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Pioneering in the use of BIM objects

Belgian architect Philippe Samyn's attitude to sustainability is reminiscent of the maverick American designer Buckminster Fuller who believed that all architects should know the weight of their buildings.

“Resources are scare, so the fewer materials you use, the better you preserve the planet.”

You get a feeling for what he means when you look at the facade of his fire station at Charleroi. It is made up of two main elements. At ground level, 48 glass overhead doors shelter 48 fire service vehicles. And the upper floors are clad in a thin skin of perforated, corrugated steel that rises two and a half meters above the roof terrace to provide the vegetable garden, sitting area and running track with welcome protection from the wind.

Arranged in an unbroken circle, the lightweight glass doors almost make it look as though the building is floating. And when they slide open, the ground level elevation seems to disappear, allowing you to peer past the fire trucks into the solid core of the building.

“We tried to make the simplest, least expensive, operational, sustainable door.”

And the combination of slenderness and strength in every door certainly brings a lightness to the building that expresses the sustainable intent of the overall design.



Somewhere to exercise - and relax

Compliance isn’t always linked to building regulations – at least not directly. In the case of the fire station at Charleroi, Belgium, the firemen in active service need to achieve a certain level of fitness. They are on site and on call for up to three days at a stretch. So, they need somewhere to exercise and somewhere to relax.

The project's chief architect, Philippe Samyn, calls the fire station “... A real village with sleeping rooms, living rooms, a big sports hall and a roof garden where the firemen can eat and grow vegetables.” And because the fire station is circular in plan, the running track on the roof is infinite.

But it’s not all downtime. Firemen also need to be adept at climbing ladders and stairwells, often with a person slung over their shoulder. So Samyn proposed a tower with a stairwell running through its core and a series of ladders bolted to its exterior. There is even the option of attaching a cable from the tower to a discreet hatch built into the parade ground so that the firemen can practice leaving a building on a zip wire.



Liveable and joyful

Despite its importance to the local community, nobody expected the new Charleroi fire station to be beautiful. However, architect Philippe Samyn’s insistence that all buildings should be both ‘livable and joyful’ resulted in a design that is not only functional, but also interesting aesthetically.

The building’s circular form slots seamlessly into its hillside site, keeping watch over the Belgian town of Charleroi. Its outgoing, vigilant character is given further expression through the 48 glass doors that clad the facade at ground level. The doors can be raised in an instant to release fire trucks and ambulances into service. But the functionality of the doors is only half of the story.

“The difference is in the refinement of the door – technically and aesthetically.”


“There are many suppliers who can give you good doors,” says Samyn. “The difference is in the refinement of the door – technically and aesthetically.” The sleek lines of the ASSA ABLOY overhead doors lend the building lightness during daylight hours and transparency at night. And the end result is a livable interior environment in harmony with the environment beyond its walls – or, more accurately, its doors.



A door can be the starting point for design

When architect Philippe Samyn took the brief for the fire station at Charleroi, one sentence jumped out at him. The firemen wanted to be able to drive straight out of the fire station as fast as possible – and didn’t want to have to use reverse gear to get the fire truck back into position.

“The idea of making a circle with all those lines flowing next to each other came instantaneously,” he says, and then adds, “Everything can be the starting point for a building. Even a door.”


One of the key concerns was to gain seconds – crucial in the race to save lives. The fire station's circular form means that all 48 vehicles, each with their own overhead door, can be ready for action at any moment. Not only that, returning vehicles can enter and drive back into position without causing an obstruction.


Project & Process

Go into greater detail with more efficiency

Since January 1st 2016, Samyn and Partners has been using BIM on every design project. But architect Philippe Samyn has been pioneering the use of computers in architectural and engineering design for more than three decades. His office used the first graphic computer for design work, even though the math involved required a computer scientist with a PhD to operate the program.

Using BIM means that every member of a 30-strong design team, including everyone from geologists to local historians, has instant access to each other’s knowledge as well as all the design work up to that point. “It is very exciting because everybody discovers a better means of communicating,” says Samyn.

“Every architect should use BIM to help them turn their clients' visions into truly livable buildings.”

With more open, free-flowing communication between all parties, the design process is not only more efficient, it can actually go into more detail – detail that can be shared and understood by more people. And that includes the client. A true BIM convert, Samyn explains: “Every architect should use BIM to help them turn their clients' visions into truly livable buildings.”

“We go much deeper into the projects than we could ever do before – and so can the client.”

His take on the BIM revolution is simple: that the more we can harness sophisticated software, the more we are free to build sustainable modern buildings with locally sourced hardware such as mud, bamboo and rope.