For a while, the client had been looking for a place to live and work in Sint-Niklaas. They eventually stumbled upon a property consisting of living quarters and a warehouse, covering the whole site and barely leaving any open space. The owners had the intention to live there and to also start a practice; a dream not only to start a private practice, but to achieve a space suitable for co-working, allowing a cross-over between disciplines. The centralized position of the site in the city, near the station, gave the idea the possibility to reduce the impact of mobility, hence making the project more sustainable.
BLAF architecten was contacted to investigate whether the owners’ desired living and working program was financially viable, functional and urban-compatible with the limitations and possibilities of the site and its buildings. BLAF found it an interesting task in issues like quality of life and sustainability of a city. A situation where themes such as density, mix of functions, mobility, collectivity, various types of housing, energy, etc. are considered alongside the purely technical aspects of sustainable construction. The property had been for sale for a while, probably because it was too big and too expensive for just a single-family home. Yet in terms of size it was suitable for the desired mixed, functional use of living and working of the clients. It is also a way to preserve and renovate the beautiful underlying industrial building.
After an initial design research the decision had been made to inverse the program of the original layout. The row house, on the street side, became the co-working practice, the warehouses and the high-rise building on the inner court became the residence.
The plot was purchased with a suspensive condition. This provided the needed certainty for the client until they reached an agreement with the City Planning Department. A first building permit was obtained. The permit contained the partial demolition of the warehouse and rear building. The program exchange, living-working as stated above, had also been granted, whereafter the plot was purchased definitively.
The permit was issued under certain conditions: a maximum of 1 residential function on the site, privacy for surrounding residents, preservation of the common walls and a buffer zone between working space and living space. These guidelines were included in the design that led to a second building application. After the second permit was obtained, the construction was started.
Context and description of the parcel in its original state:
The property is located in the Mercatorstraat, in the center of Sint-Niklaas. Houses in this part of the street are predominantly terraced houses. The street side of the plot is SW-oriented. The plot has an L-shape and has a specific rhythm of buildings with varied volumes and facades, passageways and limited open spaces. It is almost completely developed.
At the front, at the Mercatorstraat, the building consists of a two-storied terraced house with a gable roof. The gate in the facade leads to a passageway, giving access to the buildings situated in the back. Along the passage is an extension of two levels with a flat roof, behind which is a beautiful industrial building of three levels, occupying the entire width of the plot. From here on the site is completely built up as a warehouse, consisting of a one layer, steel skeleton with a flat roof. The warehouse goes around the corner delineating the L-shape of the parcel.
Situation after demolition:
The house adjoining the street (co-working) is disconnected from the industrial building (living space) by breaking down the intermediate constructions. This creates a green buffer between the two functions as an open space, which can serve as a parking space, but mainly brings visibility, light and sun into the project for both entities. This way the south-facing facade from the house also becomes visible from the street side. The intermediate space functions not only as a buffer but also as a collective space between the private parts.
The warehouse behind the conserved industrial building is also being demolished while retaining the structural steel elements. This as a reminder of the industrial past of the site.
The retained volumes are stripped of non-qualitative and light materials and structural defects, whereby the structure of concrete, brick and steel is preserved and completed with a new qualitative and light construction in wood and glass.
Explanation for design:
The front row house is being converted into a co-working practice, with a covered entrance passage to the rear. The ground floor is wheelchair accessible with a waiting room, toilet and a first practice room. The central stairwell provides access to the various practice rooms and kitchen on the first floor. The main building was in good condition and was only technically improved, low-cost (insulation and techniques), with limited modification of the facades. Only the exterior joinery and the roof construction were adapted and renewed.
The 3 level high industrial building is converted into a house. The conserved sturdy structure of concrete, brick and steel becomes the enclosure of a light, transparent, contrasting, playful and organically designed volume of the house. Indoor spaces have been withdrawn from the front facades, creating small terraces, balconies, light areas and spaces for greenery. This movement creates more privacy for residents, co-workers and local residents. The contrast and withdrawn volume of the house also emphasizes the character of the past and the impressive central location of the volume in the inner area. On the ground floor, even the garden can be reached through the retracted volume, via a sequence of covered and uncovered outside spaces.
The main living spaces (cooking, eating, sitting) are situated on the ground floor with varying atmospheres and visual relationships. On the first floor, the rooms are oriented around a central spiral staircase. This way every space adjoins an exterior facade, providing sun and light. The facade facing the front is oriented towards the south. Outside spaces are added, for example to the multipurpose room.
As the basic energetic concept of the building, the ‘trias energetica’ was used. The limitation of the energy demand is the most important factor. The insulated volume of the house, enclosed by the retained solid structure, ensures shading and thermal inertia. It is constructed as a wood frame with passive insulation values. Built in ecologically legit materials: triple glazing, walls and roof with 26cm and 24cm mineral wool insulation and floor with 12cm Resol-insulation. The resulting limited energy demand does not use fossil fuels. The house is equipped with a ‘compact unit’, which provides both sanitary hot water production, heating of the rooms and ventilation. This Austrian machine is rarely used in Flanders, but is a frequent application for BLAF that is economically and ecologically very efficient. For the limited cold periods and to optimize atmosphere and comfort, a small wood stove was provided in the living room, and an infrared mirror in the bathroom.