Dutch housing is the envy of UK architects and contractors. What makes it so special?

The British construction industry is becoming more and more fascinated by Dutch housing. Lord Rogers’ urban taskforce was impressed by the enlightened town planning of its central and municipal governments. And judging by the number of admiring references in the taskforce’s 1999 report, Towards an Urban Renaissance, lessons derived from the Dutch housing development system can be expected to appear in the DETR’s urban white paper to be published in the next few weeks. British architects envy the Dutch freedom to create uninhibited modern designs. And UK builders and cost consultants marvel over the low cost of Dutch construction techniques.

These enviable attributes contain a paradox. Several of The Netherlands’ architectural enfants terribles, including Mecanoo, Erick van Egeraat and landscape architect Adriaan Geuze, regularly win commissions for mainstream developments for both social and speculative housing. Despite these avant-garde designs, housing is consistently built at lower costs than in the UK. And the housebuilding industry is on track to meet the Dutch government’s target of 650 000 new homes in the 10 years up to 2005, amounting to one tenth of the existing housing stock in a country with nearly twice the population density of the UK. Yet, according to Gerard Maccreanor, partner in Maccreanor Lavington Architects, which has 10 years’ experience of housing design in The Netherlands, there seems to be less conflict between consumers, housing developers, planning authorities and NIMBY protesters.

Admittedly, The Netherlands starts off with several distinct advantages over Britain in terms of housebuilding. For a start, one third of the land surface is polder land reclaimed from the sea. Flat and criss-crossed by a rectilinear system of drainage channels, this landscape is self-evidently artificial, so it is not regarded as sacrosanct from building development.

Much of this polder land is owned by municipalities, so they hold the whip hand in controlling new developments. Proactive planning is firmly entrenched in the system, from the national development plans drawn up periodically by central government to the municipal planning departments that routinely draw up an extensive planning brief for each housing site, and negotiate architectural appointments with the developers. The architectural design aspect of development control is usually delegated by the elected councillors to voluntary panels of experts, which operate as local commissions for architecture and the built environment.

Although it may be better news for housebuilders than homebuyers, The Netherlands has suffered from a chronic housing shortage since the Second World War, so sales and rentals on new housing are assured. According to Maccreanor, the lack of speculative risk, combined with the steady release of development land by municipal authorities and an industry that steers clear of litigation, have made for a stable, if competitive, market.

Housebuilders and contractors have prospered on low but steady profit margins by sticking to design and build using standard prefabricated systems, most notably tunnel-form construction of concrete frames.

Unlike in the UK, design-and-build procurement seems to favour architectural expression. “Architects are selected for their artistic ability,” says Maccreanor, as contractors take responsibility for detailed design and buildability. Architectural expression is also stimulated by the most pervasive network of architecture centres in the world, with 25 cities running their own centres presenting heritage and new schemes to the public.

Dutch avant-garde architecture can be traced back to 1978, when Rem Koolhaas, this year’s winner of the coveted international Pritzker Prize for architecture, published his provocative book of fantasy cities, Delirious New York. In a newly published pocket book on Amsterdam’s architecture, Ton Idsigna writes: “Koolhaas became the standard-bearer of groundbreaking conceptual thinking. He radiated daring and communicated this effectively, initially to his readers but later, in the eighties, to his students as well. An entire cohort, mainly young architects, followed in his slipstream. Towards adventure.”

So, how much of this Dutch enlightenment can be transposed to Britain? More than just a change to the planning system and construction methods, the import of the Dutch model may call for a cultural shift in British living patterns. In the Dutch social tradition of cleanliness and openness, families sit contentedly in their living rooms exposed to view behind large, curtain-less picture windows that would shock their net curtain-obsessed British cousins. In the same spirit, the relentlessly rectilinear housing blocks with flats roofs could appear industrial in British eyes, and more recent angular forms would look even more alien.

On the other hand, the British public has no monopoly on consistency. It could very easily throw out its staple diet of tiny detached brick boxes with fussy detailing, poky windows, condensation-prone bathrooms and high heating costs if something better and cheaper came along.

Brits who made it in The Netherlands

Only four British architects, and no major British contractors, have broken into the competitive Dutch housing market. Maccreanor Lavington Architects Gerard Maccreanor and Richard Lavington set up their practice in 1990 on the strength of winning the Europan architectural competition for young architects. The competition-winning housing scheme at Zaanstadt was completed in 1995, and the practice’s third Dutch housing scheme is now nearing completion. The practice has offices in Rotterdam and London. Aukett Europe Aukett set up its Amsterdam office in 1988 thanks to a stream of office and commercial projects. It broke into the housing market in 1995 by winning an architect-developer competition for luxury housing set in a public park, which called for a creative approach to landscaping. The office is now on its third project of top-market sector housing for large developers. S333 Studio for Architecture and Urbanism Like Maccreanor Lavington, S333 was set up on the strength of winning a Europan competition. The four founding partners come from the UK, Canada and New Zealand and designed their competition entry, a masterplan for three sites in Groningen, while working in other practices in London. In 1997, they decided to set up office in Amsterdam. Alsop & Störmer As well as designing major city-centre developments in The Netherlands, Alsop & Störmer won a commission for part of S333’s Groningen masterplan. The Dutch schemes are run from the London office.