Working cross-sectoral is the key!
In addition to Flanders and Wallonia, the Brussels-Capital Region is also fully committed to renovation. Only they have a different approach that is worth mentioning. We interviewed two advisors from Homegrade (*): Sophie Holemans and Sophie Mersch. Together they work from their own specialization towards the same goal.
Sophie Holemans is an architect with experience at various architectural firms. She has a very broad interest ranging from woodworking and nature to the environment and society.
Sophie Mersch is a civil engineer / architect with a specialization in the conservation of architectural heritage. She has a passion for old stones and decoration. For 17 years she worked as a civil engineer on major national projects for, among others, the federal government service such as the renovation of the Basilica of Koekelberg. In her spare time she is also involved with opera as a singer. That explains her interest in theater and opera buildings.
The two ladies are closely cooperating colleagues. This makes their job description very overlapping. Yet they each have their specialization.
"Sophie Holemans:" Our core task is to give advice to Brussels residents who want to renovate their home. That means visiting the people, but also sitting behind the counter, answering e-mails and answering the phone. We also take care of the guidance for be-exemplary. This is a call for applications for example projects on renovating in the Brussels Capital Region. In addition, we also organize training courses and develop educational material such as brochures. ”
Sophie Mersch: “I have been working here for 15 years and I have basically the same job description as Sophie. With the difference that I specialize in building acoustics. In addition to the advice I give to individuals, I am a sound facilitator for Brussels Leefmilieu that helps stores, restaurants and the like to meet Brussels noise emission standards. ”
What skills do you need for your job?
Sophie Mersch: “Due to the variety of tasks, I would say: great adaptability. You also need to be analytical to be able to estimate exactly what a customer needs after a question, without focusing solely on the energy aspect. For example, we examine when a client wants to replace his window, we examine if it has heritage value. Whether it is really necessary to replace it and not just make adjustments to the glazing and airtightness. Acoustics also play a role in a busy street. So you see, we always try to go further than the customer's original request. "
Sophie Holemans: “indeed, and also be able to coordinate theory and reality well. How do you close the gap between expectations and what is possible? And then I am not only talking about people’s renovation plans and financial possibilities, but also about regulations, policy and legal complexity.”
What are your personal professional assets?
Sophie Mersch: “Professional knowledge is a must when it comes to building acoustics. You also need empathy and patience. People can be very emotional. I think I also have the gift to explain complicated themes in a simple way. I think that's appreciated. ”
Sophie Holemans: “A big asset of mine is listening to the people and making sure that they don't panic because of the large amount of information that comes to them. I can reassure them at such a moment. "
Brussels is a very multicultural city. I can imagine that there are sometimes communication problems when people speak neither Dutch nor French. Do you experience this and does Homegrade have a specific approach for that?
Sophie Mersch: “We can usually deal with Dutch, French and English. We do have a multicultural team. There are colleagues within Homegrade who speak Arabic, but I don't think they need it that often. "
Sophie Holemans: “So do I. We also adapt our communication to the addressee. Speak slower, explain things differently depending on who we have before us. I think this all happens spontaneously. "
You offer renovation as a total package. Why?
Sophie Holemans: “To use the example of the window again: nowadays energy is mostly the big question, but there is so much more involved. You have urban development issues, acoustics, ventilation, health, heritage ... That's why I say: if you really want to help people, you have to work cross-sectoral."
Sophie Mersch: “The problem is also that people often don't ask the right question because they don't know exactly what they need. So by giving them a complete overview, we can offer them more quality and therefore better help.”
And energetic renovation? How do you approach that?
Sophie Mersch: “As part of the whole. Placing sound insulation between neighbors' walls can save relationships, thermal insulation is not such a high priority there. Although thermal insulation is important on a façade, sound insulation cannot be forgotten on the façade of a busy street. Double glazing protects against both noise and cold temperatures if it contains acoustically laminated glass. Sound and energy always go together for us. We will never let that go. "
Moisture and instability are the biggest problems.
Sophie Holemans: “You know, actually, energy is not the biggest problem in Brussels’ homes; moisture problems and instability are. Often because owners or residents have let their house decay like that, because they simply do not have the means to do it. You must first solve those problems before you start the energetic one. However, what we do say is, for example, if certain works on the walls have to be done, it is time to isolate them.
How does the cycle of conversations actually work? Are you pro-active in that matter?
Sophie Holemans: “Clients usually come to us or they call us with a question. An adviser provides information himself, unless the question is very specific and requires a certain specialization. Then the right specialist deals with it. We do not proactively seek customers. That is what our communication department does. ”
Sophie Mersch: "Usually customers prefer to have one advisor, but it often happens that these are different people. We then help them with their decisions, bearing their financial resources in mind, and support them with the necessary steps. Take filling out forms for example. We have customers who cannot write, so we support them in that. ”
Do you have a systematic approach to apartment buildings?
Sophie Holemans: “We have also been providing guidance for joint ownership for a year now. We know perfectly how to handle this. But we notice that the major problems there are of a human nature. Co-owners who do not agree or people who do not have the money or who do not want to spend it on certain works. "
Sophie Mersch: "Yes, sometimes we are more a mediator than an architect." (Laughs)
Sophie Holemans: “I will give you an example. There is a transition policy to replace all old boilers with condensing boilers. However, we often notice that there are problems with drain pipes that are not compatible with atmospheric boilers. Either all residents must find an agreement together to replace their boiler at the same time, which is virtually impossible in large buildings, or they must have a drain installed in parallel so that can both function. That brings panic to the residents, because sooner or later they will have to come to an agreement. "
Do you follow the policy in the other regions?
Sophie Holemans: "We should do that more, but we simply don't have the time."
Sophie Mersch: “We follow it a bit, of course. If there are changes or if they make mistakes, it is interesting to know, so that we do not make them in Brussels. "
In Flanders, they give a premium to dismantle your building and build a new one, while in Brussels they do the opposite.
What can the other regions learn from Brussels, or vice versa?
Sophie Mersch: “If I can give one advice to the other regions: set up an organization that works cross-sectoral around renovation. That is something the residents will certainly appreciate."
And vice-versa? What can Brussels learn from the other regions?
Sophie Holemans: “In Flanders they are rather busy with obligations. Everyone must have insulated their roof by a certain deadline. "
Sophie Mersch: “Yes, they have other priorities. In Flanders they are less concerned with aesthetics than in Brussels. The urban development regulations are less strict than in the other regions. But they insulate more, they have a number of photovoltaic panels that we will never have in Brussels. They do things differently. Do you know what I find remarkable? In Flanders they give a premium to dismantle your building and build a new one, while in Brussels they do just the opposite. Here they try to preserve everything as much as possible with a view to the circular economy. "
Suppose you win a million euros with the lottery, how would you invest it professionally?
Sophie Mersch: “I know what I want. I would like to start a decorative shop with second-hand items and antiques. Ecological materials such as lime and clay to decorate floors and walls. ”
You are really aesthetically oriented?
Sophie Mersch: “Yes, that's what I like to do. Moreover, I would show all my values in which I believe, such as no waste and no pollution. ”
And you, Mrs. Holemans?
Sophie Holemans: “I would make films about the life cycle of building elements, because I think it is important that people become aware of where everything comes from and where it goes to after demolition. People now often do their renovation at an accelerated pace, because this is much easier than before, but that is not always sustainable. Sometimes you have to stand still and look at the global picture. Unfortunately, that is not very ingrained in our Belgian culture. If it was up to me, I would introduce a delay to the construction industry. Finding ways to reduce the pressure there, and make quality prevail over quantity again. "
Thank you for the conversation!
(*) Homegrade is the advice and guidance center for housing in the Brussels-Capital Region. It is aimed at all families, tenants and owners who want to improve the quality of their home. It is independent and originated in February 2017 from the merger of the Energiehuis and the Stadswinkel. Homegrade offers information on topics such as energy, renovation, urban planning, heritage, acoustics and sustainable buildings. Housing and renovation as one whole package.