Published in 3/2020 - Craft

Interview

Turning a Chocolate Factory into a Home

Text Essi Oikarinen Images Eugeni Bach

The former chocolate factory in the province of Girona, Spain, was converted into a second home for a Belgian family by carrying out carefully thought-out alterations. 

Sometimes it is best to do very little, thought Anna and Eugeni Bach, a Spanish-Finnish architect couple, when they received an assignment to design a home for a Belgian family in a former chocolate factory. A man whose dream was to transform an 19th-century industrial building into his second home had bought the building located in a small town of La Bisbal in Catalonia. The home would also include a studio for painting and making furniture, and, after retiring, the man could move to the house more permanently. 

In alteration and renovation projects, one often struggles with various ceiling heights, floor levels and diverse materials, but this simple industrial building had three beautiful, open storeys.

“Design-wise, it was easy to choose the direction. We knew that the customer loved the building, which is why we wanted to enjoy the existing architecture, make it habitable with minor measures and create a feeling of living in a spacious production facility”, Anna says, explaining the ideas that guided their design work.

Dirk and the Chocolate Factory / Anna & Eugeni Bach
Architects Anna Bach, Eugeni Bach 
Location La Bisbal, Girona, Spain
Gross Area 550 m2
Completion 2019

More photos and drawings of the project

The chocolate factory is hidden in the centre of a block in the same manner as many production and utility buildings in old towns. A narrow alley runs to the street from between the neighbouring plots. On the other side of the block, the only access to the street is across the ground floor of the building adjoining the street. During the 19th century, Catalonia industrialised at a brisk pace and a large number of industrial buildings were constructed. However, Anna and Eugeni Bach date the construction of the chocolate factory back to a slightly earlier period of time: probably to the 18th century or early 19th century.

“From outside, the building isn’t particularly special. This kind of a stone building is as typical to this region as any traditional wooden house in Finland”, Eugeni says. It is the three different construction layers and height that make the chocolate factory special.

On the lowest floor, the steel beams and the wooden supports carry the Catalan vaults: the brick slabs of the low vault, characteristic of the region, are fixed onto the ceiling – one slab at a time, and one layer at a time, in a correct position – using a gypsum mix. This way, no support structures are required during construction. On the first floor, the ceiling is also supported by steel beams, but, instead of vaults, there are timber beams, in crossform, on top of the steel beams. On the top floor, the ceiling structure is entirely made of wood.

“Upstairs, the structure is the most primitive, reminiscent of a traditional farmhouse. However, it is very rare that different structures are connected to each other in this way”, Eugeni reflects.

Home with Four Kitchens

Even though the work with the old building was rather straightforward, it was challenging to manage the volume of space and the unusual room programme. The owner’s spouse is a chef, so there are four kitchens in the house. In addition, the family needed a dining table for 24 people in order to have space for all family members. The new residents were a typical modern family with divorces and children from the previous marriages. If the children and their partners come to visit, there may be up to twenty people staying overnight at the house. “This was a special customer with special needs”, Anna summarises.

The industrial building only had one staircase. It was preserved, but the architects added another staircase in order to increase flexibility. “Thanks to the staircases, it will be possible to use the spaces more independently when the children and their families visit the house”, Eugeni says.

The special ceiling structures were left visible everywhere. The upper part of the walls is glass at points where it was necessary to demarcate the rooms. This way, the ceiling is visually unified on all floors. 

According to the architects, the largest modifications to the building were the new doors downstairs, the swimming pool and the porch. Previously, there were only windows on the lowest floor and the connection to the inner yard was weak. The windows were converted into narrow doors that now connect the lowest floor more naturally to the inner yard and the swimming pool. The new swimming pool is almost as large as the yard.

The swimming pool is lined by a porch sticking out of the main mass. It was the only part of the building that had to be rebuilt entirely, due to the poor condition of the roof structures. An alternative would have been to remove the wing. This way, there would have been space for other things than the swimming pool in the inner yard. However, the architects rebuilt the porch in its former location and added a staircase, thanks to which the outdoor area was extended to two floors.

 “The porch makes the use of the building more versatile. For instance, when converting lofts into flats in New York, one tends to think that bigger is better, but if the alternative is only one space that is looked at from one angle, dividing the space may make the living more interesting”, Anna reflects.

A new element is also the use of the green colour in details, such as in the window frames and in the new ceiling beams of the porch. According to the architects, green is not a traditional colour – dark brown is often used in Catalan buildings.

“However, green represents the same colour palette that was used in lampshades and other short-lived elements in the past. Instead of the traditional brown colour, we wanted to use a lighter, cheerful and festive colour”, Anna says, explaining the grounds for their choice of colour.

“The colour brings an unexpected twist to the building and a pinch of novelty, which creates a story”, Eugeni outlines.

The Past Lives in Materials

The budget for the additions was tight. This is why all fixed furnishings are made of painted MDF boards. “We chose popular, even inexpensive materials to the project”, Anna explains. On the other hand, the architects were not after anything special: “We try to be selective and precise in the renovation projects”, Eugeni says. “We have had a large number of renovation projects, especially in Barcelona. We usually give the lead role to something that already exists in the building – perhaps a special floor or a ceiling from the 19th century. We only add a certain number of elements in order to change the use of the building, but we still preserve the atmosphere of the previous use of the building.”

In the chocolate factory, some parts of the old machines were preserved on the kitchen wall. They were left in their original places, even though they make cooking a bit more difficult.

The rough stone walls also radiate a special atmosphere. Materials fascinate the architects, especially for the reason that the process of doing things is visible in them. In old buildings, materials are often also connected to the human body, its measures and capability. “For instance, we can tell from a stone wall in which order the stones have been laid. We can perhaps also conclude how heavy the stones were and the way in which the builder first placed the larger stones and then filled the gaps with smaller stones”, they explain. 

Eugeni takes an example: the Finnish roundpole fence, in which the material and the way it is made form a whole in an exceptionally clear way. The fence has a direction, which can be noted by studying the structure of the fence. “The roundpole fence walks, moves ahead, in a way. This kind of linkage of the building process and the material is particularly beautiful. It can often be seen in old buildings.”

In modern construction, structural elements are usually hidden beneath the layers. “When a building has been plastered, for instance, the story is lost”, Anna reflects. “Even though you may not be an architect or a builder, you often feel these kinds of things unconsciously. This is why we want to preserve the feel of materials, particularly when working with old buildings.”

Perhaps Mr Dirk also had the same unconscious feeling when he was charmed by the Gironese chocolate factory and decided to transform it into a home. ↙

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