Coal preparation plants 1 and 3 to receive a new lease of life on the largest industrial heritage site in Flanders

be-NATURE principle reconciles coal preparation plants with Mother Nature

How do you repurpose two dilapidated coal preparation plants creatively and responsibly? This was the question on the minds of the developers, be-Mine NV, when elaborating their recent plans for the future of the giant coal preparation plants 1 and 3 at the former mine site in Beringen. The answer? Be-NATURE, a restoration principle whereby local nature will be introduced into a section of the mining heritage in a controlled manner. This surprising interplay between nature and heritage – involving an investment of around 10 million euros – aims to attract more than 100,000 extra visitors per year to be-MINE.

With 100,000 m² of buildings, be-MINE is the largest industrial heritage site in Flanders, and it is unique in Europe. Over the past ten years, the former mining area has been transformed. It has become an attractive and economically valuable tourist and leisure site, with lots of opportunities for new experiences and recreation that also respect its heritage value.

According to Tom Vanham (Managing Director NV LRM), one important piece is still missing in this beautiful heritage puzzle. “Coal preparation plants 1 and 3 have been empty ever since the mine closed down. Over the years, they have also become overgrown and dilapidated. It is therefore essential to breath new life into these historic buildings.”

be-NATURE principle

That’s why be-MINE recently put their heads together with all kinds of heritage experts, sector organisations, heritage associations, ex-mine workers and relevant policymakers. The result? The be-NATURE principle, in which industrial heritage and nature are uniquely intertwined. “We opt for the absolute preservation of visual value. We will also keep coal preparation plant 3 in its entirety as a ‘viewing box’ and are planning a specific use in the future. The ruined facades will be replaced with temporary transparent facades. In doing so, it will be possible to see right inside the coal preparation plant from the top of the mine heap”, says Jeroen Huysmans (Managing Director NV be-MINE).

“In coal preparation plant 1, we are returning to the essence of the building: its powerful structure. We will retain the supporting skeleton of beams and columns and remove dubious floor panels and rundown installations. We are opting for a light restoration of the facades on the North side in an effort to maintain the visual value and ensemble. This facade will be supported by three carefully restored bays, and we will carry out intensive concrete and steel repairs. We will allow a selection of the remaining installations and most of the structure to be taken over by the flourishing local nature in a controlled manner. To give the local flora a chance to blossom, areas that are currently dark will be given a new transparent roof structure. This spectacular symbiosis will be made publicly accessible to cyclists, walkers and heritage fans so that visitors can marvel at the essence of be-MINE: industrial heritage and nature at the foot of the Coal Track”, explains Jeroen Huysmans.

Two activities will take this new, international eye-catcher to a higher level. “There will be a themed drinking and dining experience at the foot of the Coal Track and an art gallery in which art, industrial heritage and nature are intertwined. The activities will be co-developed with private partners. Specific negotiations are already underway and will complement what is already on offer in Limburg. Our ambition is to open in 2024”, confirms Jeroen Huysmans.

“Example for Europe”

“Only a small number of coal preparation plants have been preserved as heritage in Europe. There is, therefore, little experience in repurposing and finding new activities for such an enormous complex. The coal preparation plant in Beringen can set an example in Europe. Architectural heritage is a non-renewable resource. Whatever we destroy or remove is lost forever. The search for a new purpose is a creative process that respects what we have and aims for maximum reversibility. In this case, a purpose that relates to the story of the coal preparation plant, but that is also useful, sustainable and creative. Recently, work on the coal preparation plant in Beringen went up a gear and is now at a crucial turning point. This involves many parties working together RIGHT NOW. The Vlaamse Vereniging voor Industriële Archeologie vzw is keen to collaborate”, says Hendrik Nelde (Director VZW VVIA).

For the industrial activities, one needed a solid foundation. But that paving is superfluous for the interpretation of be-MINE. Softening the site gives rainwater the chance to soak into the ground. This will help to prevent scorching and flooding.

“Participative project”

“The best heritage work is realised when there is strong participation, with the opportunity for involvement from the bottom up. We are therefore really delighted by be-MINE’s approach to intensively involve the heritage sector as well. So much can be achieved with constructive dialogue, and again be-MINE is setting a real example for other projects in Flanders”, says Matthias Francken (Managing Director VZW HERITA).

Support from Flanders, the Province of Limburg and Stad Beringen

Resources are required to realise such an ambitious project. In total, this concerns an investment of around ten million euros. The Flemish government has already committed two million euros, sums up Minister of Building Heritage Matthias Diependaele: “Flanders has all kinds of valuable heritage, but a site of this scale and allure is hard to find. The plans to let nature prevail in coal preparation plants 1 and 3 bear witness to the creativity and social commitment. Furthermore, those behind the initiative are planning to work with internationally acclaimed partners. We expect this concept to attract more than 100,000 additional national and international visitors each year, specifically for its combination of industrial heritage and nature. In doing so, we will also enhance the appeal of our region.”

Igor Philtjens, representing Tourism and Patrimony, is enthusiastic too. “The symbiosis of maintaining the visual value and the be-NATURE philosophy is ideal. After all, the authenticity of the mining heritage at be-MINE is so strong that an experience can be provided without too much intervention. That is also our principle in realising the mine experience centre be-MINE PIT.  We will use the power of the industrial heritage to create a unique experience route through the monumental buildings. This will allow visitors to gain a poignant experience of the life of miners and the impact of the mining industry on Limburg’s economic development and society. The work will start shortly.  More than 30 years after the site closed, it will finally regain its former grandeur as an economic hotspot for Beringen and, with the installation of the Coal Track, also for Limburg. The Coal Track connects the range of leisure facilities in the former mining buildings and two top tourist attractions: cycling and heritage. This creates opportunities for new activities and jobs in Limburg’s leisure industry.”

Mayor Thomas Vints is delighted with the current plans. “Stad Beringen has been working closely with be-MINE NV on the reconversion of the former mine site for ten years. Be-MINE has become a new district in which to live, go to school and enjoy some recreation. The repurposing of the coal preparation plants has been a challenging question for many years. It has weighed on the minds of those living in Beringen. We are pleased there is now a specific proposal, which I believe to be a grand finale to the activities and experiences already on the site.”

Associations are also supporting be-NATURE

The European heritage association Europa Nostra believes this project to be another asset in heritage preservation. “For Europa Nostra Belgium, the be-NATURE experience with public access through coal preparation plant 1 as a gateway to Limburg’s coal track is a credible and attractive part of a design that reconciles the coal preparation plants 1 and 3 with the previously approved repurposing of coal preparation plants 2 and 4, and the development of the be-MINE PIT experience centre”, says Paul Dujardin (Chairman Europa Nostra Belgium). “Although a number of questions on the elaboration obviously remain to be answered, Europa Nostra Belgium is convinced that the proposed concept will quickly be approved for further development. No more time should be lost if we are to preserve Limburg’s best-kept mine for the future.”

As chairman of the Monument Preservation workgroup in Beringen, Stephan Put is also appealing to all stakeholders in the project with regard to the repurposing of coal preparation plants 1 and 3: “The Monument Preservation team in Beringen would be delighted if the momentum around this project could be maintained to continue a constructive debate and discussion on the repurposing of coal preparation plants 1 and 3, as an integral part of the total project concerning all coal preparation plants: 1, 2, 3 and 4.”

Finally, the non-profit organisations Mijnmuseum and Vrienden van het Mijnstreekmuseum are also in favour of this encouraging approach. “The be-NATURE project is a remarkable and positive initiative to integrate the remaining coal preparation plants with the rest of the be-MINE story”, says William Vanderheyden (Chairman of VZW Mijnmuseum).