Inside Look | Baxus: a renovated monastery in the Scheldt valley
The year of construction still adorns the façade: 1772. Throughout the centuries, the old monastery of Hermelgem – a hamlet that has since merged with Nederzwalm in East Flanders – has been used in various ways: as a place of worship, a school, a farm, and now an authentic family home with a multipurpose rental space. "If we hadn't bought this unique piece of heritage, it would have been knocked down and the land subdivided for housing development," new owners Barbara and Stijn say.
"We had set our sights on this farmhouse for some time, but because of the high renovation costs, we were reluctant to take the plunge. When the price dropped after a year, and we heard that the next estate agent was a property developer, we knew we had to save this gem." The creative duo – she is an artist and decorator, he is an interior designer – bought the site in 2009 and renovated the buildings step by step. "Before the Scheldt was diverted, this was an unloading quay for ships. But you can also see remnants of old pig and cow stables. This building has a rich history, and we wanted to respect and preserve its authentic character as much as possible. When we first walked into the main building after purchasing it, the place looked like a ruin. So we really started from scratch."
Repurposing and reusing
"We renovated the main building and turned it into a family home, but we also wanted to create a multipurpose space to open the site up to the general public." That's how Baxus was born: a rental space of about 250 m2 for about sixty people. A creative place for workshops, seminars and intimate parties. "Both for our own home and for Baxus, we used natural materials wherever possible: hemp-block insulation, natural plaster, compacted-earth floors with natural resin, old terracotta tiles made in Boom, and so on. We also chose to use a lot of recycled materials and reclaimed demolition waste. We're real collectors, so we don't tend to throw things away easily. For example, we made the bar from old afzelia planks we'd bought some 30 years ago and steel plates that were originally intended for freight traffic. In both interior design and renovation, it all comes down to using the right materials in the right room at the right time."
Harmony in diversity
Furnishing and decorating a building with this much character is very challenging, but incredibly rewarding, as our interior design expert points out. "You want to make sure you don't drown out the original and raw personality of the house by filling up the interior too much, but you do need a lot of items to furnish such a monumental building. It's especially important to accentuate the most striking elements of the existing architecture, like the patina of the floors and the original beams, but also the unevenness of the walls, the metal frames of the windows and the rustic wooden doors. I wanted the style and the atmosphere of the interior to match the character of the building, so I used natural materials and subdued colours. I also made sure to bring the outside in with lots of plants."
The furniture is all wood, in different finishes and colours, creating a natural harmony. "For the decorations, I used a lot of reed and wicker – from storage baskets and vases to wind lights and wall art – and a lot of fabric. Plaids, cushions, carpets, upholstered sofas and armchairs, and curtains in coarse linen: you get a sense of warmth the second you walk through the door. The handcrafted, ethnically inspired objects provide an adventurous edge, and they each have their own story to tell ... just like the building."