by Devanshi ShahJan 15, 2022
Towering at the western end of a row of 12 consecutive townhouses, AST 77 Architecten's Circular Brick House with a rammed earth wall overlooks a set of poplar trees along a sloped pathway meandering through dense green fields. The five-storey structure, located in Tienen, Belgium was designed by architect Peter Van Impe – manager of AST 77 Architecten, as his own personal residence.
Once the site of a former Provincial boarding school, the plot selected for the project is currently part of a residential development with sweeping views of the nearby 11-hectare public park and adjoining water bodies. Designed within the limitations of the inventive master plan drawn up by B-architects in collaboration with OMGEVING, the structure is settled within one of six residential zones – all arranged around a large athletics track that fulfills the function of a centralised, green, outdoor communal space. Each of the six residential zones possesses a distinct ambience and structural typology – adapted to their context.
Van Impe's inspiration for the home emerged from an examination of the extreme forms of circular thinking and designing, as well as a study of building using earth. As per AST 77 Architecten: "During a study trip to Austria the architect (Peter Van Impe) discovered the work of Martin Rauch, a rammed earth specialist, artist, and researcher. From then on, he began the search for local rammed earth specialists to assist him in his own project."
Structures made of earth are renowned for their excellent thermal properties and low environmental impact. Working in conjunction with BC Studies and Het Leemniscaat, Van Impe resolved to utilise the earth dug up from the site itself during excavations for the home's basement. This soil was used to construct a massive, 40-centimetre thick rammed earth wall, which rose to a height of 15 metres at the house's core. All five of the residences' above-ground floors were planned around its large mass. Constructed without the aid of any binders or reinforcing iron – harkening back to the days of yore, the wall appears sturdy and monumental yet is actually relatively fragile since it will revert to soil on exposure to water.
This earth wall forms the base of the house's material palette – complemented by brick, concrete, steel, glass, and wood, all used in their 'naked,' exposed forms as far as possible. Moreover, the architects limited the use of 'wet' joints to ensure that dismantling the structure towards the end of its life-cycle would not require too much demolition. The intent behind this was to allow the materials to be recovered in their purest forms, ready for reuse in future construction without excessive downcycling. For this purpose, the entire structure was conceptualised as a material bank that would be easy to pull apart.
On its western face, the dwelling features a large framed glass wall. "The 'head' opens up to its surroundings as if nature penetrates into the interior on every floor," say the architects. "On the outside, the reflective glass provides privacy and confronts passers-by with an impressive reflection of the nearby poplars. Additionally, these beautiful trees form a perfect natural screen against the low evening sun," elaborates the Belgium-based firm. Compact brick walls on either side, built using a single and double Flemish bond with recessed joints, feature periodical punched openings that house windows. These walls are linked to the rammed earth mass at the structure's core through steel plate floors.
"When we speak of circular thinking and building, change-oriented design and the use of the right materials and construction techniques are key. In response to this, the architect chose to combine a massive basic structure with the lightest possible interior – one large open space," explain the architects. There are very few solid walls used – aside from the rammed earth mass and exterior brick enclosures – with glazed and permeable partitions employed instead to ensure visual links between spaces. Van Impe's goal was to allow the space to morph and grow naturally, in accordance with the needs of its current and future residents.
On the ground floor, a dining area and study face the large western facade. Populated by planters and worn wooden furniture, these spaces feature herringbone-patterned, wood-finished flooring and a wood-beam ceiling. A perforated metal staircase runs along the rammed earth wall and is enclosed by streamlined black shelves on its opposite side – which double as a partition and extend throughout all the levels.
After ascending the staircase towards the first floor, visitors are led towards the bedroom. Here, the bed rests against a textured back wall with recessed strip lighting. The floor within the bedroom is withdrawn from the western facade and separated by glazing to craft a more intimate, private environment, open to the outdoors while providing a double-height zone on the level below. This configuration is also repeated on the upper floors.
The level above this houses a lounge area - featuring a combination of functional furnishings in both grey and pastel hues that enrich the space and lend it a warm, alluring atmosphere. Wood beam ceilings and floor finishes are also employed here, and alongside the raw, exposed brick walls, they complement the area's earthy palette.
Designed and built in conjunction with an assortment of experts from various fields, the Circular Brick House with a Rammed Earth Wall is an intriguing experiment in recyclable, environmentally friendly construction that highlights the benefits of collaborative design using natural materials. Its massive exposed brick edifice towers above the surrounding landscape, punctuated by glass walls and square windows that visually link interior spaces to their surroundings while ushering nature and light into the structure to craft a flexible, open sanctuary from the outdoors.
Name: Circular Brick House with Rammed Earth Wall
Location: Tienen, Belgium
Site Area: 250 m²
Built Up Area: 70 m²
Architect: Peter Van Impe - AST77 Architecten
Year Of Completion: 2020