Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
Centrumeiland will soon hold hundreds of affordable homes with the lightest of possible carbon footprints.
More than 20 years ago, looking for space for new homes, Amsterdam decided to build some islands. It came up with a grand scheme, begun in 1997, to have a 10-island archipelago rise from the waters of IJmeer lake, capable of holding 18,000 homes.
One of those islands—Centrumeiland, or “Center Island”—rose above the waterline in 2015, when it found its first life as a campsite and arts installation. This year, it’s finally ready for building, and the plans for this new land are nearly as striking as the creation of the island itself. Soon to emerge on the new land is something that could stand as a global example: A new community that will be 70 percent self-built, populated mainly with affordable homes that will leave the lightest of possible carbon footprints.
Before we look at the outlines of that community, it’s worth recalling the distinctive history of its unusual site. Lying at the heart of Europe’s most densely populated country, Amsterdam has little room to grow if it isn’t to gobble up the last remaining green space in the polycentric 8.5 million-strong Randstad metropolitan region. What the city does have on its doorstep, however, is water—lots of it. That water comes in the form of the IJmeer lake, created in the 1930s when the mouth of what was formerly a bay was closed off with a huge dyke. After the IJmeer’s creation, the Netherlands expanded phenomenally onto land reclaimed from the lake’s shallow bed. Since 1939 it has created an entire new province on the IJmeer’s polders, now home to over 400,000 people and containing the largest artificial island in the world.
This huge expansion had an interesting effect on Amsterdam. Instead of expanding the city, it exported citizens out of the crowded core to entirely new towns—notably the 200,000-resident city of Almere—that, by Dutch standards, are some distance from the city center. The new island chain that houses Centrumeiland takes a different approach. Called IJburg, it’s altogether more modest, destined to house 45,000 people. But it’s also a natural extension of Amsterdam, whose Central Station is reachable from the IJburg by streetcar in just 15 minutes.
Centrumeiland is the seventh island in the new archipelago, and it should be the greenest yet. For a start, the homes on the new island—there should be 1,200 when complete—will be especially resilient in the face of high water. Each building will be protected from flooding by being elevated onto a low mound slightly above the level of the public spaces. These mounds, called Terpen, have in fact been used in this region since prehistory to make life feasible in areas of unpredictable tides. To make the island even more flood resistant, all green areas will be threaded with small, open storm channels that can feed rainwater into the unsurfaced parts of the island and thus keep drains from overflowing.
Furthermore, none of these homes on mounds will be connected to natural gas lines, part of a plan to wean all of Amsterdam off the use of home boilers by 2050. Instead, the island’s heat will be provided by a district heating system fueled by heat pumps, a system that has the great advantage of transferring heat to where it is needed without having to generate that heat in the first place. Each dwelling, meanwhile, will be triple-glazed and equipped with a heat recovery pump, solar panels, and a rainwater-harvesting tank to reduce fuel and water use. An overall plan is being adopted to ensure that the buildings incorporating all these features are spaced at a variety of heights and alignments. This is to ensure a good variety of different public and semi-public spaces, which will include communal roof gardens, green courtyards, and an exterior cordon of trees surrounding the island.
Centrumeiland’s future residents may get a lot of say in how their future homes are laid out—but that’s not because they are building these homes themselves. Instead, 70 percent of the homes will be constructed by a Baugrup, or “building group” the collective building model common in Germany, Austria, and the Netherlands (where it is called “Bouwgroep” in Dutch). Under the Baugrup model, residents club together to buy a plot of land and build their homes on it. This saves considerable money by cutting out developers’ profits and also gives them the chance to create the shape of their own home, albeit within a mutually agreed template. The first plots for this model were released for sale in 2016, while a second batch came on the market in July. Meanwhile, actual construction work on the first lots should start this summer.
Some recently released plans for a Baugrup-commissioned apartment block on the island, by Amsterdam architects Atelier Puuur, give an idea of what to expect. Looks-wise, this isn’t necessarily avant-garde housing, nor does it need to be. It is nonetheless well-designed, environmentally conscious housing created with a versatility of footprints in mind. Depending on the unit size that the Baugrup’s members choose, the building could house as few as 18 and as many as 23 homes. First floor units will have access to their own small yards, while upper ones will get balconies, with both having access to a green roof.
Such small-scale but sustainable projects are good models of how to create more environmentally conscious housing while keeping costs down. Three more islands are due to be created in the IJburg archipelago—the next one, called Beach Island, should be finished next year. It will be interesting to see if or where the new neighborhoods develop on the existing model being thrashed out on Centrumeiland.