International research centre inaugurated at VUB and ULB expand with renovated former barracks

International research centre inaugurated at VUB and ULB expand with renovated former barracks

Thursday 15 February 2024 - The Vrije Universiteit Brussel (VUB) and Université libre de Bruxelles (ULB) presented their new international research centre during an official inauguration ceremony on Thursday 15 February. The centre is in the imposing main building of the project and focuses on research into sustainable development, education, knowledge transfer, entrepreneurship and innovation. The universities see the initiative as a means to enhance their urban engagement and build bridges between the academic world and the city and its residents. It is receiving support from the European Union and the brussels government.

After almost two years, work on the impressive main building of the former Fritz Toussaint barracks is finally complete. Six buildings on Generaal Jacqueslaan have been transformed into an academic centre that is jointly managed by VUB and ULB.

Annemie Schaus, rector of the ULB, is delighted: “ is unfolding in the city by establishing technological and intellectual innovation centres at its heart, in a spirit of co-creation. The project embodies the internationalisation of Brussels and serves as a hub for the worldwide commitment of both universities and their communities. This is an exceptional opportunity for Brussels and our historic universities to work together on a neighbourhood project that has been running since 2013. Sustainable development, education, knowledge transfer, entrepreneurship and innovation are at the core of our new academic centre. We’re building the city of the future here, with the university playing an important role.”

Jan Danckaert, rector of the VUB, emphasises that commitment: “The project brings together three essential forces. The first is the V of verbondenheid, connection. Between the two universities, but also with Europe via our respective partner alliances, EUTOPIA and CIVIS, and with the people of Brussels via an Openlab for co-creation. The second is the V of vrije onderzoek, free inquiry. The Brussels Institute for Advanced Studies is committed to seeking solutions for a sustainable world, without taboos. The third is the V of vooruitgang, progress. As a haven for co-creation, as a meeting place for international and Belgian students, as a place where thought, research and innovation are central. Our project symbolises progress and therefore the future, in which the university is an important player.”

The site comprises 3.85 hectares and 22 buildings, with a total of 56.500 m² of workspace. The project represents a research and education centre and will serve as a living lab that is open to the city. The buildings managed by VUB and ULB will house the following organisations.

  • The Brussels Institute for Advanced Studies (BrIAS), an institute that brings together leading researchers from around the world to address contemporary societal challenges relating to sustainable development. Their insights are shared through workshops for professionals, lectures for academics and forums for the wider public. In return, BrIAS offers its fellows living and working spaces.
  • The Urban and Socio-Environmental Transformations Research Hub (USET), which carries out research on cities, social and environmental issues, sustainable financing, economic resilience and how tourism interacts with various domains.
  • The OpenLab, a functional space for participatory and community-based research. Members from the city and universities meet to explore, understand and respond to metropolitan challenges. The lab focuses on humanities and social innovation, with inspiration from the FabLab that has been operating at the site for some time.
  • The European university alliances EUTOPIA and CIVIS, which connect VUB and ULB with 19 pioneering and like-minded European universities. The goal of the alliances is to build a European university of the future: a university that brings together communities from across Europe through international exchanges to find solutions to society’s major problems. Their headquarters are a stone’s throw from the European institutions.
  • The Brussels Studies Institute (BSI), a contact and coordination platform for academic research about Brussels.
  • The editorial department of the Brussels Studies magazine.
  • Multi-functional spaces, including meeting and seminar rooms, offices for staff, flexible workspaces for guest researchers, a cafe and a reception area.

Renovation work with support from ERDF and Brussels government

Commissioned by the Brussels regional government, the Urban Development Corporation (MSI) led the conversion of the former barracks, in close cooperation with VUB and ULB.

Rudi Vervoort, minister president of the Brussels region: “Usquare, as a priority development pole for the Brussels region, is an excellent example of the vision we have of developing new neighbourhoods with pleasant, sustainable and attractive living environments. It has a special dimension because it brings to life what has always been paramount for many of us: opening up the university by placing it at the heart of the city. The ERDF programmes have contributed greatly to achieving that objective.”

In 2016, Beliris financed the purchase of the barracks. It also carried out soil remediation work and asbestos removal with the MSI, VUB and ULB. Soil remediation started in January 2020 and lasted for five months, including the cleaning and removal of above-ground and underground fuel oil tanks and treatment of contaminated soil.

From April 2022 to October 2023, Beliris carried out asbestos removal from 16 contaminated structures. An airtight zone was set up at several sites to prevent the spread of asbestos fibres. The intention was to seal the intervention zone and ensure that no asbestos fibres leaked outside. The federal fund has invested a total of €33 million in the project.

Karine Lalieux, federal minister responsible for Beliris: “The interdisciplinary centre of the VUB and ULB is a fine example of a model neighbourhood that combines university and residential functions. The new complex will contribute to the region’s image, both through its exemplary role and its role in hosting foreign students and researchers. Students are an integral part of the urban fabric. They contribute to the vitality, identity, creativity and economic and social development of Brussels. The new district will play an important catalytic role in making Brussels an even more attractive and pleasant university and student city. I am therefore delighted that Beliris is again making a significant contribution to research, training and university operations in Brussels.”

The renovation of the first seven buildings by the universities and MSI was made possible by a major European grant, complemented by contributions from the universities and the Brussels Capital Region.

Gilles Delforge, director of the MSI: “The inauguration of the VUB and ULB academic centre is an important step in the realisation of the project. It is the first project to be delivered. Other conversion works will follow, which will house a centre for innovation and entrepreneurship, family homes (social rentals and subsidised purchases) and student accommodation, and the construction of a regional centre for autism spectrum disorders.”

The principles of sustainability and circular economy were central to the renovation. Buildings were restored to their original state, with consideration of their new function. This required exemplary management of material resources, demolishing buildings only when their stability was insufficient and designing new structures flexibly to adapt to changing needs. Degraded materials were recovered on site as much as possible, and alternative sites and recycling methods were investigated if necessary.

The project thus contributes to improving the environmental quality of urban spaces, with a focus on energy efficiency, reducing emissions and promoting public infrastructure.

The European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) awarded a subsidy of €9,033,200 for the project.

Theodora Flikas, directorate-general for Regional and Urban Policy of the EU: “At the heart of support policy is an approach based on partnership with local actors and citizens. Beyond the financial aspect, it delivers concrete, tangible results. Europe is close to its citizens.”

The site is still under development. By the end of 2030, the old gendarmerie site will be transformed into an open, diverse and vibrant university district, connected to the city

The event is part of the programme of the Belgian presidency of the European Union.

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