Dutch treat: Lessons in sustainability from the Netherlands

BC homebuilders could benefit from using smaller spaces and applying fewer regulations

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.

– post by Michael Geller. This story appeared in the latest issue of BCHomes, the magazine of the Canadian Homebuilders of British Columbia,

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  • Steven Forth

    There are many excellent points in this article but I want to call out one in particular.

    “lots are generally being sold to individuals wanting to build smaller, more affordable homes”

    My impression is that in Vancouver we are over reliant on developers and the city to come up with solutions and that efforts by individuals are generally blocked by some combination of our approach to financing, zoning, permissions and the available skillsets. Is this perception correct? Can and should individuals or small self organizing groups like co-ops play a larger role in Vancouver’s built environment?

  • gman

    I was curious as to what this term sustainability really means and I came across this where the interviewer asked the question of several high ranking members of what I would assume are leaders of the sustainability movement.Needless to say Im still confused and wonder if Mr Geller could give a better explanation as to what he thinks it means. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aEy6S7vfMKY Im certainly not against innovation and I think zoning laws are not open to it in many cases but I also find this language to be vague and frankly political.

    • Terry M

      Pervectly said, gman!
      Frankly political.

      • Terry M

        … Perfectly… Geez!

  • Steven Forth

    I am pretty sure you would get the same confusing response for just about any politically charged term – capitalism, democracy, fiscal responsibility. We definre these kinds of concepts through ongoing conversations on places like this blog. I know my own use of sustainability has changed over time.

    • Bill

      Steven, you are too quick to dismiss a reasonable question posed by gman. You could go out on the street and get a more articulate response as to what capitalism, democracy and fiscal responsibility means than these supposed experts were able to articulate about sustainability. If sustainability is such a moving target and subject to personal interpretation then it shouldn’t be used.

      • Steven Forth

        Read more carefully Bill. What I am suggesting is that we have a conversation on this blog about what we in Vancouver believe ‘sustainability’ to mean. I am perfectly happy to put forward my own, constantly evolving, understanding, but I hope others will too and did not want to begin with my own position. So why don’t you begin? What does ‘sustainability’ mean to you? And I very much doubt that you could go out on the street and get a “a more articulate response as to what capitalism, democracy and fiscal responsibility means.” To test, please pick one of these terms and give your own definition. I’ll contribute my own definition in the next few hours.

        • Bill

          Steven, if someone tells me Country XYZ is a democracy, that is conveying some information even if I do not know whether they use first pass the post, preferential ballot, proportional representation, etc. It still tells me something useful about the government of XYZ.

          The mayor of ABC stating he wants to attract sustainable businesses to provided sustainable jobs so his citizens can live in sustainable neighbourhoods making ABC the most sustainable city on the planet doesn’t tell me very much. Maybe sustainability is too difficult a concept to be captured in a simple but meaningful definition and that is why we need big conferences like Rio+20 to tackle sustainability. (Are conferences that attract 50,000 delegates sustainable?)

          • Steven Forth

            Hi Bill

            Two points

            Concepts like ‘sustainability’ or ‘democracy’ or ‘capitalism’ are made useful through how people use them in conversations. You and GR have an agenda to prevent the concept of ‘susitainability’ from being used so you throw up as much FUD as you can, ignoring facts and basic economics. You basically don’t want to have the conversation as it challenges some deeply held belief system and threatens your current subsidies and entitelments (just guessing at this of course as I don’t actually know anything about you).

            “to attract sustainable businesses to provided sustainable jobs so his citizens can live in sustainable neighbourhoods”

            Is this really hard to understand? A ‘sustainable job’ is one that is not dependent on depletion of non renewable resources and does not degrade the ecologies our economy is dependent on. Or if you prefer a lower threshold, it is one that reduces current dependencies on non-renewable resources and damage to ecologies. (This is whay one can try to make an argument in favour of increased use of LNG.) I would extend this from ‘ecology’ to include ‘economy’and ‘society’.

            These conversations are going on all the time in Vancouver and are used to make decisions. I use them to make investment decisions every day (maybe not most Sundays).

          • Steven Forth

            No, we don’t need large conferences to understand or support sustainability and I personally never pay much attention to these events. Not much of any use comes out of them. Smaller, grass roots, local actions are of more interest to me, things that can be done at the municipal and very occaisionally at the provincial level.

            Two simple decision frames for ‘sustainability’

            – Does it reduce use of non-renewable resources (or increase their recycling)?

            – Does it reduce loading on ecological systems?

            Personally I extend this with two additional frames related to resilience.

            – Does it promote ecological, social and economic diversity?

            – Does it allow the evolutionary algorithm to function?

            And my own ‘radical’ goal is for Vancouver to have net positive primary production and to drive increased diversity in the ecologies it interacts with.

  • ned

    Lovely post Michael. I really liked it! Not sure how many of these ideas are going to make it to Vancouver if any, some might not even be good… Because you mentioned Rem Koolhaas, you’d be surprised to find out that there are a number of planners and architects in Vancouver that really dislikes his architecture. Not me. I like him. 🙂

  • gman

    The reason I raised this question to Mr Geller is because of his prominence in the development industry and Im sure he is very well connected.The other reason is the ICLEI have just wrapped up their meeting in Belo Horizonte Brazil.The ICLEIs entire mantra revolves around such terms and the people interviewed in the video are all members.David Cadman has been a force with this group of unelected bureaucrats for several years now and Vancouver is a member city and yes we pay for that privilege,Cadmans name was on the speakers list this year along with several other people two of which are members of the Club of Rome. http://local2012.iclei.org/rio-20-global-town-hall/speakers/ Now it would seem to me that because Vancouver is a member and Cadman is a local boy the public should be made aware of the outcome of this meeting.Unfortunately the majority of the public is completely unaware of the ICLEI and their influence on the decisions made by city and town planners all around the world.I would urge the public to research this group that was formed to execute Agenda 21 that was written at the first Rio Earth Summit in 1992 and ask themselves why it seems to be kept on the QT.Several towns and cities in the U.S are withdrawing from ICLEI and I can only surmise its because of cost and control.Do your own research and decide if you think this is an appropriate group to belong to and why is the public so unaware of this situation.

    • gman

      I should have added that Cadman is the President and that makes the lack of publicity even more odd.

      • Steven Forth

        Yes, I am aware of http://www.iclei.org/ and am very happy that Vancouver is involved. I strongly support our engagement with this organization.

        And I am sure you read through to their definition of sustainability. http://www.iclei.org/index.php?id=12367

        “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

        Which part of this definition do you find hard to understand or do you disagree with?

  • gman

    And to show you how your tax dollars are being spent in the name of sustainability we have this,enjoy it,I think they are…. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8QGkAchO1bg&feature=relmfu

    • Glissando Remmy

      Excellent video gman!
      That’s exactly what I was trying to say to Steven the other day, on the “Wind turbines” thread…

      “Good morrow Steven,
      I will take you up on that, but I’ll go even further… I’ll do two!
      First, one that the Environmentalists and Comp. can take to the Urban City Fares around the World to do the Bike and Pony and V-poles Tricks they usually do, while sipping champagne and spooning caviar at fancy Parisian bistros.
      Second, one for the rest of us that live in the real world.
      I’ll try to touch on all points.
      I like to read, but when you read a Power Point presentation coming out of City Hall these days, it seems like everybody and their dog, are in the business of writing science fiction.
      The beaut’ and where the real problem is, all their deadlines and deliverables are always way, waaay in the future, when their present actions, promises, and guarantees can flourish in virtual impunity.

      It’s a gift and it’s a curse. GR”

      And Steven, if you read this… I wasn’t kidding! 🙂

      • gman

        Thanks GR Im just trying to shine a little light.

      • Steven Forth

        Good Morning Mr. Remmy

        Not raining at this moment, listening to Beethoven op. 5 no. 2 and avoiding work.

        Not sure what you did two of, but perhaps you could share a few more.

        If you have not already read it you may enjoy http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/11.09/ppt2.html

        Is it too early to open another bottle from Nicol? Probabbly yes.


        • Glissando Remmy

          Hi Steven,
          Boy, you are a morning person!

          Read that! And let me say this, it was right on my alley.

          “Presentations largely stand or fall on the quality, relevance, and integrity of the content. If your numbers are boring, then you’ve got the wrong numbers. If your words or images are not on point, making them dance in color won’t make them relevant. Audience boredom is usually a content failure, not a decoration failure. ”

          If you’d ask anyone to describe a Penny Ballem presentation, this must be the one!
          I only once stood through one of hers horrendous incompetent 20 min. Veins cutting moments!

          And to my shame, if I’m honest I went through a few of those PPPs myself, oh well, I combined them with Cesaria Evora music and some jokes… so at least it was entertaining, but the ad pitch stench… it was all over.

          As for the wine? Perfect timing… 🙂

        • Glissando Remmy

          Ha! That US Army PPP slide reminded me of the times I was playing Battleships with my friends in school… and cheating… all of us! No wonder no one was winning the battle!

  • Steven Forth

    I said I would share my own understanding of the term ‘sustainability’ last night, but then opened an excellent bottle of the Nichol Pinot Gris.

    My use of the term ‘sustainability’ has evolved over the past decades.

    1970s (working mostly with architects)

    “A sustainable system is one whose operation does not degrade the functions of systems it depends on to operate.”

    1980s (busy raising a family and building my first business, did not think much about this)

    1990s (settling in Vancouver)

    “A sustainable system is one whose operation does not degrade the functions of systems it depends on to operate and that does not degrade other systems that it impacts.”

    2000s (Vancouver and Boston)

    “A sustainable system is one whose evolution does not degrade the evolution of systems it depends on and that does not degrade the evolution of other systems that it impacts.”

    I also began to think of sustainability as having three aspects: ecological, social and economic.

    These days (back in Vancouver full time)

    I am more interested in understanding resilient systems than sustainable as I think we are headed for interesting times. As a society we are rolling the dice on global warming. There is no chance that the US or even China and Europe, will act to meaningfully reduce emissions so we will see what this does to the global ecology and the societies and economies that depend on it. We are also entering a 100 year cycle of declning global population that will force us to change our basic assumptions on growth, returns, social structure, tax policy etc. And though a techno-optimist, I am beginning to realize the stresses technological change is imposing on our systems (though generally I think stress is good).

  • Great Video Gman. I loved it and often feel the same way when I talk to ‘sustainability experts’ attending international conferences!

    As I tried to illustrate with my school day examples, to my mind sustainability ultimately comes down to doing simple things in order to leave this world no worse than how we found it. This means doing more with less; not wasting materials and resources; and balancing environmental considerations with social and financial considerations. If that sounds too political, I apologize.

    I do worry that some of the ‘sustainability solutions’ border on the preposterous…such as the architect who was so obsessed with achieving phenomenal insulation ratings that he wouldn’t install opening windowsI That sort of thing is most troubling for me, and no doubt all of you.

    I wrote about the Almere experience because I like the idea of allowing much smaller lots, and minimizing side-yards, and increasing the ratio between the amount of interior space and exterior wall.

    Yes, there’s a price to pay for this…you don’t have windows in every direction like most typical houses, but I think the trade-offs are worth it, especially for those who can’t afford a house with windows on all four walls, and don’t want to live in an apartment.

    Ironically, I think we can find many solutions for the future by looking at the past…smaller houses, rowhouses, housing over shops along main streets, trams and streetcars, and fewer automobiles, etc. And yes, turning the lights off when they are not needed or putting them on automatic timers!

    • Glissando Remmy

      Yes Michael, I am in complete agreement with you on this one.
      I am a City Comforts kinda guy too, simple things that make sense, and have meaningful consequences, not crappy Symbolism aka Robertson & Vision only Pony Trick!

      Like this one from ICLEI Org.:

      “Sustainability = meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

      Yeah I get that, cause I’m not stupid but… is so general, so evasive, so non committal, so blah…
      And, one other thing, it depends who’s saying that to whom, and where, and in what context…

      Here, read this beaut:

      “Invading other countries for their Oil so we could meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of our future generations to meet their own needs.”
      Sustainability… euphemisms 101 eh!? 🙂

      • Ms Jones

        Hats off to GR for this awakening palm across the face of “green” propaganda!
        It’s all a Buggy and Pony show folks!
        “Invading other countries for their Oil so we could meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of our future generations to meet their own needs.”
        This was a classic Glissando “quote’!
        Ha. 🙂

  • Should I die prematurely, I’m hoping Glissando Remy will show up at my funeral service…yes there will be one…and reveal himself and say a few words. While he’s much more partisan than me, he’s one of my favourite commentators on Vancouver’s civic scene.

    You should follow him on twitter…he does wonderful things with 140 characters (albeit with little spacing and lots of zzz’s!)

    • JJ

      Hope you’ll live to see 100, Michael!
      Glissy this could be one of the best endorsements I’ve ever read. Well deserved I may add. Michael is right, I second that…

  • gman

    So even in this short thread we seem to have several interpretations,and thanks for your response Mr Geller,yet we have unelected bodies like ICLEI and the self serving clowns at the failed Rio+20 fright fest using these terms to justify international taxes payed to them in order to keep this failing scam running.And what have they given us in return…nothing…nada…dognut..zilch.But they do manage to afford to fly around the world giving each other various awards and accolades. There is a reason they use vague terms like sustainability,bio-diversity and my favorite climate disruption LOL,Its so they can keep moving the goal posts.This year at Rio they refused to give out a draft of what they are going to sign off on because they dont want anyone to know whats in it.And by the way this year ICLEI told their members to stop using the terms environment and green because the public is fed up and is starting to ignore them and waking up to what they’re all about. I think as Canadians we are very capable to make these important decisions on our own and we are generous enough to help third world countries that need it rather than throw money at at bunch of self serving NGOs and control freaks.One good thing is that Rio+20 is being held out as a huge failure and we can only hope it is slowly but surely being tossed to the trash heap. ICLEI has given us nothing we dont already know except for the bill off course.

    • Steven Forth

      Biodiversity is hardly a vague term. http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/biodiversity/ And it is easy to quantify. Sustainability is a softer term, like ‘democracy’ or ‘capitalism’ or ‘fiscal responsibility’. You may not like the impications of sustainability or the suggestion that our current economic system is not sustainable but stop pretending you don’t know what it means.

      Can you provide a citation for “this year ICLEI told their members to stop using the terms environment and green”. And who is this ‘public’ you are whining about? Are you a represeantvie? How do you know that you are not the lunatic fringe here?

      We can agree that there is far too much money spent by large organizations of all types and that the efforts that are likely to have the most impact are local ones. There are some issues where large international agreements are needed (the open oceans are a good example, and trans-border flows of pollutants) but many issues can and should be addressed locally.

      Mechansisms for sharing knowledge are good though, and to the extent the ICLEI helps with knowledge transfer good for it.

      • gman

        Steven how far in the sand can you get your head,my estimate is right up to your butt.Even your buddy Monbiot understands this is a farce and nothing has been accomplished. http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/georgemonbiot/2012/jun/22/rio-20-earth-summit-brazil
        Greenpiss,WWF and a whole host of Eco-NGOs are mad as hell,I suspect because they stand to lose their place at the trough. The only thing thats unsustainable are these bloated international peddlers of fear.


        A member of the public.

      • gman

        Steven you ask for proof of what they said about changing their terminology http://commonamericanjournal.com/?p=45959

        But I fully expect you to rail about big oil and the credibility of the source.