Huis VDH: how can we build vacant spaces into home-like structures to build up resilience

Hello Edgeryders!

For my fellowship I will write about Huis VDH, which I introduced earlier. In short:

Huis VDH wants to give time and resources to people to experiment, try, fail and succeed around new models for the present and future of Brussels. We are convinced that the magic happens by connecting citizen’s skills and needs. We aim to become a laboratory for urban change hosting citizens in search of anchor.

But Huis VDH doesn’t fall from the sky. For me, being in good care in the city has always meant having a healthy living environment. To create such a good environment we need good city planners and a great vision on public space. Something Brussels is still lacking…

Once upon a time, there was public space.

From 2012 onwards, I got fascinated by the concept of public space and how to bring it back in the center of everyday life in the city. After reading a call by philosopher Philippe Van Parijs about the urge to design new ways to interact in public space because of the limits of private space in the city, I got involved in Pic Nic The Streets and Canal Park BXL that both asked the government to urgently work on citizen based public space to better the living conditions of each citizen. Both won the political battle, but the result wasn’t really what we were hoping for. Pic Nic The Streets led to a carfree city center, but so poorly planned that a strong movement of anti carfree people could rise and are now threatening to stop further reorganisation of the city center. Looking at the plans for the big park, we are scared that gentrification will become an even bigger issue now in the zone around Canal Park. We were hoping for an inclusive design knowing that a lot of poor people are living in that neighbourhood. Now we are continuing to work as an observer with a cargo bike installation called Canal d’Accroche (part of the project Vélo M2, explained here) in that neighbourhood, hoping to bring them some resilience.

From Maison Du People to Huis VDH, a story about citizen centred design.

Since I was a guide and learned about the architect Horta and his Art Nouveau Style, I’m fascinated with the Maison Du Peuple, a building from the end of the 19th century that housed all kind of projects and people wanting to better society. It was a place where ideals could grow, and people could come listen to each other in an open dialogue. I started working on an open call to repurpose the empty Bourse building into a new Maison Du Peuple, right in the hearth of the city. But just days after finishing the text the attacks in Bataclan occurred and life in Brussels changed dramatically for a couple of weeks…

I gave it a rest and set my focus on a vacant building above the well-known music bar Bonnefooi: 4 floors, 500 m², and lots of potential, but also lots of work to be done. Without any budget or action plan, I started gathering people in the house, now called Huis VDH. The only thing I knew was that I wanted an inclusive project build from a common idea: Designing a semi-public space in such a way that the wellbeing of the neighbourhood / city improves. Huis VDH will therefore become a test case, because it isn’t the first or last vacant space above a shop in Brussels: there are more than 23,000 m² documented.

So there we were, having a space, an open concept and a lot of potential. The first thing we did was taking time to create a common practice: we designed our way of gathering through a futurism session created by Fo.AM that allowed us to gather all ideas from each person who wanted to get involved and, like a funnel, filter only the most common. For us, it was important to make Huis VDH as open as possible, so that any new member with the right mind-set could easily become a full involved partner in the building process. After a philosophical six months, we had the sprout of an idea: Huis VDH was born.

It’s all in the name, for Huis VDH it is no other. ‘Huis’ means ‘home’ in Dutch and that is what we are aiming to become for people that are drowning in a sea of complexity of city life. We try to not judge each other, but rather think solution oriented: Help out where we can, and bring the right people around the table. Our space is designed to welcome each kind of small organization working on local issues: cultural, social or technological. We try to design each space so it can be multifunctional and become a temporary rest spot for thosein search of an anchor. We believe like edgeryders: “ that the power of a community is bigger than the sum of all parts.”

One big challenge we will be facing in the next couple of years is to use our talent to organize ourselves within crisis. Big problems are ahead and we need to build up resilience to react quickly to an ever changing surrounding. Huis VDH is trying to take that challenge inside our own development. For us resilience can be developed on four levels: knowledge, vulnerability, out of the box exercise, and modification.

Shared knowledge

Open Source is all around us, and also in Huis VDH. After living for 5 weeks in an open source innovation camp called POC21, I find solutions to every kind of problem through this model of thinking. Knowledge is there to be shared and if we create the right methodology we will find more easily solutions to any kind of problems. That is why we started mapping out every encounter we had through metamaps, we budget our work with cobudget and use a sharing file system inside the house.

Showing your vulnerable self

When working in a collective environment, we tend to show our better self, hiding our flaws in the first place. But a strong collective group is as strong as its weakest link, and therefore we find it important that we are open and honest to each other. Having personal problems is something common, but sharing them is less. We try to create a trust field around Huis VDH where personal development is as important as the common goal of the organization. Caring about each other as a human being before seeing it as a resource for a project. In order to bring this theory into practice, we have made the first floor as cosy as possible, so people can just hang around and talk freely to each other. We make meetings short and efficient so there is time to discuss at the bar the more intimate stuff, not with all, but with whom we trust.

Putting ourselves outside the system

In the first six months, I was convinced we could create a complete system without the need of money. Only through exchange we could rebuild the house. This gave us a clear barrier to work around, and even if after six months we partially let money in our system, we were trained to think about solutions without money by using the skills, knowledge and resources of one another. This is one of the many ways we try to build challenges to ourselves to constantly think out of the box. When crisis occurs, we need to think and find solutions fast. Creating these exercises in a calm period will help create resilience in all members.

Modification as constancy

Finally, another way resilience can be created is by being in a constantly changing environment. Therefore Huis VDH doesn’t have fixed spaces. Every room can be rearranged to have a different use. Having this as one of the ground rules, we create a constant reality of change that makes us well trained in the art of adaptation, a virtue needed in times of crisis. In September, we will be, thanks to @Nadia, hosting the Open Care Weekend for Brussels.We see it as an opportunity to use our space for a common goal and adapt it while having people using the space. It will be our first external happening and we are really excited.

When working for Huis VDH, I have a phrase by Bachelard that always comes to mind: “Our House is our first universe, a real cosmos in every sense of the word” We can’t forget about the complexity of a home when we want to harmonize it. In cosmos, planets collide, new stars are born and a black hole sometimes sucks up even galaxies. This will be the same for people, ideas and principles. The most important for the wellbeing of this microcosm will be the search for constant balance.

In September we will be co-hosting the Brussels OPENandChange Workshop and that will kick off our Huis VDH. In the follow up we are working on a concept called Pirate Kitchen: using the resources from dumpster diving or own grown combined with hobby cooks we want to bring each week around 10 people gravitating around the same interest / problem / field but don’t know or rarely meet. We wouldn’t give them any explanation about whom they will meet, only that they will have a dinner with interesting people. They will have to find out why they are all here, and what they could bring to each other. A sort of blind date for change makers. Could this be an interesting form, or does it already occur in some places?

I’d appreciate any feedback in a comment below, and see you on 10-11 September for the workshop!


The production of this article was supported by Op3n Fellowships, an ongoing program for community contributors between May and November 2016.

i don’t understand how to put it in the right categorie

sorry @noemi and @alberto i think it got in the wrong place again…

No worries. It’s all good and formatted.

Thanks Yannick, looking forward to circulate this story!


Hi @Yannick, Hi All.

This is great. And resonnates to what I wish to see emerge too.

Good to see you are already in touch with various people and groups, good to see overlap.

Do you by any chance also connect with POP ?

I’ve been writing on these topics, and do not know what to start with, so if its ok, I just feel like sharing a few links, including to online conversations with Eric Hunting

Empty Flats Above Shops :!searchin/op-n-m/eric$20hunting$20brussels/op-n-m/N9WWeQ_PF14/PhQrYg1JBAAJ

Nomadic Ecovillages presentation by Eric :

List of construction systems!searchin/op-n-m/eric$20hunting$20brussels/op-n-m/g3nKCOOx68o/yb58OIvgS8cJ

more ressources!searchin/op-n-m/eric$20hunting$20brussels/op-n-m/e0SGcBaZFw8/d4IzEnf2EgAJ

Creating Spaces within Spaces!searchin/op-n-m/eric$20hunting$20brussels/op-n-m/XXsDzujQyoA/JfIZ5ZpsaxgJ

A place potentially inspiring in Brussels ( Camping Town )!searchin/op-n-m/eric$20hunting$20brussels/op-n-m/lVmY_88ZEvY/WQFQqLrTlsoJ

N55 and Open Manuals!searchin/op-n-m/eric$20hunting$20brussels/op-n-m/HxHyS2lnjjg/hORC4NGkzV4J

Other vacant space convergences in Brussels!searchin/op-n-m/eric$20hunting$20brussels/op-n-m/blUobfTPWik/DOhSbIrJ_H0J

Precare archives ( including “Contrat Precaire” )

Archive of other project drafts :

and much more!searchin/op-n-m/eric$20hunting$20brussels;context-place=forum/op-n-m

Thanks for the interesting links

hello @dante i went carefully through all your links and was really impressed by all the data and information you found about the different situations in Brussels. I would like to discuss further and share some more insight. Are you around Brussels for the moment?

Nice to read you. Let’s get in touch via private messages here, or better still by email : dante.monson - at - Gmail - dot - com

update @Yannick : as I replied by smartphone, there was a typo mistake in the email , which I now corrected

pps : may be interesting to join the Theory U process for integrating it in a broader perspective ?

( context : Private Site )

Technical Questions

Could you please share some details on the physical condition of the Bonifooi building and how, functionally, the space is intended to work? I looked at some street view pictures of the building and it looks in good shape but very old, though the windows look new. How are things on the interior? What is the composition of the building structure? What utilities are there, and are they updated? What sort of wiring and plumbing? How are the floors set out and are they partitioned? Do you have roof access and what is it like?

How do you intended to use the space? Will people live there, in a coliving manner? Will there be a workshop, kitchen, studio, urban farm, etc.? Do you intend to do any sort of light production? Your experience with the N55 spacefram bike suggests you might be working with those and similar constructions. Does the city/landowner allow you to use wind and solar?

What sort of building resources do you have at-hand in your group. Is there fab lab access? People with wood or metalworking skills? Is there some good source of industrial cast-offs nearby?

trying to answer all your questions

thank you for the in dept questionary.

We started doing the bigger work in the building the last couple of weeks. We were happely surprised that the water problem didn’t harm the wood that hard. On the first floor we have a sort of chill room that is used as a backstage for the bar downstairs as well, a multi media room with possibility to watch movies or have podcast sessions, a closed room for private meetings and a toilet. The second space is used as recording and repetition space at the moment, but will graduatily become multifunctional too. On the third floor we have a big open space with lots of natural light and a working plumbing system. The electricity has been cleaned and we are installing now new wires. We will install a kitchen in low tech design there and we still have space for other things. On the fourth floor we have access to a roof of 40m2 and also a ceiling that was renewed not that long ago, we only have some problems of mushrooms there that need to be taken care of. On the long term we hope to have complete green energy providers , solar is possible. But also trying to create a consience for not using to much energy. On the fourth floor we hope to bring a sauna, sleeping capsules and also an urban garden on the roof, all this is being analysed at the moment.

We have 2 handy mans, a designer, a woodworker and an interieur designer helping in the house at the moment. We also have access to different FabLabs around Brussels that will come help us later on. We maybe going to try to contact the bellastock organization of brussels to work around the industrial resources.

Introductions maybe?

Hello Eric, and welcome to Edgeryders.

It sounds like you have some experience or interest in setting up this kind of space :)  Maybe consider introducing yourself to Yannick and/or the rest of the community in arrivals?

Sharing plans

Hey @Yannick , thanks for your patience in answering all these questions. The question by @Eric_Hunting reminded me of a previous experience with a project called the unMonastery. We had the problem of developing a physical space that was meant to connect to a broader community, and the community was physically far from the space.

We discovered that publishing the plans made everything clearer and more concrete, and generated a lot of excitement and emotional attachment. People also started to suggest really cool ideas for furniture.