The Little House in Belval: a unique model of circular architecture

AGORA is enthusiastically involved in the University of Luxembourg’s Petite Maison project as part of Esch 2022, devoted to advancing knowledge in the field of circular architecture. Eco-design, sustainable materials, circularity and reuse: these are the four imperatives of the ecological transition that this project is attempting to define.

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Circular architecture is a small revolution that requires architects and construction teams to think differently on all levels. “And there is still a lot of knowledge and know-how to be acquired,” explains Carole Schmit, principal investigator of the Petite Maison project. The objective is to develop concrete design and construction methods so that a maximum of resources can remain in a virtuous loop of use for as long as possible. My dream is that our research will have a really direct and very rapid influence on architectural practices in Luxembourg, it really is a question of practical and concrete research-experimentation.”

Research to which AGORA “contributes by supplying trees for landscaping,” Beate Heigel, architect at AGORA also explains.

Is total circularity in architecture really possible or not?

Carole Schmit: No one has yet achieved it in our time. But we have to try. This is an important paradigm shift, which the construction industry and the architectural community are gradually becoming aware of, but of course everything still remains to be done. What is certain is that, faced with the inevitability of climate change, architecture has a crucial role to play. There is still a need for new buildings, but it is unthinkable to do it as we used to. In addition to reusing as much as possible of the materials recovered from demolishing buildings or pre-existing infrastructure on the sites, the most durable and flexible new materials should be favoured, capable of being multi-functional but also those where the manufacture causes the least damage to the environment. We don’t much work like that today but basically it’s a return to age-old practices. We are not inventing anything: the ancients did all this naturally and completely logically. We need to relearn how to master these principles, on a different scale, with our current tools and know-how.

Will Petite Maison make this utopia possible?

Carole Schmit: We’re working hard on it! Our project was therefore to build and install on the forecourt of the Maison du Savoir a sort of “model house”, not conceived as a show house to be mass produced as a whole, but rather as a combination of several modules, or standardised parts, that can be reused and recomposed almost endlessly. It is impossible to be pollution-free during the initial manufacture of the modules but their possible reuse in other construction projects reduces the environmental impact. At the end of the year, after serving as an educational tool and even a performance space, accessible to the general public, the house will be dismantled and its components used for other projects.

Will this also be the case for the landscaping?

Beate Heigel: This is where AGORA comes in. The Petite Maison team approached us with a specific request: trees and plants! The idea is to create a temporary nursery, with species that AGORA can then replant elsewhere, on another development project happening in the quarter. AGORA selected the trees for the Petite Maison from the species chosen for the Belval project. For AGORA, Carole Schmit and the University’s project is exciting – the method she is developing will certainly inspire us in future architectural projects. The circular economy is already our approach, but the Petite Maison project goes much further and develops this field of expertise in a way that I hope will be of practical use to us in the future. Moving, digging up and replanting trees from one site to another, with the precautions that this requires, will be a really interesting experiment for us.

Is this vision of building with reusable modules and elements really cutting edge?

Carole Schmit : The principle is obviously well known and has proved its worth, but it represents a 180-degree turn in contemporary architecture, where for several centuries now, unique works and the singularity of each construction has been valued, with each component also often unique, thought out in a logic of belonging strictly to a signature building, sublime, unprecedented and unrepeatable. We need to get out of this mindset. It certainly has given us exceptional architectural works, I personally continue to admire their aesthetics. The history of architecture had to go through this and no one disputes the aesthetic value of these currents that have galvanised us, but it is clearly irresponsible to continue along this track. Building in a modular way is therefore a colossal change indeed, and a complete upheaval in the way we think about the built environment. This does not mean that architecture will become uniform and soulless like a piece of mass-produced IKEA furniture. The logic of combining modules, in infinite variations, is in fact a very creative constraint for the architect.

How can this way of doing things be popularised and facilitated, in your opinion?

Carole Schmit: By creating tools that are accessible to all, that meet the real needs of architects and builders. In addition to experimenting with construction and dismantling, the Petite Maison project is also an opportunity to prototype a platform for sharing modules and reusable materials. Each module is barcoded and listed in a specially created database. We shall also document the venture as far as possible and make all the knowledge acquired accessible on our website, but also through books and catalogues, which we hope will become reference reading for architects.

Academic research at the heart of the big questions of our time, with concrete and practical applications: this is what motivates Carole Schmit and her colleague Dragos Ghioca.

AGORA could not resist joining the exciting venture.

Carole Schmit
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