Firm hatches unique residential concept for one-of-a-kind factory


A Hasselt architectural firm has come up with a crazy idea to convince locals to buy into an unconventional living concept

Guest residencies

On the outskirts of Tongeren, in the little district of Nerem, a surprising sight appears along a quiet back street. A large, rectangular brick building rises above the neighbouring houses and fields in this sleepy suburb of 900 people. Above the coloured glass panes of a five-metre tall round window crowning the front entrance, a cheeky squirrel in glazed clay looks down at visitors.

Although I live just 30 kilometres from here, I’d never heard of this place until recently. I’ve come today, on a chilly Saturday morning, to take a tour and meet the architects who are planning to turn this former Limburg industrial site into modern lofts.

The parking lot is overgrown with weeds, and the buildings are in an obvious state of disrepair. But I’m instantly enchanted by the site, by the art nouveau details on the facade, and by that squirrel.

The factory (pictured), built in 1909 to produce chocolate bars and peperkoek (gingerbread), was in operation until 1934, when the company went bankrupt. During the Second World War, it was occupied by the Belgian military, then the Germans and finally by American troops.

Starting in the 1970s, it housed a tin foundry, but the building has been sitting empty since 2012. A group of local investors started looking into developing the site last year. They were familiar with the old factory and couldn’t bear to see it fall into ruin.

They contacted staff at Hasselt architectural firm a2o, who jumped at the chance to work on the project, now dubbed De Chocolade Fabriek (The Chocolate Factory). “It’s a dream for an architect to make something of a building like this,” says Bart Hoylaert of a2o. “And it’s nice to be a part of the history of Limburg as well. We don’t have that many buildings like this.”

His colleague Killian Nekeman explains that the factory is unique in Limburg. It was one of the first poured-concrete buildings in Belgium. Built next to old railroad tracks, it has an unusual cantilevered roof, also made from concrete, covering the former loading area along the length of the building.

Love at first sight

The architects have been careful to integrate the existing structure and to maintain as much of its original appearance as possible. For instance, existing window openings will be extended to ground level to create doorways for each ground-floor unit. This means that every unit has its own entrance and garden. Upper units will be accessible via a broad glass gallery built on top of the roof.

Everyone who enters the building falls in love with it

- Architect Killian Nekeman

The most spectacular lofts will be located in the tower, where each floor will become a separate dwelling. From the upper levels of the tower, there are sensational views of every side of the surrounding countryside.

A range of units will be offered, each one designed to make the best use of the 100-year old industrial architecture. Sizes will range from 75 to 200 square metres and even the smallest units have the option of increasing the total floor space by adding a raised loft.

But what’s really innovative is that each unit is available with a choice of four levels of interior finish – from a “bare box” with just walls, floor and utility hookups, to a move-in ready home with toilet and bedroom fixtures and kitchen appliances.

Another feature of the architects’ design is the inclusion of common areas that will be used by all residents, such as the green area surrounding the buildings, which will be a community garden. The former factory workshop, with its two-storey-high ceilings, will be a common room available for parties and events.

It will be a challenge, the architects admit, to convince people here to buy into such a non-traditional living concept. And yet, Nekeman says: “The building sells itself. Everyone who enters the building falls in love with it.” 

A crazy idea

The Hasselt firm realised that they needed to get people to come see it in person if they were going to convince them to live here. So they came up with a crazy idea: to let people use the empty building for free.

Between now and the start of construction, the site will host an impressive variety of events and activities. The first “guest” to take residence in the old factory is a pop-up bar run by Tongeren restaurateur Peter Muziek. Until the end of the summer, it’s open to the public every Saturday and Sunday from noon to 20.00 and can also be booked for private parties.

There are creative workshops for children scheduled as well as laser tag games for groups. On the first Friday of every month, the site hosts an afterwork party, and more workshops and exhibitions are in the works.

Anyone with an idea can contact the organisers and ask to use the site. This way, the architects and developers hope to lure more visitors to this hidden gem of Limburg’s architectural heritage and promote their vision for its future.