The OAI has been a strong partner for stakeholders in the construction industry for over 30 years. Beyond its advisory role for companies and political decision-makers it is also the driving force behind the development of Luxembourg’s building culture, which involves all citizens. In this context, with rapidly rising property prices and the fight against climate change it currently faces some huge challenges. Pierre Hurt, Director of the OAI, has taken the time to discuss these with us.
The Order of Architects and Consulting Engineers has united all stakeholders in Luxembourg’s construction industry for over 30 years. What were the initial ideas behind its foundation?
Architects and consulting engineers shape our shared living space, it was therefore crucial to regulate these professions. As Luxembourg is a small country, it also seemed like a sensible idea to combine both professions in one association that was supported by former minister, Robert Goebbels.
Pursuing this path clearly turned out to be the right choice, as our environment can only be designed and planned with the cooperation of all parties involved.
In 1985, the European Directive on freedom to provide services and freedom of establishment also required all Member States to have an organisation dedicated to service providers.
Resilience is an important watchword for you. What, in your opinion, is the building industry’s role in this respect?
Our role is one of the most fundamental, if not the most fundamental factor for resilience: living and working are closely interconnected here. It is therefore essential that we plan our structures – not only in the construction industry – in such a way that we remain capable of action even in times of crisis. Think of a foam ball that can be compressed tightly before returning to its original shape.
Resilience is initially based on a smart network at different levels, i.e. national, regional and local. More specifically, in our case this means that we increasingly use locally made building materials.
It also means that we take the total cost of our ways of life into consideration. We need to ask ourselves: 'what added value are we creating for our society?' rather than 'how can we maximise the profits of a few dominant players?'.
How do companies in Luxembourg approach this topic?
Many companies in Luxembourg are currently working on it, and that’s a good thing. After all, resilience can only be a long-term success if we get all players on board – as is already the case in the circular economy.
In this respect, the health crisis has brought about a change in mindset. It has showed us that if we don’t respond to the current challenges, the climate crisis will present us with some entirely different challenges in future. In the long term, we’re talking about nothing short of a revolution, but one which offers us new possibilities.
Pierre Hurt has been the Director of the OAI since it was founded in 1990. In this role, he has introduced numerous initiatives that reflect his commitment, e.g. the OAI Reference Guide (Guideoai.lu), the Architectour.lu initiative, the Laix.lu exchange platform and the prestigious 'Bauhärepräis' award. He advocates smart and interconnected construction that benefits society, and as part of this endeavour he also supported, inter alia, the MOAI.LU (Maîtrise d’oeuvre OAI) methodology, a framework that helps different professional groups to cooperate on one project. He is a recognised proponent of social equality, sustainability and the 'slow'-movement.
How, in your opinion, should the stakeholders in the building sector behave to drive this revolution forward?
We have a small country with a great deal of potential. As such, we must also try to use our available resources the right way. This involves, above all, revaluing the conceptual stage of projects while keeping our objectives in mind, such as how we can be more resilient as a society. Builders, planners, users, administrative bodies and contractors all need to take part in this stage together.
However, the interests of these parties are often contradictory, so it sometimes seems like mission impossible to bring these stakeholders together even if we’re actually acting in everyone’s best interests.
This is where independent members of the OAI come into play who implement objectives stipulated by policymakers. For us, these are liberal professions that not only create a product, but also the intellectual process behind it.
One of the challenges that your sector also needs to address is climate change. How are you dealing with this in Luxembourg?
On the one hand, we have been dealing with this topic for quite some time by organising training courses together with institutions in Luxembourg and abroad. The construction phase of a building takes around three years. This time period gives a us framework within which we consistently help our members to take into account the developments in the building sector.
On the other hand, since 2020 we have been running a circular building project together with the Ministry of Energy and Spatial Planning. During the first phase, we drew up an inventory of all factors that impede a faster development of circular building as well as all of the initiatives and pilot projects in the sector.
We are now in the second phase of the project, whereby we are asking ourselves to what extent Luxembourg – and its partners in the Greater Region – can supply renewable construction materials. This also involves community planning and urban development, as well as the topics of urban farming and urban gardening.
A further question pertains to the use of projects - keyword multi-use. This is the only way that we can improve our quality of life and embrace the challenge of sustainable building and the circular economy. As such, in a freehold flat development, for example, the front garden could serve as usable space, as opposed to creating a rockery there.
Can we do anything to fight climate change in a small country like Luxembourg?
My answer is a definite yes. The way we act in our everyday lives and our consumption and mobility habits can have a tangible influence on climate change. Look at everything we achieved in the short-term during the Covid crisis. Having said that, we need to be proactive – we shouldn’t let things get to the stage where our actions are dictated by fear.
So, is the sector ready to rise up to these issues and challenges?
Of course. Luxembourg is a pioneer in this area. We implemented the European Directive three years before the other EU countries. In fact, Luxembourg is one of Europe’s leaders when it comes to energy regulations.
A key factor in Luxembourg is the steep increase in population, which has an impact on population density and property prices, among other things. What attempts are being made to strike a balance between the rising property prices and maintaining quality of life?
In our society, we are getting a sense of what accounts for qualitative coexistence, as we are in a phase where some places already have high density levels.
This doesn’t mean that we are overpopulated; Germany’s Saarland has more inhabitants than Luxembourg. But we do need to redevelop our densely built regions, whether in Luxembourg-City, the Nordstadt area or in the south of the country, e.g. Esch. It’s important that this new development imparts a sense of coherence and quality of life. It’s funny that when we travel away from home, for example when visiting a city centre in Italy, we marvel at this building density. In Luxembourg, by contrast, properties are built on plots of land in such a way that they are demarcated from their neighbouring plots.
We also need to learn to share and use building land fairly. This means tackling the issue of vacant properties, but also helping communities and towns in their efforts to create living space in cooperation with the private sector, as Luxembourg has some catching up to do in this respect.
It’s not only a question of social housing, we also need offerings for first-time buyers. Anyone who settles here to live and work must be able to enter the housing market and live in dignity without having to pay off a 50-year loan for the privilege. Otherwise our economy will collapse.
But above all, we cannot avoid discussing the issue of growth in Luxembourg.
Do you believe that it’s possible to foster intelligent growth while maintaining the quality of life that Luxembourg is renowned for?
Yes, if the politicians here ensure, for example, that a percentage of property is publicly owned so that we can preserve a market here for first-time buyers. This already follows from the constitutional revision that should lay down rules on the right to housing. The pubic authorities must play an active role, which they already do, for example with the 'Pacte logement 2.0' (housing pact) for communities and private stakeholders.
One of the reasons for the current situation is that we don’t have enough publicly owned building land. A revolutionary idea from Austria offers a potential solution: in Vorarlberg, land is included within the construction perimeter at the current sales price, and the owner receives plots of land outside the perimeter as compensation. This land never ends up becoming the object of speculation: it’s where public sector housing projects are built. This way, we could create an offering in three to four years and relieve a great deal of pressure from the local market.
All that remains is the question of building faster. Procedures and regulations are naturally important, but there needs to be a social consensus that this is one of the questions we must ask ourselves when it comes to growth. Having a NIMBY mentality to prevent building projects won’t get us anywhere.
The keyword here is sufficiency. What do we really need in order to create added value for society? We must be aware of the answers to this question.
What are we particularly proud of?
During the 31 years since the OAI was founded, we have established and expanded a fair, good working framework for our members so that free planners can fulfil their role in society. Our members don't just 'lay stones' they also lay the foundations of life; they create our living space and the culture of living together.
In 2004, the Government signed the architecture policy programme, which was a huge step forward towards more building culture.
Last but not least, the OAI is a reliable and recognised partner for legal, professional and social aspects.
Together, these three successes define the OAI’s role in society and form the basis of its credibility.