The liberal-mindedness that characterises Dutch society permeates all aspects of the construction industry, from its culture to the love-it-or-hate-it audacity of its buildings. But all is not quite as good as it seems. Turning designs into reality can be a challenge for architects unused to the consensus culture of Dutch project teams, and contracting is associated with low build costs and some low standards, at least compared with the UK.
And these problems come on top of the recent price-fixing and bribery scandal that has shaken the Dutch construction industry. Price-fixing was effectively legal until just four years ago when the Dutch government outlawed the practice. Since then there has been much speculation that cartels were still a fact of Dutch contracting life, but there was little hard evidence to support the gossip. This was until last November, when Ad Bos – former technical director of infrastructure contractor Koop Tjuchem – produced evidence that the practice was still endemic in the industry on the television programme Zembla, the Netherlands' equivalent of Panorama. "As far as I can see all work in the Netherlands is dealt with in this way," Bos said on the programme. "It is a sickness in contracting."
But for UK companies not put off by the scandal and still keen to export their skills, a construction market with a steady outlook is what lies at the end of the learning curve. Total construction output was predicted to end 2001 0.2% up on 2000's figure of *43.8bn (£27.4bn), and is expected to show small increases of 1.5% this year and next. "The market is not changing that much, but there are the big civil engineering projects," says Joop Paul, director of Arup's one-year-old Amsterdam office.
It was the civils sector that kept construction output on the level last year, largely thanks to a new freight rail link from Rotterdam to Germany and to the *4.48bn (£2.8bn) High Speed Link, the Netherlands' largest public–private sector partnership, which links Amsterdam to Belgium for the Trans European Rail Network. Although civil engineering output was forecast to end the year up 3%, housebuilding and commercial building were expected to show small decreases. This year, the picture across the sectors looks likely to remain steady, with bright work prospects likely to be in education, where the government is planning to provide an extra *200m (£125m) to help schools build more classrooms and reduce class numbers.
Holland on the UK
In Holland, architects concentrate only on design, they are much more specialised, whereas in the UK they have to have many more design and management skills. Housing in the UK is atrocious because it is in the hands of dev
Henk Merle, Faulkner/Browns Architects in Newcastle – originally from Holland
But Arup did not set up its office in the Netherlands to take advantage of civil engineering work. "The infrastructure market in the Netherlands has very good players so it is difficult to penetrate, but in building we could offer our whole spectrum of services," says Paul. In its first year, the company has worked on projects as diverse as an Amsterdam footbridge with Wilkinson Eyre, and a railway station at Arnhem, designed by Amsterdam architect UN Studio.
Architect Maccreanor Lavington has offices in both London and Rotterdam, and after a decade of working in the Netherlands has well and truly negotiated the learning curve. "Some of the world's best architects have built their worst buildings in the Netherlands," says London-based partner Richard Lavington. "It is such a specific environment in which to build," explains his Rotterdam-based counterpart, Gerard Maccreanor. "Architects don't have overall control of projects, and even in areas where you have control you would not necessarily exercise it because of the culture of agreement. It takes a few projects to get to grips with it."
Nonetheless, other UK architects, including Aukett, S333 Studio and Alsop Architects, have broken into the Dutch marketplace, as have consulting engineers such as Battle McCarthy, which has just completed an appraisal of a double-skin facade for a proposed hotel close to Schiphol Airport, working with architect KPF London.
The door remains firmly closed to contractors, however, with well-known names like HBG, Heijmans and Boskalis dominating the market. About 6% of the Netherlands' 16 million population work in the construction industry, and off-site fabrication is extensively used, particularly in housebuilding.