In late November, nearly 1,000 civil servants moved into the Astro Tower in Brussels as the building was formally opened to the public. Occupied by Actiris – the employment agency of the Brussels Region – the 107-meter tower is one the tallest buildings in Belgium that has just undergone a major renovation for which Hill International provided project management services in its capacity as Owner’s Representative, marking its entry into the Belgian market. The client was FG Asset Management and Patrizia AG, that acted on behalf of Korean investors. For its part, Hill brought on board several new skills, with some of them unique and probably for the first time, said Jacques M. Demol, vice president of Hill’s Project Management Group in Geneva, Switzerland. “We had to deal with several challenges, given the tight schedule. Handover to operational occupancy was achieved in a six-week period,” he said. Hill played a major role in overseeing the various contractors’ work in completing the tower renovation as well as the tenant fit-out works and helping move the tenant, Demol said. “All this was fast tracked, will serve as an amazing reference and be part of our capability statement as we pursue new project opportunities in Belgium and its nearby nations,” Demol said.
Built in 1976, the Astro Tower has occupied a prominent position in the skyline of Brussels and is a 33-storey office building with 36,000 square meters (388,000 square feet) of built-up area. The tower also includes five levels of underground space, parking for 264 cars and an archive area. The planned € 107 million ($116 million) high-energy-efficiency, passive building class A renovation entailed curtain wall cladding, MEP services, elevator improvements, architectural finishings and bespoke tenant fit-out work. The major renovation has also preserved the building’s original morphology, while making it one of the most efficient buildings in the region. A new pixellated façade combined stainless steel and high-performance glazing, with the upper technical floors assembled into a crown give the tower a clear identity in the landscape. The base, connecting the building with the surrounding area, was reconfigured to provide a new entrance sequence and a more harmonious relationship with the neighborhood. The project represented a truly international picture as the seller was Spanish, the buyer was Korean, and the deal was managed by a German fund manager with an office in Paris, France. “This was truly a global deal and, for Hill, it showed we can work with different cultures.” Demol played an active role along with the other Hill International personal on site, to complete the contract and also maintain the client relationship. “It is an asset building which was renovated and customized to the tenant’s requirements. That made it technically and contractually complicated. The 40-year old tower was stripped out and a full renovation was carried out,” he said, noting that Actiris will be the primary tenant and lease the renovated tower on a long-term basis. Managing specific requirements of the tenant stakeholders was also a challenge that Hill International dealt with successfully, Demol said.
The Astro Tower project will now provide a base for Hill in Belgium, Demol said, adding the footing and experience gained from the contract will serve as a launching pad to pursue other opportunities in that country. “We will use this to put our name in the market place. Real estate in Belgium is a local development and we have to show that, although Hill International is a global company, we can perform locally,” he said. Hill is participating in a tender for the renovation of a 90,000 sq meter European Union office building in Brussels. “Both the government and private sector is our target in not just Belgium, but also Europe,” Demol said. With Hill’s current European strategy focused on private equity funds and signing with them “framework contracts,” all eyes will now be on the award of another contract in Western Europe. The major opportunities in Belgium and the Netherlands (in Western Europe) lie in the commercial, retail and hospitality sectors and these are all strongholds of Hill which has delivered several projects globally in these lines of investment. “The role of project managers in Western Europe is not as identified as in the U.S. and developers, engineers and contractors provide their own version of PM services making it a rather competitive market. Our strategy is to target the top of the food chain and get on board with a client at the early stages of development,” Demol said. Undeniably, Hill is in pole position with this strategy that is being implemented actively not just in Europe, but globally as well.
By Ashok Dutta