Werner Brouwer explains why being able to build a house without restrictions in Oosterwold is also about working together to build a community.
Interview with Werner Brouwer
Since its conception 50 years ago, there has been much interest in the Oosterwold development of the Almere area in the Netherlands.
From the first houses being built around five years ago, there are now around 500 houses, from a total of 15,000 which are expected to be built.
Werner Brouwer works for the municipality of Almere as Director of Development at Oosterwold.
“The very special thing is you can choose anything you want, but the difficulty is you have to choose.”
Without many regulations in place, or indeed a designer or planning officer, decisions need to be made by the residents. While this appears on the face of it to be an exciting prospect, it does leave them with the problem of having to make those decisions, even if they're difficult to do. For example, with even the road-building needing to be self-organised, it is left for future neighbours to cooperate together.
“That’s not an easy part because everyone has a different budget, different ideas, and you have to come to one end.”
The difficulty is not in building the house
Building the house, or getting someone in to design and build it for you, can actually be relatively easy, in comparison to other aspects of being a homeowner at the Oosterwold site. For most people, it will be the first time they have done something like this, and what they are finding is that it took a lot more time and was considerably more difficult than they thought. As novices, trying to find out how to go about building roads and wastewater treatment systems, and particularly in collaboration with your future neighbours, can be extremely challenging and time-consuming.
Road building can be a contentious issue
At Oosterwold, when you buy a plot you will have a drawing that shows where the road will need to go. As you can only start building your house once you have a road, you are dependent on that cooperation with your neighbours for getting the road built. While this can be a chance to bond with them, it can also lead to tensions.
There are some regulations about the dimensions to ensure it is suitable for emergency vehicle access, but beyond that it is for the neighbours of their particular area to agree on what it is going to be made from, and how to divide the cost. They could decide the percentages will be based on the number of houses, the size of the plot, income, number of cars owned, etc.
Werner is already involved in a legal procedure where people are in dispute about the road.
“People choose things that are not common, and you have to fit in with them”
Plots are allocated in sequence along rows, so when you see a plot you like you have to contact the one there before you. It is the nature of the development that people might want something outside of the norm, but in order to achieve that there has to be collaboration with your new neighbours. For example, if someone wants a circular plot, they will need to find someone that wants a concave plot for next door.
The freedom to make their own choices means there is a lot of diversity, with houses being built out of straw, car tyres, wood, steel, and shipping containers, all next to each other. With no say about what your neighbour can build, it's a development that might not suit everyone!
Community sustainability contributes to the conscience of behaviour
Sustainability in terms of energy consumption is generally done at an individual level, but a big focus is on developing a sustainable community. As part of this there is an obligation to contribute 50% of each plot to city farming for food production. This could be by way of keeping sheep, planting fruit trees or a vineyard.
Wastewater and sewerage is also dealt with locally in the development, with residents being responsible for their own treatment systems. One positive that comes out of this is it has meant that individuals at Oosterwold have an awareness of the circularity of water and what their own needs are.
However, lessons have been learned that it's actually a very technical solution so they are planning for the government to take back some of the responsibility for the wastewater treatment.
The process is the same for schools and public transport
With a development of this size there will need to be community facilities, but these follow the same rules as for the house building. In Holland, there is a financial deal whereby if an initiative and backing are raised to build a school, then the government will have to pay for it. But that initiative, like all the others, will have to take its turn, be involved in the road building for that section, and provide the necessary agricultural space.
Developers are not allowed!
Werner accepts that while sometimes developers could do it better or faster, this provides an alternative for people who don't want to live in a standard home. With a shortfall of one million houses that need to be built in the country, Oosterwold draws on the experience gained from fast development at Almere to offer choice for those that would like to build a house themselves.
Time needs to be taken to implement lessons learned
With Oosterwold covering an area of 4,300 hectares, Werner says one of their objectives is about slowing down development. If 1,000 people rush into building, it could mean 1,000 mistakes being made. Better to let it move at a slower pace and have time to respond to issues.
There is currently an evaluation taking place looking at what has gone well, what has gone wrong and what could be done better.
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