Organic urban farming and education

Dating back to 1663, the abbey farm – complete with tithe barn, cow sheds and milking parlour – has been fully restored in 2021. City of Leuven municipality made the deliberate choice to retain the appearance and centuries-old functions of these buildings.

Sustainable repurposing

“The starting point for the restoration project was sustainable repurposing”, explains councillor in charge of restoration works, Dirk Vansina. “We wanted to bring together the past and the present, and reassign their original purpose to these agricultural buildings. This was a very clear and fundamental decision made right from the off. This means that the abbey farm, together with its various outbuildings and adjacent vegetable garden, meadows and fields, can become a working entity once more. That’s what makes the restoration of this abbey farm so unique. We owe everything we have been able to achieve in part to the efforts of many stakeholders and wonderful partnerships.”

Katrien Deckers, monument conservation architect at Stad Leuven municipality comments: “We took the existing structures, dating from the 17th century, as our starting point. In order to arrive at a practical and usable building, there were things that needed adapting to modern-day building standards and new techniques were required in places. For the bat population, we even fitted special openings and ‘bat-friendly’ lighting in the hayloft. The challenge with this project lay in uniting old and new whilst having consideration for nature conservation and present needs.”

Relatively little has changed as far as the outward appearance of the buildings is concerned. Abdij van Park is a protected heritage site with extremely well-kept outbuildings. Despite being over 300 years old, the abbey farmhouse was in fairly good condition. New additions were made to the interior only, and are distinguishable through the use of modern materials.”

A bright future

The abbey farm will soon be a hive of activity, as it was in its former glory. Furthermore, Erfgoedsite Abdij van Park bv – a subsidiary of Autonoom Gemeentebedrijf Stadsontwikkeling Leuven – will manage and use part of the tithe barn as a covered outdoor space for small events.

The city has entered into contracts with three concessionaires who will utilise the abbey farm. These three partners are Wonen en Werken - De Wikke, CSA boerderij Boerencompagnie and Landwijzer.

De Wikke will run a farm shop in the tithe barn, offering a range of organic fruit and vegetables and produce of co-farmers at Abdij van Park. A portion of the fruit and veg will be grown on the abbey’s own land. De Wikke is the organic urban farming project of Wonen en Werken, which offers employment to those who have trouble finding standard employment. Boerencompagnie keeps its cows in the cowshed and also has a cheese dairy in the milking parlour. Upstairs, there are six classrooms for Landwijzer, an education centre for organic and biodynamic farming.

Features

Historical path uncovered and relaid  

Preliminary archaeological investigations revealed an old path that travelled behind the tithe barn and stables. Over the years, the path had become buried under piled up earth. During the restoration works, the road was dug back up to its original level and relaid. This re-established a working link between the vegetable garden outside and the interior of the tithe barn. This in turn led to the discovery of two operational entrances to the cellars that had also become buried under the earth.

Tithe barn with compacted soil floor

The term ‘tithe’ – meaning tenth – harks back to the days when one tenth of the grain harvest belonging to the tenants of the abbey farmland was set aside as a form of tax. The removal of newer additions to the barn, such as the concrete slurry trough, made it possible to return to the barn’s original layout. This then freed up the throughway inside the barn, accessed via two large entrance gates.

The wooden rafters on the interior were still in excellent condition, made from high quality wood and wooden joints. The rafters were cleaned and needed repairs in only a couple of places.

Another striking feature of the barn is its floor, consisting of compacted soil, much like it would have been back in the day. This is in-keeping with the restoration principle of retaining the building’s original function to the greatest extent possible. Investigations also highlighted that the walls contained a lot of salt (from the animals’ urine). The salt is released when the temperature rises, and would react with any finishing coat that was applied. For this reason, it was decided for the interior brickwork to be left in its original condition instead of being limewashed.

There is a height discrepancy in the barn: the ground level is the lower level that leads directly into the vegetable garden and outdoor stables along the old path. New additions – such as doorframes and a minimalist volume constructed from steel and glass that will come to house Wonen en Werken shop, De Wikke – are easily distinguishable by the modern material choices and design.

The former threshing floor above the cellars (now the stage area) is situated in the elevated zone, which enabled the hay and straw to be lifted from the cart and stacked at one level.

Indoor cattle shed and outdoor shed with green roof

In order to facilitate an increase in cattle numbers, a new outdoor shed has been built alongside the existing indoor shed. To achieve maximum integration into the landscape, this structure was built into the slope in the garden to the rear and was given a green roof. As such, it blends into the surrounding protected landscape.

Milking parlour

In the adjacent milking parlour where the cow’s milk would have been processed, we now have a modern dairy where the milk is used to make cheese, yogurt and ice cream.

Classrooms and functional space on the first floor  

Above the tithe barn, cattle sheds and milking parlour, a floor has been built to accommodate two classrooms, a refectory, changing room and technical room.

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