Coal washes 1 and 3 get second life at largest industrial heritage site in Flanders

be-NATURE principle reconciles coal washes with Mother Nature

How do you give two dilapidated coal washes a creative and socially responsible use? With that question in mind, in recent months developer NV be-MINE has been working out a future scenario for the giant coal washes 1 and 3 at the former mine site in Beringen. The answer? Be-NATURE, a restoration principle where local nature is brought into a portion of the mining heritage in a controlled way. This surprising interplay between nature and heritage – representing an investment of around 10 million euros – aims to attract more than 100,000 additional visitors to be-MINE each year.

With 100,000 m² of buildings, be-MINE is the largest industrial heritage site in Flanders, and unique in Europe. Over the past 10 years, the former mining site has undergone a true metamorphosis: it has emerged as an attractive and economically valuable tourist-recreational site, with plenty of experience and recreational opportunities, while respecting its heritage value.

In this beautiful heritage puzzle, however, one important piece is still missing, knows Tom Vanham (General Director NV LRM): “ coal laundries 1 and 3 have been empty since the mine closure . Over the years, therefore, they became feral and decayed. Therefore, it is crucial to breathe new life into these historic buildings.

be-NATURE principle

That is why be-MINE has been putting its heads together with a lot of heritage experts, sector organizations, heritage associations, ex-miners and concerned policy makers in recent months. The result? The be-NATURE principle, where industrial heritage and nature together form a unique blend. “We choose the absolute preservation of image value . Coal Laundry 3, moreover, we are preserving integrally as a “viewing box,” with a view to future infill. The dilapidated facades are giving way to temporary transparent facades. So from the slag heap you get an insight into this coal laundry”, said Jeroen Huysmans (General Manager NV be-MINE).

“In Coal Wash 1, we come back to the essence of the building: the power of the structure. We preserve the load-bearing skeleton of beams and columns and clear away unsafe floor slabs and rundown installations. We go for a light restoration of the facades on the North Side with a view to preserving its visual & ensemble value. This façade is supported by 3 carefully restored travéeën and we carry out intensive concrete and steel repairs. A few remaining selected plants and most of the structure we let take over controlled by the thriving local nature around it. To allow local nature to flourish, the currently dark spaces are giving way to a new transparent roof structure. We will make this spectacular symbiosis publicly accessible to cyclists, hikers and heritage enthusiasts, so that visitors can marvel at the essence of be-MINE: industrial heritage and nature at the foot of the Coal Trail“, explained Jeroen Huysmans.

Two activities charge this new international eye-catcher in terms of programming “On the one hand there will be a thematic catering experience at the foot of the Coal Railway, and on the other an art gallery where art, industrial heritage and nature are interwoven. This will be realized together with private partners for whom the necessary concrete discussions are already underway, and will be complementary to the current Limburg offer. We are aiming for an opening in 2024″, concludes Jeroen Huysmans.

"Tone project in Europe"

“Only a few coal washes were preserved as heritage in Europe. Thus, there is also little experience in seeking rezoning and redevelopment of such huge complexes. The Beringen coal laundry could thus become a toon project in Europe. Architectural heritage is a non-renewable resource. What is torn down or removed is lost forever. The search for a new future is a creative process that assumes respect for what we have, that seeks maximum reversibility. A destination in this case preferably related to the story of the coal laundry, but also useful, sustainable and creative. The approach to the Beringen coal laundry recently gained special momentum and is at a turning point. In doing so, many parties must join hands NOW. The Vlaamse Vereniging voor Industriële Archeologie vzw would like to lend its cooperation.” said Hendrik Nelde (Director VZW VVIA).

For industrial activities, you needed solid ground. But for the interpretation of be-MINE that paved floor is unnecessary. By softening, the rainwater the chance to soak into the ground. That Helps against desiccation and flooding hazards.

"Participatory track"

The best heritage projects are realized when there is a strong participatory process, with room for participation from the bottom up. We are therefore greatly charmed by the process that be-MINE has undertaken here to involve the heritage sector intensively as well. Through a constructive dialogue, a great deal is possible; in this respect too, be-MINE plays a role that can serve as an example for other projects in Flanders“, says Matthias Francken (General Director VZW HERITA).

Support from Flanders, Province of Limburg and City of Beringen

Realizing an ambitious project requires resources. The total investment involved is around 10 million euros. The Flemish government is already committing 2 million euros figures Minister of Immovable Heritage Matthias Diependaele: “Flanders has a lot of valuable heritage, but a site of this size and allure is rare. The plans for the vernaturing of coal washes 1 and 3 demonstrate creativity and social commitment. Moreover, the promoters resolve to work with internationally renowned partners. We therefore count on this concept to attract more than 100,000 additional visitors from home and abroad each year , who consciously choose the combination of industrial heritage and nature. This is how we increase the attractiveness of our region.”

Tourism and Heritage Commissioner Igor Philtjens also expressed enthusiasm. “The symbiosis of preserving image value and the be-NATURE philosophy is ideal. Indeed, the authenticity of the mining heritage at be-MINE is so strong that perception can be realized without all kinds of major interventions. This is also our starting point for the realization of the mining experience center be-MINE PIT. We use the power of industrial heritage to create a unique experiential route through the listed buildings. Visitors thus get a haunting experience of the miners’ work and the impact of the mining industry on Limburg’s economic development and society. Soon implementation will begin. More than 30 years after its closure, the site regains its grandeur as an economic hotspot for Beringen and, with the construction of the Coal Railroad, for Limburg as well. The Coal Trail not only connects the leisure offerings in the former mining settlements but also links two top tourist assets: cycling and heritage. This creates opportunities for new entrepreneurship and jobs in the Limburg leisure economy.”

Mayor Thomas Vints is also very pleased with the current plans: “Town of Beringen has been working closely with nv be-MINE for 10 years for the reconversion of the former mine site. Be-MINE became a new district where you can live, go to school and where there is room for relaxation. The repurposing of the coal washes remained a difficult issue for quite some time, which was also felt by our Beringen residents. We are pleased that there is now a concrete proposal on the table which I feel is a nice complement to what is already on the site to experience.”

Associations also rally behind be-NATURE

European heritage association Europa Nostra sees this project as an additional asset for heritage conservation. “For Europa Nostra Belgium, the be-NATURE experience with public passage through coal laundry 1 as a gateway to the Limburg coal railroad is a credible and attractive part of a design that reconciles coal laundries 1 and 3 with the already approved repurposing of coal laundries 2 and 4 and the development of the be-MINE PIT experience center.” says Paul Dujardin (President Europa Nostra Belgium). “Although a number of questions about the elaboration obviously still need to be answered, Europa Nostra Belgium is convinced that the proposed concept should be approved for further elaboration within the shortest time. There is no more time to lose if we want to preserve Limburg’s most fully preserved mine for the future.”

As chairman of the Monument Preservation Beringen working group, Stephan Put also appeals to all stakeholders in the dossier of the rezoning of coal washes 1 and 3: “Monumentenzorg Beringen would be delighted if the momentum around this project would be used for the continuity of constructive debate and consultation on the repurposing of coal washes 1 and 3, as an integral part of the overall project of all coal washes: 1, 2, 3 and 4.”

Finally, VZW Mijnmuseum and VZW Vrienden van het Mijnstreekmuseum also endorse this positive story. ” The be-NATURE project is a remarkably positive prelude to integrating the remaining coal washes into the whole be-MINE story,” says William Vanderheyden (President of VZW Mijnmuseum).