VEG-i-TEC: innovative in research and architecture
VEG-i-TEC is a research centre that studies and improves the processing of vegetables and potatoes. A new pilot installation was recently set up on the University Ghent campus in Kortrijk for which archipelago designed the building. An innovative project that shows a shared ambition between the client and architect for circular processes and sustainable energy use. Following up to the official opening on September 10, we look back on a successful collaboration together with Els Van Damme (University Ghent, director of Buildings and Facility Management), Elisabeth Cnockaert (University Ghent, project leader Buildings and Facility Management), professor Imca Sampers (University Ghent, project leader VEG-i -TEC) and Marijn Verlinden (archipelago, executive partner - architect).
MV: As architects, we stand for a contextual approach. An approach that we apply on a large and small scale, and which we often summarize with the following formula: (programming x experience x sustainability) / economy. We want to keep the first three factors as high as possible and the costs as low as possible. This also means that a project is primarily based on the end user experience and the intelligent use of available resources (natural energy, materials, the surrounding buildings, etc.). In this way we try to link each project to the bigger picture; developments that may be outside the immediate environment or the program, but nevertheless have a direct impact. This contextual approach is the basis for all our projects and certainly also VEG-i-TEC.
Is this contextual approach in line with University Ghent’s vision?
EVD: There are a number of correlations with our building policy. We focus on high-performance, compact and inspiring buildings. In addition to functional performance, we certainly look at sustainable performance. We also include these themes in the elaboration of our master plan ‘UGent Verbeeldt 2050’. The first step is to write out a vision for our building heritage and how this will evolve by 2050, based on the vision of the university’s core tasks and sustainability goals.
There are three rules that define the essence of a university. 1) It is an environment for knowledge creation and knowledge sharing. We offer both physical and mental space for this. 2) A university exists for the people and is made together with people. 3) A university is an open setting: connected to the city and through collaborations with all our partners. We see this reflected in the VEG-i-TEC project. It is a very sustainable project for which there has also been close collaboration with the local vegetable processing industry.
IS: For the Bio-Industrial Sciences program it is important to look at the industry in the area. Our collaboration with a.o. West Flemish companies in the vegetable processing industry is essential. The research centre must remain close to the people who will eventually use the facilities.
ML: According to the masterplan Campus Kortrijk, a connection will be made between the university campus and the city, via Magdalena Park and Kortrijk Weide. How does the VEG-i-TEC project fit in?
MV: If you look at the connection between the city centre of Kortrijk, the campus and the neighbouring areas, you will see that this area is an important element in this development. And VEG-i-TEC is the first step in this direction. The site of VEG-i-TEC is also located at a crossroads between the railway, which partially separates the city and the campus, and a crossing for cyclists and pedestrians that connects the city to the campus.
IS: This part of the campus is developing into a technology park where machine builders and those who will use the machines are all on the same site. The three university courses present here, machine and production automation, circular bioprocess technology and industrial design, are thus linked to different facets of education, research and services.
EC: On the VEG-i-TEC used to be wood industry. The entire site was a concrete slab supporting large sheds. We have made this greener and now only provide mineral materials where it is really needed. There is a wadi to collect excess rainwater, we will maintain the existing vegetation as much as possible along the railway, and even the car park has been kept as green as possible. We also recycled the concrete on site as much as possible by first pulverizing it and then using it for the sub-foundation of the landscape design. In this way we avoid too much waste and transport.
ML: Sustainability also means adaptability. How will this building adapt to new types of research in the future?
MV: There are two parts in the building: the water hall, where research is done into the impact of water on the process, and the hall with the various production lines. Three subdivisions are made in the hall with the production lines: there is a fresh line, processing line and freezing line. They must work flexibly and independently from each other so that different types of investigation can be conducted, and in complete confidentiality. We have foreseen in the plan that a fourth line can be added if that opportunity presents itself. On the side of the railway there is an opening in the wall, where there is now a window, which makes it possible to expand the program.
EVD: The robustness of a project is something we always pay a lot of attention to. Our buildings must last longer than 30 or even 50 years. Even if we wanted to, we simply don’t have the resources to keep building new buildings. It is therefore very important that buildings are adaptable. A flexible structure is necessary because research is also changing faster and faster. We look for the right dimensions to adapt, expand, and accommodate an ever-evolving program in a building. When building a campus, and choosing to renovate certain buildings, this is a very important aspect to screen.
Versatile pilot installation
ML: In order to better understand the specific research of VEG-i-TEC, it would be good to gain more insight into the Bio-Industrial Sciences program. What do you actually do?
IS: We have been researching vegetables for years. You would think that it is not difficult to produce a vegetable. And actually it is. We often use very simple technological applications. But we want to maintain our lead and, just as in the meat and dairy industry, be technologically ahead of the competition.
Where we used to have more time for a specific research project, we now have to switch gears much faster. Valuable research at the university is also quickly picked up abroad, while we prefer to implement it directly at the local companies. We now cover the missing link between lab and implementation with the VEG-i-TEC pilot installation. This kind of upscaling is very important. We have already done this in the past for research into fermentations with large bioreactors. We need exactly the same for the vegetable processing industry.
We already have research groups in Belgium with pilot installations, but not for the specific industry we work for. It was therefore quite a challenge for us to think of what kind of building is needed for such a pilot installation. My specialization lies in food processing and microbiology, but suddenly you also have to think about electronics, for example. That was a very instructive experience for us. In the meantime, we have gathered a lot of knowledge about this and also learned how we can include this in our communication with the industry. We even have a new ‘Hygienic Design’ course included in the curriculum.
ML: Innovation in research goes hand in hand with innovation in architecture. How much does the building technology (heating, cooling, ventilation, etc.) in the VEG-i-TEC building differ from a standard project?
MV: It’s a very specific situation. Standard building techniques are not that complex. Here you need extremely high or low temperatures for steaming or freezing. That is freezing on a conveyor belt to guarantee instant quality. This requires a completely different technology with specific requirements in terms of surface area, safety, etc. The processes that are tested in the pilot hall are also relatively short if you look at it over a period of a year. How do you take this into account in the cost-benefit analysis? It is a difficult exercise to find the right balance and we have studied it for a long time. It is therefore also interesting for us to discuss with Imca what they have learned about this and what influence this has on further research.
IS: I suppose the architects were often frustrated with the answers they got from us. Because today we may need an average consumption, but for another research project the consumption could suddenly be much lower or higher. The biggest challenge was keeping the building as flexible as possible so that we can adapt the research almost daily. A line is being installed in the food industry that should last 20 or 30 years. If you change something, they suddenly notice that there is too little energy, the accommodation is not good, the ventilation is insufficient, etc. In our research you notice this immediately because we are constantly making changes. So we can only pass on information based on the current research, and that can change very quickly. Even in the course of the project this has changed. Flexibility was therefore our biggest demand and also the biggest challenge.
MV: When we design a building, we always try to find a good balance between all practical needs. For example, you need both cold and heat. For the techniques, we couldn’t take both into account, because we don’t know for sure when the cold or heat will be present. Sometimes it’s just cold, sometimes it’s just heat. That is the complexity of this pilot project. If we can assume an installation in which every part is continuously operational, then we can think creatively about how we can recover heat, for example. That was a major challenge in this project.
ML: In addition to the technical challenge, there was also the challenge of working closely with the private industry. How did you experience this collaboration?
IS: It is important to work closely with the industry so that we know better what we need in terms of technical facilities. We often talk to industry advisory bodies who provide us with relevant information directly and let us know in good time where we can expect certain problems.
ML: Has the architect learned anything from collaborating with the vegetable processing industry?
MV: The discussions with Imca and the people from the industry were very interesting. Especially to see how a small detail can have a major impact on the whole. You also notice that the industry has an enormous amount of knowledge and sometimes even had to be restrained not to do everything from their vision and expertise. The university’s vision is clearly broader and more flexible in function of the research. But it is interesting to see the constant shifting of parameters in order to optimize the quality of the project.
ML: And vice-versa. What do the Bio-Industrial Sciences program and University Ghent take away from their collaboration with the architect?
IS: The new university course ‘Hygienic Design’ is a good example. With this course we approach conceptual issues such as how to design a building hygienically. In the past we were only concerned with machines, but these machines always have to be placed in a building. We thought this was common knowledge. However, the design approach does not seem so obvious. To this day, we get questions from the industry when they want to build new buildings. They know what the minimum requirements are, but ask us what they can do better for the future. This concerns the placement of machines, how accessible the machines should be, what ventilation is needed, how close a tree can stand next to the building, etc.
MV: The use of colour was also an interesting aspect. What if a piece of the building falls between the process line? Which colour stands out most among green spinach?
ML: The building becomes part of the research. Could other construction projects of University Ghent also serve as (applied) research projects? Perhaps also interesting for architecture students?
MV: I am definitely interested to learn more about what will come out of the two ongoing PhD studies.
IS: The research is a.o. about air quality and a large number of companies have already joined the project. Apparently a hot topic.
EC: For thesis projects, we are sometimes asked whether there are specific questions that students can investigate. This is currently mainly about circular construction. What is possible within the current patrimony? Which buildings will be renovated in the coming years? And which techniques or technical installations will be implemented? This interaction already exists with the architecture programme. And if professors are aware of a construction project, they sometimes visit the construction site with the students.
ML: To conclude, a final statement about the VEG-i-TEC collaboration?
EC: The collaboration was certainly positive. There was good interaction and we learned a lot from archipelago about BREEAM and sustainable building in general. This is also something that we have been focusing on for the past years. There was good mutual trust throughout the process.
MV: Mutual trust is indeed very important. That trust leads to pleasant working conditions on both sides. Ultimately, the goal is the same: to build a good building that meets all the needs of the users.
EVD: The result is beautiful. The project was completed perfectly within time and budget, regarding many specific preconditions of Ghent University. As always, there were some problems that are unexpectedly more complex or more expensive, but because the team worked well together, solutions were found instantly.
MV: Open communication is absolutely necessary. You can call each other immediately and look for a solution together. That is the basis for good collaborations.
IS: We have received already many positive comments on the building!
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