This month I was lucky enough to join Igloo Regeneration on a visit to the Netherlands to visit Almere and Ijburg, large-scale custom build developments around Amsterdam. The guests included landowners, local government officials, developers and financiers, with the idea being to showcase the Netherlands’ achievements in custom build. This is an important exercise when you consider that we don’t have any completed large-scale custom build projects of our own to reference.
In England we seem to be mistrustful of contemporary design – to the point where anything not brick-built or not in a Victorian/Georgian pastiche is viewed as overtly modern. This somewhat ridiculous national view is partly down to a restrictive planning system that encourages developers to stick with tried-and-tested formulas that they know will get permission. Consequently, the public has been exposed to very little good contemporary design, especially on mid- to large-scale developments.
Part of the nervousness exhibited by conservative local authorities, NIMBYs and traditionalists with regards to custom build is to do with the fear that giving people the opportunity to design and build their own homes will result in chaos. They think they’ll see poorly built homes that never get finished, with over the top designs that leave a sour taste. So the chance to see how subversive this freedom of choice actually is in practice was not to be missed.
While custom build is a familiar route to home ownership across much of Europe and the rest of the world, it is the Dutch model that seems to resonate with the UK. And there’s plenty of good practice that we can borrow from our European neighbours.
Top of the agenda was a trip to Almere – a new town with a large custom build area that is a successful reaction to Holland’s own housing issues. Seven years on from the first plot sales, it’s now a dynamic housing experience that’s smoothly delivering one-off homes. It also has a viable affordable stream to complement the higher-end offering, largely thanks to the fact that the municipality owns the land and doesn’t take a profit from it.
Was it an eyesore? No. The reality is that freedom of choice delivers interesting and exciting neighbourhoods full of content residents. Hardly divisive. If anything, walking around on a weekday it seemed a bit quiet, much like any suburb in the middle of a working day.
Almere is a large city for Holland, with 200,000 residents, built as a new city close to Amsterdam to address a very distinct housing need. Back in 2006 the municipality granted development for 1,500 custom build homes, the Homeruskwartier district, as a way of creating a housing offering to attract people to the new area. It invested Euro180 million on infrastructure and created a range of serviced plots.
The area is fairly low density with a range of house types, including bungalows, detached homes and terraces. There’s also a mix of tenures, including affordable rent, shared ownership and market sale.
What’s remarkable about Homeruskwartier is that the individual designs actually work well together – very few homes stand out, and even the most unusual look quietly intersting rather than threatening.
Buyers purchase their plot through a plot shop that specialises in the district, with staff on hand to talk people through the process, as well as explain their choices with regards to finance and build routes.
The design process at Homeruskwartier is managed through extensive zoning, which has been used to create distinct sectors. For example there are areas for canalside living, for homes with larger gardens, bungalows, super-sustainable homes and architecturally exceptional housing, as well as developer-built apartments, some of which are collectives.
The zoning is a concept that could easily be applied to large developments in the UK, as it offers a viable blueprint for how large-scale custom build could be applied to the UK.
In contrast to Homeruskwartier, Ijburg is a new residential area built on reclaimed land from the IJ Lake, somewhat controversially. Unusually, Ijburg has floating houses, including custom builds, but it is its residential custom build streets that offer an example of what can easily be replicated in the UK.
In this high-density area, the dominant base house type is modelled on the row houses of Amsterdam. In fact, these original houses were themselves custom builds back in the day – with the first purchasers having fairly free rein beyond width and height as to what they built.
Consequently, the custom build streets of Ijburg feature terraces with the same width – with the exception of the odd double plot, and typically the same height. But residents are relatively free to do what they want on the outside, and can choose any configuration and finish they want on the inside.
The result is a melting pot of styles and materials, yet the height and width restrictions give a sense of uniformity to the streets. Even with highly unusual designs and finishes, the overall look is one of well-to-do streets of well-appointed homes. Nothing is shabby, and the residents we spoke to were immensely proud of what they’d achieved.
Looking around, there are all sorts of design to see, including a home with double-height glazing and wall-openings that offer ventilation. Should you want yellow tiles as a cladding – no problem. It fits right in between a traditional Tyrol-inspired home with shutters and a house with a huge ground floor window that perfectly frames a prize Harley Davidson.
Between the UK’s stiff planning system and our conservative tastes, I realise that we’re highly unlikely to see such a creative neighbourhood in the UK, and not everyone would want to live in such an area.
But in such a progressive country, we should be able to offer alternatives to the mean brick estates that represent our late 20th century contribution to English architecture, and that aren’t cloying Poundbury’s with their feet firmly placed in a different century.
We have enough land to warrant experimenting with exciting architectural projects, and custom build offers the perfect model to deliver this. And we know there’s a frustrated supply of would-be builders waiting in the wings.
So why should exciting design be the preserve of the priviledged?
The good news comes in the fact that the chatter from the group was positive. The consensus was that the custom build neighbourhoods looked great and were a viable option for the UK. Now let’s make it happen!