’s resources come from an existing waste stream of around 36 million tonnes of earth per year in Belgium with all its issues of transport and disposal. These wasted resources are transformed into beautiful, local, healthy, carbon neutral, no-waste products.

Ouled merzoug bc architects materials studies adobe architectural review 05

Ouled merzoug bc architects materials studies adobe architectural review 05

Source: Courtesy of BC Architects & Studies

The construction of each BC project is a close collaboration between craftsmen on site and architects from Belgium

Ouled merzoug bc architects materials studies adobe architectural review 01

Ouled merzoug bc architects materials studies adobe architectural review 01

Source: Courtesy of BC Architects & Studies

Craftsmen plaster the adobe wall with a mixture of earth and lime

This is nothing new: it is European vernacular construction techniques updated with current scientific knowledge. Through the ecosystem of BC Architects & Studies & Materials, making buildings is opened up as a place for shared learning, as a place to make construction culture. BC perform acts of building, at once action and narrative. It is a performance within the complex and costly effort of generating infrastructure, running across classes and skill sets, across materials and technologies. It (in)forms architects, students and institutions, and trains contractors and craftsmen. It convinces clients and investors, and researches and develops new applications. It is part of a wider tendency to redefine potential roles of what an architect might be or do: not only a designer of spaces but an agile actor in all processes of making buildings. The practice operates next to similar actors in different fields such as Rotor in Belgium, Assemble in the United Kingdom and Cycle Terre in France.

Through the open ecosystem of BC, we try to trace the full circle in the making of buildings – to go through a series of developments that lead back to the original source, position, or situation, or to a complete reversal of the original position. BC want growth, albeit not in GDP; they want modernity and progress in the construction culture, albeit one where they might give back buildings to nature at the end of their life cycle, where local capacities and economies are strengthened, where the architects might grow and change and renew with their buildings over time, where they might learn how buildings learn.

The author would like to acknowledge input from The Act of Building, co-authored by Pauline Lefebvre and BC, published in 2018

Lead image: a mix of soil and straw fibres are formed to become adobes – sun-dried mud blocks – for the construction of the Ouled Merzoug  preschool in Morocco. Courtesy of BC Architects & Studies

This piece is featured in the AR February 2020 issue on Soil – click here to buy your copy today