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Living Above and Below the Water

By Christopher F. Schuetze
The New York Times
April.23.2015

 

Living Above and Below the Water’s Surface in Amsterdam

Floating houses built on man-made islands make up the new neighborhood of IJburg in Amsterdam. Center, the home of Monique Spierenburg and Kees Harschel, whose seven-meter sailboat is docked right next to the living room. CreditFriso Spoelstra, Boat People of Amsterdam, Lemniscaat, 2013
AMSTERDAM — When asked about his three-story floating house in a gleaming new part of Amsterdam, Kees Harschel, a 65-year-old native Amsterdammer, likes to compare his living situation to winning the lottery.

“This house fits us like a second skin,” said Mr. Harschel, a retired physical education teacher, sitting in his dining room on the ground — or in this case water-level — floor of the house he has shared with his wife, Monique Spierenburg, since the couple had it built seven years ago.

In Mr. Harschel’s case, the comparison with a game of chance is more than just pride of ownership: To become part of the community of 36 houses floating on an artificial lake on Steigereiland, one of several man-made islands that make up the burgeoning new neighborhood of IJburg, Mr. Harschel competed with more than 400 applicants.

“My wife said: Go on, gamble — you won’t win anything, so try it,” said Mr. Harschel, who lived in a house on the Amstel river before moving to IJburg. But winning a spot in the small community — which the couple did in 2007 — was just the first step in a journey that would include hiring a renowned architect and battling the bureaucratic wrangling that comes with being a building pioneer in Europe.

The result is an expression both of one couple’s love of the water and of innovative living for which the Dutch — long known for their centuries-old ornate houses — are garnering an international reputation.

IJburg, home to about 20,000 people currently, is expected to eventually house 45,000. It has been rising over the past decade on a succession of artificial islands to the southeast of the city center, conceived to ease a chronic housing shortage. The area attracts many young families and professionals who, with a newly built tram line, can be in the heart of Amsterdam in 10 minutes.

The city has taken care to create a mixed community, with mansions, social housing and both market-rate and fixed-rent apartments, all sharing courtyards, public squares, parks, shopping centers and canals.

And while the 36 houses in Mr. Harschel and Ms. Spierenburg’s part of the neighborhood are all individually designed and built, those across the lake are by a single developer. Some are rented and some are owned by their inhabitants.

The couple’s house, which is nine meters, or 30 feet, high, rises just seven and a half meters above the water surface (the submerged 1.5 meters is part of the fully functional bottom floor) and is seven meters wide and 10 meters deep. (The width of the house is set by the size of the lock connecting the IJmeer to the little lake that would become its home.) Over all, the design accommodates 175 square meters of total floor space, or 1,880 square feet, with a 35-square-meter roof terrace.

The interior is the essence of Dutch simplicity. The main floor has a kitchen and dining room, where the couple do most of their socializing. Vast windows ensure the interior is flooded with diffuse reflected light and offer views of the IJmeer and the rest of the floating neighborhood.

The top floor is divided between an indoor living room and an outdoor patio. When the doors are open in the summer, the space becomes one, evoking architecture from much warmer climates.

Built to suit the couple, the basement includes two bedrooms, a master bathroom, an infrared sauna, a study and, according to Mr. Harschel, one of the most important rooms in the house: a two-and-a-half-square-meter woodworking and repair shop.

Although the house feels like a normal house, it is actually floating on its concrete basement foundation. (Power, water and other services are supplied via the fixed dock, which also acts as the land access, installed and maintained by the city.) Eye-level windows in the basement afford just-over-surface views.

Its unusual construction allowed the house to be built miles away from where it now floats, and if Amsterdam’s building code did not forbid it, the owners could simply take it with them when they moved.

“I’m a sailor,” said Mr. Harschel, who pilots saloon boats — canal boats often used for private day trips — around Amsterdam. His seven-meter Thalamus Working Boat is docked right next to the living room.

“On summer evenings we can just take some beer, wine and toast and have dinner out on the water,” said Mr. Harschel, who last summer sailed to the south of England, departing from and returning to the side of his house.

On the rare occasion when the lake freezes over, Ms. Spierenburg straps on her speed skates and takes to the ice without having to leave her house to reach the rink.

“It is much more a gateway to freedom than it is just a place to live,” said Koen Olthuis, who designed this house and whose architectural office, Waterstudio, specializes in designing floating buildings all over the world. “Skating around the house, swimming around your house — it’s marvelous.”

Both owner and architect concede that being one of the first houses on the pier came with costs.

“They paid a bit for the things we learned,” said Mr. Olthuis, explaining that the pioneering families did pay — in money, time and frustration — for what the city was learning about urban planning on water.

“It was a book this thick, but we were free,” joked Mr. Harschel, waving an imaginary building code volume.

Mr. Olthuis noted that the house had been built following code for land houses, which, in keeping with a mandate to build greener houses in the Netherlands, stipulated triple-glazed windows, heavy insulation and even a heat exchanger to retain heat from effluent — something that most houseboats, which tend to be light houses on a heavy foundation, avoid.

Mr. Harschel estimates that the couple spent 350,000 euros, or $380,000, to build the house (the lease for the lot is €600 a month), and guesses that the value of the property has probably more than doubled in the years since it was built.

“These people living here are pioneers; they are willing to take a risk, they are willing to try stuff out,” said Mr. Olthuis. “They all have a very strong feeling of freedom. That’s why they came here.”

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Koen Olthuis speaks on BODW Hong Kong

His speech was very well received at Asia’s largest and leading annual event on design, innovations and brand

Koen Olthuis speaks on BODW Hong Kong
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Koen’s speech in the Culture and the City Session was very well received.

Business of Design Week (BODW) is a flagship event organised by Hong Kong Design Centre since 2002. Each year, BODW brings to Hong Kong some of the world’s most outstanding design masters and influential business figures to inspire the regional audience on creative thinking and design management. In addition, it also provides a valuable platform for participants to network, exchange ideas and explore business cooperation. Today, BODW enjoys the reputation as Asia’s leading annual event on design, innovation and brands.

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Inhabitat interviews Olthuis, Global Mobile Assets

Inhabitat, Bridgette Meinhold, July 2014

INHABITAT INTERVIEW: Water Architect Koen Olthuis on How to Embrace Rising Sea Levels

Sea levels are rising, floods are prevalent, and cities are at greater risk than ever due to climate change. Now that we’ve accepted these facts, it’s time to design and build more resilient structures. Koen Olthuis, one of the most forward-thinking and innovative architects out there, has a solution for rising sea levels. His solution: Embrace the water by incorporating it into our cities; creating resilient buildings and infrastructure that can handle extreme flooding, heavy rains, and higher water. Olthuis and his team at Waterstudio.nl have been showing coastal communities the benefits of building on the water. With countries like the Maldives and Kiribati having to build oceanside or move in order to escape rising sea levels, New York learning to battle storm surges, and Jakarta dealing with massive flooding, embracing water may be our only option for survival. We chatted with Olthuis about how coastal cities can become more resilient in the face of change—read on for our interview!

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Waterstudio wins

Re-Thinking The Future, July 2014

City Apps by Waterstudio.nl wins “Re-Thinking The Future” awards 2014, under the category of Urban Design Built.

Upgrading Slums: One billion people live in slums, worldwide there are 200.000 slums and half of them, are wet-slums located next to the water and are vulnerable to floods. Currently, slum upgrading projects face a dearth in available land and bank funding. It is time we shift to floating products of plug and play that guarantee resilience, value, solve space issues, and create an instant and duplicable solution for upgrading life of the poorest.

Second Award | RTFA 2014 Awards

Category: Urban Design Built  

Participant  Name: Koen Olthuis

Country: The Netherlands 

City Apps (1)

Floating City Apps through Plug&Play:  The concept of Floating City Apps is to provide basic functions on floating structures that will be leased to wet-slums. Like customising smartphones with apps, slums can be upgraded with City Apps that are needed at that moment at that location. The basic functions include sanitation, housing, health care, garbage collection, community kitchen and communication. The floating quality of these apps ensures a method that is ‘scarless’, functions can be removed without leaving any scars to the environment.

Through the concept of plug&play, the apps can be plugged in and out at specific locations as needed. This makes it a bottom-up design approach that can become small scale catalysts for change.

City Apps (2)
City Apps (2)

Tackling the 4 Challenges: Together with upgrading slums, these apps also tackle the challenges of ecology, information technology, socialization and globalization. Lack of appropriate waste disposal facilities make slums major agents of pollution. The garbage collection and sanitation apps provide facilities for this and helps in reducing pollution. Other apps like the agriculture app which increases the green cover of the city and the solar energy app which harnesses energy contribute to its overall ecological significance.

City Apps (3)
City Apps (3)

The project also has a huge social significance. In this age of ‘information technology’, cities are increasingly being adjusted for people in IT while the poorer sections remain ignored resulting in social polarization. Internet cafes and education centres, realised through the Communication App, help in empowering these sections and reduces the polarization. It also helps in bringing the community together contributing to socialization.

The global significance of the project lies in the fact that at a time of globalization, when developing countries are at a disadvantage compared to developed countries, the project tries to share the expertise and resources of developed countries with the developing world.

City Apps (4)
City Apps (4)

The Communication App & Construction: The first City App is the Communication App. Built with 20 tablets and 2 TV screens, it will serve as a social and educational platform which connects slum inhabitants to the internet.

The construction is simple and affordable. A standard 20ft. container is equipped with a wall unit that is designed to hold the technological equipment and maximize its small space. Solar panels on the roof provide energy to run the App. The container is assembled in the Netherlands and shipped to the wet-slum where it’s placed on a floating foundation made of metal scaffolding with PETbottles inside by the slum dwellers themselves. Making use of these materials will help clean the environment and encourage public participation.

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