Renovation turns pub into dream home in Ghent, Belgium

Not demolition, not excavation: The first thing Bert Pieters and Yves Drieghe did after buying a derelict former pub, with dreams of turning it into their home, was throw a party.

“A lot of people were nostalgic about the place. We didn’t really have a choice,” jokes Pieters. The “place” in question was a trapezoidal 1930s building rising two levels on a corner site in Ghent, in northwestern Belgium. For years, the pub had been a popular watering hole for fans of local soccer team K.A.A. Ghent (also known as the Buffalos).

A view of the 1930s pub that’s now home to Bert Pieters and Yves Drieghe. The building’s glazed-brick facade—and the potential for a rooftop garden, a rarity in Belgium—charmed the couple.

Yves Drieghe (left), Bert Pieters, and their nine-year-old English Cocker Spaniel, Tilda, in the open-plan living and dining room on the second floor.

But when the league relocated, the pub saw its base diminished and went bankrupt; its owners were forced to sell. Pieters says he and Drieghe bought it “on the spot” after a visit two years ago with their architect, from Belgian firm MAN Architecten (MAN), seeing beyond the “mess” and “smell” to the space’s potential as a post-commercial pub-turned-dream house.

“I think the neighborhood was quite panicked about it,” Drieghe wryly says about their new purchase. “I think a lot of people thought we were going to open another pub,” Pieters adds. In this residential enclave, the pub’s closure had been bittersweet; it meant losing an area landmark, but also a welcome reprieve from the noise of revelry.

The neighbors needn’t have worried. After their party, Pieters and Drieghe, who co-own and operate Belgian branding agency Dift, set to work figuring out how to transform their new property into something livable. They knew they wanted to keep the look of the facade more or less intact, preserving its glazed bricks. The interiors, however, were a different story.

Works by artist Sanny Winters (from her book, Gent XtraBold) hang above a wooden soaking tub in the master bed’s en-suite bathroom. The white storage cabinet, left, is from Kewlox.

Walls of translucent polycarbonate devised by Werkplaats Grof let light into the master bedroom, but keep things discreetly blurred beyond. The blue cabinet (rear) is also by Werkplaats Grof.

Pieters and Drieghe left the interior masonry exposed to preserve a scruffy, post-industrial look inside.

“It looked terrible” from years of neglect, says Drieghe, recalling the building’s pre-renovation state. Luckily, Pieters and Drieghe had renovation experience, having previously revamped a house in the countryside. They sold the house when new development began to spring up around it, rendering the area more suburban than rural. This one is the couple’s third project together.

The couple started by having the pub’s bar removed (“we gave it to a friend—it was quite a nice one,” says Pieters) and cleared debris. But they left the exposed-brick interior walls as they were and kept the polished-concrete floors on the ground level, aiming to preserve the space’s scruffy, post-industrial look. The pub had no central heating, so the couple installed a hot water heating system (the master bed is heated by a radiant, underfloor system). The heat produced is distributed throughout the building by sleek radiators painted black, a point of contrast with the mottled interior brick.

Belgian homes typically have common areas on the ground level and private spaces above, Pieters explains. But here, the design team at MAN inverted this arrangement, putting the open-plan kitchen and living room upstairs and creating an en-suite master bedroom and space for additional bed and bathrooms below, taking advantage of the additional daylight on the second floor.

Natural light isn’t a problem in the master bedroom, where translucent polycarbonate walls divide this space from the central stair and hallway beyond. A triptych of limited-edition prints by French graphic designer and artist Jean Jullien, with whom Pieters and Drieghe worked on a 2016 exhibition, hangs above the bed.

Polished-concrete floors meet exposed brick walls and MDF cabinetry in this ground-floor corner.

Design studio Werkplaats Grof devised this “sleeping box” of off-the-shelf pink medium-density fiberboard (commonly referred to as MDF) on the home’s ground floor. It has a cheeky, unprintable nickname that’s a nod to other bedtime activities.

“It’s perfect,” says Pieters. “It gives us way more light [in the higher-traffic common areas] and a sort of darkened bedroom.” When it comes to natural light on the ground floor, it helps, too, that the walls are made of translucent polycarbonate panels in pine frames. The couple spotted a similar plastic paneling on display in a museum and decided to use a double-layer variation that lets light through but leaves the objects behind it as only darkened outlines.

Cheeky irreverence is a theme in the house. Beyond the peekaboo walls, balustrades throughout are made of soccer netting, in homage to the space’s previous use. The ground floor also features a “sleeping box” made of off-the-shelf pink medium-density fiberboard (better known as MDF). Designed by local firm Werkplaats Grof (which also devised the polycarbonate walls on the ground floor and the house’s kitchen), the box includes two cubbies for sleeping, one at grade and the other on a mezzanine level. Each contains a queen-size bed. In a nod to other bedtime activities, and in keeping with the playful spirit of the household, the architect gave the sleeping box an unprintable nickname.

“It’s a good solution if you don’t have much space and you want to create an extra bedroom,” says Pieters, noting that each level of their three-story home measures 68 square meters, or about 730 square feet.

Fire engine-red structural steel is offset by the neutral color palette of the kitchen’s MDF cabinetry. The wood-burning stove (left) is by Norwegian brand Jøtul. The sofa is from Muuto, The green cart (center), here used as a side table, is vintage. The pillow with with the eye motif is by Walter Van Beirendonck for Ikea.

The fun is more wholesome upstairs, where an open-plan kitchen, composed of water-resistant MDF panels, opens up to a combined living and dining room where new structural steel is a vibrant, fire engine red.

To maximize the amount of sunlight in the space, MAN Architecten punched expansive single-pane windows out of the facade, which also create seating inside. The couple’s dogs, a 9-year-old English Cocker Spaniel, Tilda, and 12-year-old Labrador, Hektor, take full advantage. “I sit there every evening,” says Pieters. “And the dogs sleep there. It’s made them popular in the neighborhood.”

In a nod to the building’s past as a hangout for local soccer fans, the design team at MAN Architecten used netting for balustrades throughout the house.

Broad windows on the facade reach out toward the street to maximize interior light and create seats inside. The front door is hard to find by design, says homeowner Bert Pieters. “We don’t have a doorbell because we don’t like unexpected visitors,” he jokes.

Pieters and Drieghe departed in another major way from the typical suburban Belgian house: Their pub-turned-home has a roof garden. Just off a small multipurpose room, a set of glass accordion-style doors leads to a sanctuary of vegetables, several small trees, and a seating area atop a wooden deck.

“We had to be quite careful, because [the trees we have] can’t be too aggressive in growing,” says Pieters. The couple chose ash and Japanese cherry trees, along with wisteria. The wisteria’s purple blooms should be fully mature, and drape alluringly over the crown of the building, in a couple of years, explains Pieters. Just enough time, Drieghe adds, laughing, for the itinerant pair to move again.

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