Growing the Reef in Brussels: some initial thoughts on sustainability



Our Brussels prototype for The Reef is over one year old. We have learned much, and some of us feel it’s time to move on to bigger and better things. @mariacoenen has started to look into where the present permanent residents are in terms of desires and ideas, and where we could go next. In this post, I make an initial stab at wrapping our collective head around what’s emerging.

We are looking at:

  • A bigger space than the present one: 8-12 residents.
  • Design is very important. People should be enabled to fluidly choose between privacy and sociality. For example, bathrooms en suite are very good (we don’t have them now). So is a division between public-facing and working areas and private quarters, for example by having the formers downstairs from the latter (we have this now). Open air spaces (balcony, courtyard, garden, rooftop) also good (we this too).
  • Office space, but also event space, to be contributing more fully to the vibrant life of Brussels.
  • Symbiosis with one or more local businesses other than Edgeryders (gym, yoga studio, café). The building can provide some clients, and in return have proximity services.
  • Super-green – in fact, solarpunk, trying to go carbon-neutral, reducing waste, promoting healthy lifestyle and discouraging motor vehicles.

The ideal solution is a large building (1-2,000 square meters), infrastructured but where we can make our own tweaks, partitioning and retrofitting. An old industrial building would be great. But all this costs a lot of money. Should we give up? Not necessarily. I have been thinking of a way we could get the numbers to add up.

It works like this. We communicate the new Reef as a place where people can live in comfort and beauty for a reasonable price, as long as they want to be part of the adventure of figuring out together a comfortable, beautiful solarpunk lifestyle (I’m just going to call it that. More reflections about this in this post). Residents will be expected to be open-minded with respect to things like composting, unusual approaches to energy saving and local energy production etc.

It requires four partners:

  1. The landlord.
  2. A local authority in Brussels (Brussels is divided into 19 communes, coordinated by a region).
  3. An investor interested in green building/green innovation. My metaphor for this is Climate-KIC.
  4. Edgeryders.

What each partner contributes:

  • The landlord signs off to a long rental contract (minimum 10 years).
  • The local authority authorizes us to live in it. It needs to be zoned for residential use.
  • The investor funds the capital investment (not the running costs) necessary to reconfiguring the building for green, social cohesion-generating, communal living. These would happen as residencies for green innovators: they move in (paid by the investor) and do their work (retrofit the building with solar panels, aquaponics, hanging gardens and what not, and teaching the residents to use them).
  • Edgeryders pays the rent, finds sub-tenants etc; additionally, it makes sure to contribute something to the local community.

What each partner gets:

  • The landlord saves immediately money on her tax bill (unused property is taxed in Belgium). Additionally, when the contract expires their building is worth several times what it was worth at day one.
  • The local authority gets some community work, and an experiment in a different way of living right in their courtyard. Also, at least one business moves in!
  • The investor gets a sandbox in which to deploy and test innovations for environmental living.
  • Edgeryders gets a nice space to work and live in, as well as collaborations with many new people interested in solarpunk living.

Variant: we find a way to buy the building, or part of it. We lose some flexibility, but appropriate some of the added capital value.

Here is a spreadsheet with back-of-the-envelope calculations. With 10 rooms at a very mellow 400 EUR a month (inclusive of everything) + Edgeryders HQ + a small gym or yoga studio, we could pay a rent of 3,000 EUR to the landlord.

If this works, we can spin it into a side business of consulting for setting up this kind of space: affordable, promoting community cohesion, green, (and, in the long run, a harbinger of gentrification, which I do not see as necessarily a bad thing as it creates opportunities and social mobility in the short and medium run).

Any thoughts?

How The Reef might work in Brussels

Thanks for reflecting…

So looking back at our discussions over the past year: we (for an Edgeryders contingent in Brussels) wanted a larger space mainly by finding a way to “projectify” part of it so that: it gathers diverse skills and people sharing them, increases Edgeryders company;s ability to create livelihoods since more people would be involved in doing some work, and of course lowers everyone’s rent. This idea for the space to be or do something original on top of lifestyle co-housing survived our many thought iterations.

In your model above what’s new is how we make it attractive to others, especially to the city to get a real presence here.
@mariacoenen told me from the beginning: we need to find something that Brussels needs. What gap are we filling among the many hubs, community centres, co-working spaces etc…?

This could be IT indeed… :smiley: But we’d need to account for all the work of hosting, coordination, community management, storytelling and so on. Would you see it included in the capital investment?

How do you feel about all of this @mariacoenen?


No. These are essentially running costs; they need to be incurred continuously. The idea is:

  1. Acquire a free or cheap space. This will make it much easier to “do stuff” in Brussels.

  2. Focus on generating positive externalities for the city. Example: launch a series of talks given by our guests at The Reef, piggybacking on trips they make anyway. Open them to the city and our neighborhood. This is practically free to do, because we have the space.

  3. Look in the community for people who enjoy this kind of work, support them in fundraising for it and offer the space and infrastructure. My metaphor for this is @HadeerGhareeb. I am impressed by her work with the children of Sidi Kaouki, in difficult circumstances. Maybe she, or others like her, would be interested in dreaming up a project for Molenbeek… then it’s a matter of finding some money, but with that kind of experience and the infrastructure (free) provided by The Reef it would be a strong proposal.

That said, I have factored in my spreadsheet a running cost of 1K EUR/month for a “house spirit”, to borrow another idea from Walkaway. This would be a person who would ideally live in the house and be paid to make sure things are running smoothly, talk to people, report problems, suggest improvements etc. It’s far from a full time job – maybe a couple of hours a day on average. You could think of someone like Hadeer cumulating the functions of project leader and house spirit. She moves in; we give her a room (value: 400 EUR per month) + a bit of cash (1,000 + 400 = 600 EUR per month) and buy two hours of her time a day. Plus, we help her roll out an educational project in town, or whatever she wants to do. This will have its own source of funding, and she can pay herself from that source. Result: full time employment + house spirit + social project in town. Neat, huh? :wink:


I think I can add a bit to this, as someone who has worked on leveraging physical spaces to support ecosystems. Obvious caveats are there - I am doing this 8000 km away in India; the communities I engage may differ in focus / maturity / spending potential and purpose; and I leverage such spaces to create core revenue drivers (not just as space, but building on space), which may differ from your purpose. But there are some constants I do think stand true regardless of where you are or the purpose you take. Mini soapbox time, this is a bit long.

One thing I would advocate is how you approach this: a space-first or community-first model.

The difference between the two is quite stark. As a co-working and events space you can tend to define everything you do within the confines of the space you operate. While it allows you to focus on one clear are it can restrict you in becoming a provider of a one-dimensional value offering - space, space, and more space. You focus as much as possible in recovering space costs that might be great for the short-term, but can affect you in the long-term because the building gets typecast as that one-dimensional offering of being a space provider. I view this as a trap (which I have fallen in previously) only because I don’t see space as a be-all-and-end-all of things and I don’t think this realises the full potential if what you can do.

It’s a great approach to club the space with a cafe, yoga studio, etc. as it increases the attraction factor and utilization of the space to multiple people, but for you as the operators of The Reef the opportunity is there for you to do more, and to better spread the risk of how you leverage space to earn more.

What you are catering to are communities. Take a community-first approach and you’ll be working on how do you make the space integral but not exclusive for supporting different communities you can align with. You get more play and opportunity in how you work with them and that creates multiple revenue opportunities as you can start leveraging multiple areas of value to the communities you engage with. The most important thing is that you do not define sustainability with utilization of the space only, it can be programs, services, collaborations, leveraged on space, with The Reef being an added physical touchpoint that represents these activities - for a meeting, for events, for the living aspect, and so on. It also does not restrict you from just being a space open and accessible to all.

I think with this you will also see greater collaborations parallels between The Reef and Edgeryders. An easy way to breakdown the communities you can engage with lies with those areas of positive externalities in Brussels you identify, and which actors need to be supported / seeded / collaborated with for The Reef to create those externalities. And of course, the existing Edgeryders network.

I’ve got one other point on the partners approach, specific to the investor. I know next to nothing about the investment climate and profile of people in Brussels, and while I have an idea of how Climate-KIC operates, I’m not sure which aspect of Climate-KIC you see as a key metaphor. If you need external financing / support for the space, I’d explore the option of getting a group of private individuals / angels to support you based on the vision of The Reef. There is the issue of having a stakeholder above you, that you have some fiscal responsibility towards, but with a community and space angle you may find a more philantrophic set less focused on returns and more on supporting a purpose.

Last point on seeing the sheet. If you are looking to open it up as a co-working and event space you will have a few more line items for expenses: on the internet (helps to account for it separately as a line item), repairs and maintenance, food and stationery office consumables, etc. to account for. Again, no idea about the economics there, but they usually are small individually, but can definitely add up.

I’m quite looking forward to see how you grow this, will be keeping a keen eye on it :slight_smile:

What makes a sustainable work space for collectives in Brussels? See you on 1 May?

Thanks @shravan, appreciate the advice. [quote=“shravan, post:4, topic:8930”]
a space-first or community-first model.

We are seeking here to serve different, partially overlapping communities in different ways. At the center of it all is the permanent residents, making a place to lead the lives we want. It so happens that we live and work out of the same space; this is efficient, because a co-working space is empty during the night, but at The Reef it can turn into one hell of a living room, or we can have parties in it. So, it makes sense to take on Edgeryders-the-company as a house mate, and serve the broader Edgeryders community (extra rooms for residencies, company events, seminars and whatever). Outside the door lies, of course, the neighborhood (Forest? Molenbeek?) and the whole city of Brussels, and it makes sense for that to be involved. It’s in the economics: doing what we do we generate positive externalities for the city/neighborhood at a negligible additional cost to ourselves.

They don’t care about spaces, or Brussels, or communal living. But they do care about uptake of climate change mitigation/adaptation-related innovation; and there are other entities with this kind of goal. If we position The Reef as a sort of testbed for in vivo prototyping of innovation for sustainable living, we can get them to find and fund innovators and their prototypes, which we then get to enjoy. For example, imagine that a medium term project is to disconnect from the electric grid. This will require a mix of artifacts (solar panels, batteries…) and social conventions (power-hungry activities and active climate control when the sun is shining, passive climate control and it is not). We function as a place where to test the mix, develop social conventions and evaluate the viability of these innovations; in return, they pay for the artifacts, which then remain at The Reef. This rids us of most capital costs related to these systems.

An important caveat is that we will probably need an initial important intervention to set up the infrastructure for these innovations (bathrooms, internal divisions, acoustic/thermal insulation etc.). This will be a little harder to sell, and require a framework agreement. But it’s worth doing. [quote=“shravan, post:4, topic:8930”]
repairs and maintenance, food and stationery office consumables, etc. to account for

I agree only partially. The Reef does not buy food: people living in it do. Food is not centralized. So, it is a living cost for the residents, not for the building. Likewise, office supplies are purchased by Edgeryders (one of The Reef’s housemates), not by The Reef.


I can see us baking activities happening here in many future projects. In fact, I already put it at the core of a proposal to UNLive Museum where we’d be a hub for sustainability popup events, and I can see how small residencies where people commit to activating the community could fit even our space now, let alone a bigger one.

Thanks a lot for reflecting on this. I remember one neverending conversation in Japan along these same lines :yum:


Exactly. Once it’s there as a living space for its permanent residents, The Reef creates externalities for the company, the neighborhood, the city, the broader Edgeryders community etc. What Noemi is describing is how we internalize the externality to the company: it will bake the space into some of the things it does. This generates some revenue, and some of it can be funneled into maintaining the space. Result: cheaper, high quality space for both the residents and the company. This is the economic engine of the concept.


I like the proposal and how you piece the puzzle together :slight_smile: Though also it seems to me that the investor does not get a good return in this setup. As there is no monetary ROI, it’s limited to finding somebody more like a donor organization or a client interested in green innovation.

If on the other hand there is a way to provide an investor with monetary ROI, it might be simpler to start it all. How about this: the investor purchases the building in the beginning, or is already identical with the landlord. He or she gets the (moderate) rent, but also invests money over the course of the rental period to buy the greentech stuff and for building modifications. The Reef tenants provide the work to develop and install this greentech stuff. The result is a building refurbished at minimal cost into a stylish solarpunk environment that the investor can sell with a profit when the rental period is over. The “downside” is of course that the interventions in the building have to be done in a more professional way than when just goofing around and experimenting for own uses only. That takes more effort.


So this would not be covered by the “investment” or project money in the first instance.
The investor, in my understanding from Alberto’s model, gets to check assumptions or reach their organisational’s mission by investing in a full on project by an experienced community.


Your proposal makes sense, Matt. The main issue here is trying to get a better deal for ourselves. This does not seem completely fair: you pay rent, improve the building, then the contract ends and the landlord has an improved building, and we have nothing. At the very minimum, the rental contract should be very long and bullet-proof.

In my proposal, the investor is not a real estate landlord, but a greentech provider, or a funder of such. Their payoff is tried-and-tested greentech solutions that can be resold on the market. So, a more attractive (for us) idea is: we broker the relationship between the building and this stream of investment, and get compensated for what we do by a combination of low rent and ownership of shares of the building (which you can think of as a company that own the building). If we can swing a fancy solar powered floor heating, our share of stock of that company goes up. Or something.


Context across countries can be different, but in terms of the financier, you will need a similar type of donor organization or client interested in green innovation. You’re still asking for money to validate a concept so the risk profile of financier would likely be same as what @alberto has postulated.

It should be set up in a monetary ROI model and I do think the initial outline @alberto gave in the first post would be very possible to provide a return. Aside from validating a testbed for greentech activities as a return, which is certainly an interesting angle for an investor / donor if you can demonstrate scale of their future deployment, the activities you do in the Reef on a day to day basis - co-working, co-living, events, etc. can definitely provide you that monetary ROI.

We’ve set up properties on a Real Estate Investment Trust (REIT) basis where we pooled together individuals with some cash and capital, who we got along with, and who bought into the vision of what we were doing (this gets you a bit of discount in the return they are looking for :slight_smile:) for developing the property. They get capital + interest that is attractive as a stable bet but not exorbitant as their return over a period of 3 years.

Any model you go for you’ll need to figure out how to monetize the space. The more activities or the higher value you can associate to the activities of the space, the more you can make and thereby afford the ROI to your investors.

It’s an option aside from a donor fund, which I think would be the best no doubt. But I’m sure there are interesting moneyed individuals out there who will be keen on such a vision for sure :slight_smile:


You mean capital = your investment in the building that raises its value or something else?


Yes, in this context, capital is the financial investment they put in to start the project.


Hi guys, I will be in Brussels this weekend for the Fearless Cities conference. Will any of you be there, and if not, can I meet any of the people who are in Brussels? I`ve been following the conversations on the platform, but I would love to meet people in person. All my best,


Hi @anncassano, oh looking at the program I would so wish to be able to go…
I’m out of city but who knows, might be tempted to come back on Sunday :slight_smile:
Otherwise probably @yannick @ireinga @mariacoenen @manuelpueyo could be going…?


@anncassano good to know! @mariacoenen and I are planning to spend some time there. Me, I can only do Saturday afternoon. Very happy to meet you! What workshops will you be attending?


Interesting series of workshops on temporary urban occupation by the Brussels Academy for the next couple of months!


Hello Everyone! I saw this post recently and yesterday i got an email with a community space opportunity opening up in brussels. i am not at all involved with this. i only share it because it is on topic. cheers. nice day.

text below is not mine…

This is something extraordinary: I was contacted by the responsible of a free1500 m2 office in the EU quarter. They are looking to offer this huge space to civil society in order to create an innovate hub. Coming Saturday, late afternoon, will be a brainstorming. In case you intend to participate, please inform the organisers ( of your presence. Ciao, your Frank


Imagine a temporary occupation in a 1500 m2 office floor in the heart of the European quarter, which could become a breeding ground for innovative ideas, a testlab for entrepreneurs and community groups or a dynamic hub for NGOs, in relation with the European construction.

Since we want this societal project to have an impact in terms of community building, in terms of new ways of working, in terms of coworking space and in terms of the image of the European quarter and the capital of Europe as a whole, we would like to invite you for a brainstorm in this office space to imagine with us the best suitable temporary (1,5 years or more) occupation.

If this topic interests you, if you have a great idea to share with us, if you want to contribute to the creation of the city of tomorrow, you are kindly invited for an informal brainstorm on Saturday 2 February from 16h till 18h in the office space in Rue d’Arlon 53 (or Rue de Trêves 84).

Looking forward to meeting you there!


Hi Manuel, it’s been interesting to see you lurking around, as we probably all know each other personally from Brussels events and stuff but never got to spend time together!

This notification slipped completely on my end, so of course we missed the event,
While the EU hqs are not on our map when we think of the Reef 2.0, no pickiness here, and not now for sure :slight_smile: I think best is to email the organisers now to see where they are, just in case, right @alberto? I can do it.

How are you Manuel? What spaces are you involved with nowadays? Last I heard was about the one in Galeries Ravenstein, did that work out?


Thanks @manuelpueyo … for the time being, I am the only person thinking about the Reef 2.0 (@mariacoenen being taken with other things), and I was travelling on Saturday 2, so I could not make it to your brainstorming. How did it go? Do you have an online document with the results of that session?