Residential quarter gets a facelift
Belgian company renovates with respect for heritage value
With a thorough renovation, the nuclear research centre SCK CEN and the Flemish Institute for Technological Research (VITO) are breathing new life into the adjacent residential quarter. The neighbourhood was first established to house employees, but after renovation, it will welcome non-employees as well. Both owners placed the renovation steering wheel in the hands of the Belgian construction company Cordeel.
The residential quarter that flanks the site of the nuclear research centre SCK CEN and the Flemish Institute for Technological Research (VITO) is a historical gem. The iconic, modernist neighbourhood was was initially constructed in the late 1950s to house workers. Until now, the infrastructure was maintained in-house. “We’ve always made an effort to keep the homes in good condition, but after more than 60 years, an extensive renovation was required,” says Jan Veraghtert, Project Manager at SCK CEN. A thorough renovation was needed to breathe new life into the once vibrant neighbourhood: a tough assignment that falls outside the core business of both owners. “The neighbourhood has a high heritage value. However, we are not heritage specialists. To protect the heritage value, we put the renovation in the hands of an external partner who had a feel for this.”
The choice landed upon the experienced, Belgian construction company Cordeel. Cordeel was awarded the impressive renovation project through a public tender. In its submission, the company gave extensive attention to how it would handle the historic value. The elements dating from that time were carefully weighed against their use value. “In the 1950s it was progressive to centralise all the garages in the middle of the neighbourhood. This kept pedestrians, cyclists and motorised traffic strictly separated. That concept is outdated. Now, everyone wants to be able to park at home,” illustrates Jan Veraghtert. So the central garages disappeared from view, making way for brand-new apartments. The villas were also repurposed. “Villas are being transformed into multi-family housing. Little is changing apart from that. The neighbourhood will retain its original design, appearance, and above all, charm.”
In total, the construction company is renovating 323 housing units. It involves a mix of student rooms – the so-called dormitories – studio flats, apartments, terraced houses and villas. Cordeel is allocating a budget of 50 million euros for it. The renovation will take place in several phases. The experienced construction company delivered the bulk of the first renovation phase in 2021. With a successful result, according to Project Manager Jan Veraghtert. “Historic living with contemporary comforts. That’s how the residential quarter can now be described.”
The upgrade should entice not only employees of SCK CEN and VITO, but also non-employees to move to the neighbourhood. Their arrival will create a new dynamic. Anyone who purchases or rents a residential unit there will immediately have the assurance of a well-kept neighbourhood, full of character, included in the price. “We’ve signed a DBFM agreement with Cordeel. DBFM stands for Design, Build, Finance and Maintenance. In concrete terms, the construction company will also take care of the maintenance of the neighbourhood for the next 25 years,” explains Kris Iven, Facility Manager at SCK CEN.
Does that mean the neighbourhood loses its original mission? “Not at all,” clarifies Kris Iven. In total, both companies employ more than 1,500 highly qualified specialists, many with international backgrounds. “We want to offer our international experts a warm welcome. This includes nearby housing in beautiful surroundings, along with modern comforts. For this reason, SCK CEN will continue to use the dormitories and studio flats and has offered Cordeel a rental guarantee for eight terraced houses. This gives us sufficient capacity to facilitate a move to Belgium for our foreign employees and doctoral students. The residential quarter will serve as a springboard to the private real estate market.” In time, SCK CEN wants its foreign employees to move into the private real estate market, in order to promote integration into Belgian society.
The residential quarter is known as a distinct, green environment, although how to make it figuratively “green” was also considered. “With a new heat grid and intelligent LED lighting, we are preparing the residential quarter for a 100% green future,” concludes Jan Veraghtert.
In the late 1950s, modernism was the main architectural movement in Belgium. That movement visualised the new, post-war sense of life and the flourishing of science and technology. Frugality and simplicity characterized the choice of materials used and proportions chosen for rooms and buildings. The whole thing blends seamlessly into the wooded surroundings. The design comes from the young architects Jacques Wybauw and Jacques Thiran. They received numerous awards for their design, which was innovative and refreshing at the time. In its time, the residential quarter was featured several times in renowned architectural journals. Because of its heritage value, the quarter is included in the Inventory of Architectural Heritage.
Enriched by our differences
Our research centre employs 966 people, who therefore have 966 different backgrounds, personalities, and skills. We embrace that diversity, because these differences enrich our thinking. We learn to look at matters through a different lens, to put them into a broader perspective and therefore arrive at more innovative solutions. With our wealth of diversity, we are building a bright future for SCK CEN and society.