Brussels: teleworking shakes up the European Commission’s building policy. The European Commission is moving. It will be leaving three buildings it rents in Auderghem. More than 1,000 people work there, or rather worked there. The health crisis has come and gone, as has compulsory teleworking, which impacts the building policy of the Institution. It is also the result of the European Commission’s new buildings policy.
Leaving the peripheral buildings
It looks like three ocean liners, in single file, moored along the E411 in Auderghem. These huge, windowed buildings have been rented by the European Commission for some 30 years. But with the health crisis, everything seems deserted, or almost. In the memory of the neighbours, the Commission has never been so discreet: “Before covid, there were always taxis parked here and there and people near the entrances. So yes, it’s very empty at the moment,” says a neighbour pulling out his shopping bag.
If the European Commission is discreet at the moment in this neighbourhood, it is not very talkative either when it comes to discussing the changes underway. Didier Gosuin, mayor of Auderghem, says he didn’t know the commission would soon be leaving: “For almost a year now, they have almost all been teleworking. In a building that used to house 1,200 civil servants, there are now only 100,” says the former Brussels minister.
“I had rather the opposite information, that the staff felt good there. For various reasons: firstly, it is a superb building [built by the Genval workshops and designed by the architect Jacqmain], but also because it is well located, and thirdly, there are many European officials who live in these communes. Some of them come by bike, via the green promenade, and there’s the metro nearby. It’s very accessible!
And Didier Gosuin complains: “We know the decisions of the European Commission, it is very erratic! With each commissioner, I think it changes.”
Telework and the Green Deal
The European Commission has decided not to renew the leases on these three buildings. And it may also leave the other four buildings it owns in the future. Like those in Evere, the rented buildings have been almost empty for more than a year.
One of the reasons for this is that teleworking will be a long-term phenomenon. Today, it is around 80% for its more than 20,000 Brussels workers. But after the coronavirus?
The European Commission is thinking about it, says Alain Hutchinson, Government Commissioner for Europe. He is responsible for liaison between Brussels and the institutions:
“The Commission believes that about 40% of telework could be made permanent. That means: you go to work three days, you work two days at home. Or vice versa. From week to week, it can vary. But that means a 40% lighter load of workers’ accommodation, if I may say so. This means a 40% reduction in the amount of office space required.
What will also change is the organisation of the offices: no more dedicated places, officials will move to shared landscaped areas.
If the European Commission is not communicating much, it is because its new human resources strategy is still under construction. But it confirms that changes are underway. Teleworking is one argument (for the European Commission’s new building policy), but the other is its willingness to take care of its environmental impact, as one of its spokespersons writes: “The Commission is assessing how best to use its space, taking into account these new working methods, but also in order to further reduce its environmental impact (e.g. by replacing low-energy performance buildings with newer buildings with the highest energy performance standards)…”.
Most of these buildings are located in the European quarter. Recent examples include the offices of the Copernicus building, which have just been sold to the European Commission for 20 years, and the controversial The One tower.
Marco Schmitt brushes aside this environmental argument, in order to stick as closely as possible to the European green pact, the famous Green Deal. He lives in this neighbourhood and juggles two hats: president of the Quartier Léopold Association and, until very recently, a member of Inter Environnement Bruxelles:
“Beyond the fact that The One tower is a disaster from the point of view of its integration into the landscape, given that it exceeds all the gauges, it even crosses the perspective of the Arcades du Cinquantenaire, it has an appalling energy cost. A building that was already the tallest in the district was demolished to build a much taller one. All of this is old-fashioned thinking, if you don’t mind me saying so.
Regrouping in the European Quarter
The European Commission’s objective is therefore also to “regroup” officials in the European quarter, according to Alain Hutchinson: “Since what is very disturbing about the Commission’s work is precisely this fragmentation, this distance between departments, you cannot go to see a colleague without taking the metro, the bus or a bicycle to go X kilometres further. I think that there is a real desire to refocus services on the European quarter.
A district in crisis, undoubtedly one of the hardest hit by the crisis. Like here, all the activity revolves around the offices and their workers, who have left. Giovanna Nardi knows that it will never be the same again. Even though she is smiling at lunchtime, her little Italian restaurant is desperately empty: “Even the take-away is not as successful as in other places, because no one lives here and you don’t see this area that way, it’s an area you see to work. She says that she lives (over) on her own funds, so as not to sink the shop that has existed for almost 60 years: “My mother and my aunt opened the shop when Berlaymont did not yet exist! They saw the construction of the Berlaymont”.
And it is the whole neighbourhood that is losing out: “All the restaurants, hairdressers and institutes are closed”, explains Nicole Du Jacquière, president of the Jean Monnet Crossroads Traders’ Association. “All these shops were made for people who work, who are there, who do their shopping at lunchtime; all life revolves around the offices.”
Transforming to become resilient
More offices are due to be built soon. The European Commission is waiting for the construction of the 128-metre high Realex Tower. Next to The One, it should house its conference centre. But what will happen to the “130 block” project, which was also intended to increase the density of the institutions’ office space?
For Marco Schmitt, “If we want things to change, we don’t need even more square metres of office space! We need to think more globally, with the rental void elsewhere. And then there is not only a functional mix to be found in the district but also a social mix. All this to make it more resilient in general.
This functional mix is one of the promises of the PAD Loi, the Master Plan, according to perspectives.brussels.
Article “Teleworking and European Commission’s new building policy” written by Aline Wavreille, Le Soir, published on 26/04/21 at 10h21. You can read the article here (FR).