Dutch treat: Lessons in sustainability from the Netherlands
I often plead guilty whenever I write about sustainability. After all, while I was once described as a hippy and lived an alternative lifestyle, I was never a tree hugger, nor did I even own a pair of Birkenstocks. However, as the Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas recently told me and a small group of international journalists, architects know about sustainability-we were talking about it long before everyone else.
As an architectural student in the 60’s I learned about passive solar gain and cross ventilation and resource conservation. Each of my student projects tried to minimize waste by using standard joist lengths and the full width of a twelve foot roll of carpet. I designed smaller buildings which made efficient use of space and experimented with alternative site planning layouts, questioning the need for large front lawns and excessive space for parking garages.
Recently, I have been thinking a lot about sustainable housing as a result of a trip to the Netherlands to explore innovations in community planning and sustainability. The Dutch have always been very conscious of the need to do more with less given their relatively large population and small land mass, Travelling around the country and visiting new housing developments, I could not help but think their country offered many lessons for British Columbia planners and homebuilders.
In BC we often complain about the extra costs associated with sustainable housing because we tend to design and build the same type of housing as before, but with a myriad of expensive add-on green features. For example, we build large glass buildings which require elaborate heating/cooling and mechanical ventilation systems, overhangs, mechanical blinds and shutters, and so on.
Meanwhile the Dutch tend to avoid creating the problems in the first place, that require such expensive solutions. For example, most buildings tend to have smaller windows and careful orientation. They conserve energy by accepting lower lighting levels and utilizing motion detectors rather than adding more fixtures. Instead of building elaborate mechanical ventilation systems, they design for cross ventilation.
Of course there are exceptions. I visited a couple of ‘look-at-me’ sustainability projects in the Netherlands that made little sense at all. In one case the designer achieved extraordinary insulation ratings by avoiding opening windows; but required mechanical ventilation and an elaborate cooling system just to keep the space comfortable. This is not what sustainability is all about.
Fortunately these projects are exceptions rather than the rule and the Dutch continue to design highly efficient housing forms that minimize energy and resource consumption, just as they have for centuries. Moreover they are much more conscious of the need to consume less than most North Americans.
At Almere, a New Town on reclaimed land outside of Amsterdam, a very innovative experiment in sustainability is underway. As an alternative to more conventional forms of housing, the Almere planners have prepared a master plan that divides much of the land into very small lots, sometimes as small as eighty square metres.
These lots are generally being sold to individuals wanting to build smaller, more affordable homes. Perhaps the most significant departure from how we do things in BC is the decision to impose very few zoning controls. There is no requirement for side yards and very limited front and back yard setbacks. As a result, most homes are attached side-by-side, although some are detached or stacked with two entry doors at the street.
Potential homebuyers can pick plans from a catalogue and hire a builder, or build the home themselves. There are no regulations as to what the house must look like in terms of style, colour, roof shape, etc.
When I first walked around the partially finished development I was astounded by what I saw. However, on reflection, after looking at photos of charming 17th century Amsterdam streetscapes, I realize that what is happening in Almere is essentially what happened four centuries ago when people built homes on narrow lots along the canals. Admittedly, those homes had much more decoration and individual architectural interest.
When one thinks in terms of sustainability and affordability, I think this housing approach could be appropriate for parts of British Columbia. Why not allow builders and individuals to build attached homes on narrow five to eight metre wide lots with no side yard requirements? Energy consumption would be dramatically reduced since two thirds of the exterior walls can be eliminated. This approach also makes much more efficient use of land, roads, and other municipal services.
While this approach to sustainability may not provide mechanical engineers with the same opportunities to show off their clever engineering solutions, it could lead to simpler, less expensive and more resource efficient form of housing, which to my mind is what true sustainability is really all about. Just ask the Dutch.