- The story of Stokers, a new flexible workspace in Antwerp built from a former military hospital
- Andre Duval has spent the past five years transforming the late 19th century building into a contemporary coworking space
- Duval believes that, “Old buildings have a soul. Creative people don’t flourish in a glass environment. You need something more authentic.”
Can an advertising man make it as a coworking operator?
Is a former military hospital a viable coworking space?
Will an Antwerp location attract traveling European professionals as well as locals?
Andre Duval is betting yes on all of the above.
After a 5-year redevelopment project to restore an 1896 façade and completely reimagine the interiors, Stokers opened for business in September.
Named in homage to the men who tended the boiler room furnace that blasted steam heat throughout the hospital, Stokers’ design pays tribute to its 19th-century origins, juxtaposed with tools and hospitality to do business today.
Walls of concrete, exposed brick or steel express the industrial materiality, warmed with wood tables custom-made by Belgian craftsman that add texture and provide cable management.
Providing 11 meeting room and desks for about 150 individuals, the multi-level space also boasts a full-service catering kitchen.
Comfortable sound levels are maintained with an acoustic ceiling of felt panels that echo the linear lines of the steel screens and accommodate the flow of air conditioning.
Meeting spaces are carved out with semi-transparent glass or thin steel louvers that were fabricated on-site to create a feeling of enclosure and emphasize the building’s past.
Inside the meeting rooms are flat-screens, Barco Clickshare for wireless display connections and digital flip charts, as well as individual controls for heating, cooling and lighting.
The Man Behind the Vision
While officially retired from an advertising career in New York and Belgium that included stints at McCann-Ericson, J. Walter Thompson and Young & Rubicam before founding his own firm, Duval had been an investor in digital media.
He became intrigued with the possibility of transforming the abandoned structure to house a creative community when a real estate investor friend posed the opportunity.
“And when I saw the Stokers building, I thought, why not?” Duval recalled.
Duval knew first-hand the creative power and inspiration a unique environment could provide. While at the helm of Duval Guillaume, the firm was housed in a converted textile factory in Brussels where three levels of bright white workspace surrounded a central atrium flooded with light from the Belgian glass tile ceiling.
Not only did the space inspire his creative teams, it wowed visitors as well.
Clients would come in for a meeting and be absolutely enthralled, Duval recalled. “They would ask to stay and work for the rest of the day in the open spaces we had throughout,” Duval recalled. “This was back in around 2004 before coworking had really spread.”
“Old buildings have a soul. Creative people don’t flourish in a glass environment,” he emphasized. “You need something more authentic.”
So, he partnered with his real estate friend to bring it back to life with a modern sensibility as part of the massive Green Quarter development in Antwerp.
In 2006, the city of Antwerp formed a public-private partnership with developers CAAAP and Matexi to redevelop the 77-hectare site (about 190 acres) now known as the Green Quarter.
Today, former dormitories are home to some 450 families living in luxury lofts. A manicured lawn and bike paths transverse the center of the car-free complex that is topped with a green roof.
Adjacent to Stokers, the former chapel is now The Jane restaurant, recipient of two Michelin stars and named one of the top 50 restaurants in the world by Diners Club. A hotel is planned for the former convent.
“Testing the waters”
Open since September, Duval and his team – his daughter Valerie is a managing consultant – are testing the waters with varying business models. Originally conceived as a private club a la Neue House or London’s Next Door, the team is considering lifting the membership requirement to serve the broader neighborhood population who frequent the café space.
Its Antwerp location – less than two hours by train from Paris, Amsterdam and London – makes Stokers a convenient meeting and work destination for travelers across Western Europe.
Stokers has also had strong interest from local residents who are utilizing the space as a one or two-day-a-week alternative to commuting to their home office in Brussels, saving what can be a two-hour commute by car.
A fully-equipped catering kitchen has already handled events from family meetings to corporate events for 250 people, providing an additional revenue stream.
Most recently, Duval has invested in staff in allied industries to help steer Stokers to success. Among the most recent hires are two managers with roots in the hotel and events planning industry who are poised to leverage the space’s offerings to a broad range of communities. A former Regus employee is handling business development.
With several decades of a successful advertising career behind him, as well as varied investments in digital media startups, Duval is being coaxed to offer his mentorship to members as well.
While he is intrigued with the opportunity to share his knowledge, Duval’s longer-term focus is bringing Stokers to a broader community.
Duval is currently meeting with potential partners who might be willing to work with him as he scales the business, possibly to a network of unique locations in Antwerp, and perhaps to cities such as Copenhagen, Stockholm, Dublin or Rotterdam. He spent time in New York City in October touring coworking spaces and reaching out to potential partners.
“Antwerp has so many unique buildings that are no longer in use,” explains Duval, son of a real estate man who worked in the field for five years prior to his advertising career. “Our local mayor and council are reaching out to have these be revitalized.”
It just might be the next project for the “retired” ad man to pursue.