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Ministerial Fact Finding Visit to Almere, Netherlands (May 2012)





Last week, USB went as part of the Government industry delegation to see what has been happening at Almere.

Almere is one of the main cities in the Amsterdam Metropolitan Area, located to the east of the city centre. It comprises 6 districts, with the Almere Poort district being the main focus of our visit. It’s Europe’s largest self-build project and a Mecca for those interested in the idea of individually designed custom homes. Built on land reclaimed from the sea (it’s the Dutch way), Almere is bold in its conception. To meet the projected demand for homes in the first half of the 21st century, create a flexible new town master plan, with a city centre hub, zoned areas for business growth and residential communities with the infrastructure necessary to support them.

Hold on we hear you say, that sounds pretty orthodox; isn’t that how many new communities are developed? True in the main - it’s even grounded in Ebenezer Howard’s garden city principles. That is until it comes to elements of delivery. How many other large scale developments can you think of that have over 800 self build plots in the same place, with another couple of thousand planned?!

What’s different here is that the Municipality actively encourages self or collective commissioning of homes on a large scale, rather than letting large house builders handle it. Rather than use speculative standard housing types from the catalogue arranging them on a plan and hoping people might want to buy them, the local authority did something amazing yet actually quite straightforward. They just put residential land up for sale. No subsidy, no complex community regulation. No complex rules. Just come to Almere, commit yourself to an exciting future and express yourself.

Now wait a minute, surely this is an experiment right? Well, initially yes, but to date the Local Government have sold over 800 plots via a sales centre in town where you just turn up, choose which area you want to live in, choose your plot, secure finance and away you go. Suddenly this is not experimental, it’s mainstream.

I know this simple retail process to buying land for a bespoke home will raise about a thousand questions in anyone’s mind such as, what do 800 bespoke homes look like? How do you ‘fit in’ when everyone is different? Isn’t this mad?

But the amazing thing is it is a fabulous place. A place full of people and families who want to build a bespoke home based on their own requirements, and a place where the residents share resources and knowledge from day one. Some of the homes are self-built, but most are built by main contractors with an architect in tow for people who are too busy or don’t have the skills to build it themselves. Yes, some of the homes are ‘expressive, unusual and individual’, but as a collective place they work. They are not a product of ‘the system’ they are above it, beneath it – hell, they’ve bypassed it.

But the ultimate question is, would it work in the UK? Right now, probably not. But, if there is a lesson to be learned from Almere, it’s that you don’t need homogeneity to create an exciting residential community. Individuality can be accommodated or even celebrated as a strength. Perhaps we’ve been looking at the product for too long, when it’s the process that needs scrutiny.

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