I was born in Izegem, a little village near Brugge, and I consider myself a restless Belgian. I studied sociology and started working in the Brussels Theatre Beursschouwburg. During that time I took part in several 'artistic squats'. These were demanding more political action to create a sustainable living model for Brussels citizens. Our main work was staging artistic interventions in public spaces, which we did with a group of creative young people. City Mine(d) was the name of our organisation which specialised in urban creativity. After eight years in Brussels, we exported the concept to London and Barcelona. I started the Barcelona office in collaboration with the CCCB (Centre de Cultura Contemporanea de Barcelona) and we are active in public spaces and local initiatives such as Forum 2004 and Can Ricard, and projects in Barceloneta, Poblenou,..)
In 2008 when there was no more public funding to finance our cultural actions in Barcelona, I started getting interested in sustainable living, ecologic building and smart cities. I studied three masters: “The Age of Sustainable Development” (Columbia University New York); “Design of Sustainable and Efficient Building”, (SEAS, University of Wales) and “Critical Thinking in Global Challenges”, (University of Edinburgh). And, I started EcoLAB CanNova, the first company for sustainable building in Barcelona.
EcoLAB CanNova is a design and construction company in and around Barcelona which focusses on sustainable building, healthy houses and energy efficiency. One particularly important aspect of our business is the participation of the client in the design and choosing of materials for their home. We propose and explain the different types of natural and efficient materials and construction systems to all our clients, and we try to make each building project as sustainable and healthy as possible.
For our office we started a (e)co-working space which we share with other freelancers and small companies who are active in sustainability. Our aim is to create a network and to share experiences that then enrich our projects.
1. Where did the original idea come from?
The idea to start a bio-construction company came from conversations with architect friends about the impact the construction sector has on the devastation of nature, and the unsustainable nature of the processes used for the production, transporting and extraction of materials. I started getting interested in looking for alternative materials to create sustainable, respectful and healthy houses.
2. How long did it take to get your business off the ground?
During the first three years of the company we organised different public events around the themes of sustainable building, ecological materials and self-construction. Our aim was to create awareness and to nurture a network of professionals in bio-construction. These three years were also the peak of the economic crisis, and there was little construction activity in general. Since 2014 we have been fully active as a construction company and we have already completed 12 building projects.
3. What do you wish you’d known when you started?
There is so much to learn in bio-construction about materials and innovation systems in building. I wish we could have started with all the knowledge we have gathered since then.
4. How easy was it get the financing for your business?
We started the business as volunteers, which I think is a must to show you really believe in your business and product. Then we got a small loan to start our first building project, but now the company is 100 percent self-sufficient.
5. Did you find the paperwork difficult?
I think that it's difficult to get the paperwork organised when you set up any business. As a construction company it has not been easy to get all the legal obligations sorted, but nothing is impossible. It’s not Spain that is particularly difficult. I remember that Belgium was hell for me with paperwork.
6. Did you get help from any particular official organisations or associations?
I looked for help at the beginning with Barcelona Activa to work on the marketing plan and financial plan. It is always very helpful to have ready-prepared documents that can guide you through the start-up phase.
7. What is your business experience?
EcoLAB CanNova is the first business I've started, but before that I started two non-profit organisations, one in Brussels and one in Barcelona. So, I knew all the basics about administration and business plans. Now it’s about real business—sustaining a company and evolving with new ideas, proposals, input, opportunities and so on.
8. What are the positive aspects about having a business here?
Barcelona is home to many creative and curious citizens. Interesting projects are always successful and attract a public. Every day you can discover more incredible ideas and incredible people. There's so much to do and so much to achieve.
9. And the negative aspects?
I think that the image people have of Spain's professional services is quite negative, regarding timing, responsibility and transparency. But now Barcelona has a huge mix of cultures and experiences, and the level of competence is very high. So we all need to be 100 percent professional and creative!
10. Do you have any tips for other foreign entrepreneurs in Barcelona?
There are a lot of entrepreneur networks in Barcelona, and I think these can help you to understand how Barcelona works business-wise. Also, Barcelona Activa is a good place to spend time and work on your business plan. Asking lots of questions helps!
See here for more information about EcoLAB CanNova.