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Circular Retrofit Lab

Initially conceived in the 70s by architect Willy Van Der Meeren as temporary student housing, the prefabricated concrete modules were installed on the VUB campus. Since the aging student housing no longer met current requirements, they were threatened with demolition. However, a case was made to keep these units for their architectural specificity and to prevent them from turning into waste. To prove that the student houses can fulfill the future needs of the university while still maintaining the identity of the campus, the Circular Retrofit Lab (CRL) project was launched.


Photo by Simone Valerio

The CRL project explored the reuse potential and the transformation capacity of the student houses at different levels: building, space, constructive systems, and components.

The modular concrete structure is reused. Renovating and reusing these structures limits the impact compared to new construction. Other elements of the building, including concrete facade panels, had to be removed because they contained dangerous materials, such as asbestos, or were of insufficient quality.


A new reversible envelope and new interior partitions were fitted into the reused structure. Demountable and adaptable solutions were tested and implemented. The solutions contained the use of dry connections, robust and reversible technical systems, and the use of materials able to endue multiple reuses without being damaged.

The facade panels are demountable. They can be dismantled from the inside and from the outside as the joints are easily accessible from both sides. Moreover, the building layers are physically decoupled into functional and technical layers. The sequence of the different layers is decided according to the different life spans of the building layers.

The facade panels arrive preassembled on site. This pre-grouping of components allows accelerated assembly and disassembly. Mounting building components prior to assembly has in general also advantages when it comes to quality control, uniformity of building components, reduced waste generation, and cost reduction in the building process.


1. The students' houses in orginal state.

2. The stripped structure


4. Addition of wooden battens for the façade finishing.

5. Attaching the façade finishing.


3. The addition of the modular façade panels.


6. The Circular Retrofot Lab in final construction stage.

The progress of the construction of the Circular Retrofit Lab. © VUB Architectural Engineering

Since the early development phase, a close collaboration with all the value network stakeholders was set up. Collaborating with industrial partners in this project showed how dependent the development of circular architecture is on innovations in the construction sector. The different circular solutions for facade systems, technical services, floor, ceiling, and partition walls were developed and installed by different producers.

Different usage scenarios were developed for the student housing. The building is designed for different functions. With small changes in techniques and indoor walls, another function can be housed. The houses have the possibility to in the future transform into a dissemination space, a flexible workspace, and an eco guest-house. These transformations include internal and external transformations and the module’s multiple functional reconfigurations.



The rigidity of the prefabricated structure with its open plans allows a wide variety of alternative functions to be integrated in the building. For the Circular Retrofit Lab 3 representative functions were selected. © VUB Architectural Engineering

Before construction, the CRL was built in a digital environment. All partners could integrate their design or products into the model. This way, overlap, and other inconveniences could be detected before the construction works started.

Tools used

More information on the Circular Retrofit Lab

Report D14 – 4 pilots built & feedback report – Testing BAMB results through prototyping and pilot projects

CRL Pilot Blog

Project Page of the Circular Retrofit Lab on the VUB Architectural Engineering website



A project of


Engineering office

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With the support of


In cooperation with

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