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Molenbeek’s last farmhouse reborn as the House of Nature
Number 997 Chaussée de Ninove, in the Brussels commune of Molenbeek, appears to be an elegant town house. Standing on a main road leading out of the city, its facade of creamy tiles rises three storeys to a mansard roof. Off to one side, there is a wing with a stepped gable.
But appearances can be deceptive. The house was built as a working farm, its urban exterior hiding a yard with barns and stables, leading to fields stretching away behind the main road. The gabled wing was also a barn, with cattle on the ground floor and fodder in the loft.
By 1995, when the farmer retired, it was the last working farm in Molenbeek. After his death in 2002, the building was bought by the commune, but putting it to new use has taken a while.
The original out-buildings were not made to last and had to be cleared away. Meanwhile, a second gabled wing had become unstable and had to be demolished. Renovation work began in earnest in the summer of 2016, with the aim of turning the farmhouse into an educational centre covering the natural world, food and farming, and sustainable living.
“The House of Nature will be a fantastic educational resource for schools,” said Françoise Schepmans, the mayor of Molenbeek, at an event in May to mark the end of building work. “It is essential that children discover animals in other ways than through books or television.”
When the House of Nature opens for business at the beginning of next year, it will have space for activities and exhibitions, while the new stables and barns will be populated with goats, sheep, rabbits and chickens, and maybe a donkey or two.
There will be space to grow fruit and vegetables, and an open-air bread oven. Pizza with very locally produced goat’s cheese, herbs and tomatoes is a distinct possibility.
The House of Nature’s biggest asset, however, is its connection to the Scheutbos, a 50-hectare semi-natural forest reserve that lies to the north. A path leads directly from the back of the farmyard to the fields and woods.
“It’s not just a farm with a few animals, it’s right next to this large nature reserve, and you can combine the two,” says Elien De Swaef of Beliris, which oversaw the renovation project.
Beliris is an agency set up by the federal government and Brussels-Capital Region to manage public construction projects, particularly those involving historic buildings. In some ways the House of Nature is a typical project, since the aim was to retain some of the old farmhouse’s architectural features, while changing and modernising its function.
But it was also an unusual project. “It’s the first farm we have ever done, the first stables we have ever built, so there are a lot of new features as well,” says De Swaef. “And it’s very inspiring for our teams to have something different to do.”
The original features include an undulating brick ceiling in the gabled wing, while the old beams in the loft create an atmospheric space for storytelling, music or other activities. In the main house the central staircase has been retained, and the tiles on the facade and the balconies have been restored.
Otherwise the interior feels entirely modern, fitted out with everything future school groups might need. From an environmental point of view, the building is as energy-neutral as possible. A new, three-bedroom cottage built next door for the project’s caretaker goes further: It is entirely passive, designed to use the minimum amount of energy.
The House of Nature also promises to forge strong connections to the local community. The Friends of the Scheutbos, which organises activities in the reserve, will have its base in the building, and links are already forming with the Dutch-speaking school that is its immediate neighbour.
Invited to the event in May, the children were already looking forward to having a farm on their doorstep. “They could barely stand still,” De Swaef recalls. “They were so excited about seeing the place and the idea that that there would be animals here that they could visit. They were also thrilled to be the ones who planted the first berry bushes in the garden.”