Custom build in Holland: lessons for the UK

“Don’t let the developers near. They won’t develop.” That was the advice given to British planners in 2009 by Wulf Daseking, Freiburg’s chief planner for nearly 30 years.[1]

One way to speed things up and improve quality is custom and self-build housing, which puts the buyer in control of the development. The sector accounts for some 60% of new homes in France, around 80% in Austria. In Britain, it contributes only around 12-14,000 new homes a year, but it is attracting growing interest from politicians. So I was pleased to join a two-day visit to Amsterdam hosted by Igloo Regeneration to get a better idea of how it works.

Our first afternoon was spent in Almere, a new city 25 kilometres out of Amsterdam. In 40 years Almere’s population has grown to around 200,000, making it Holland’s fifth largest city. Custom build played an important role in keeping building going during the recession.

We visited the home of a man living in a single storey house – the height dictated by the design code for that particular part of the development, though some residents had chosen to add a basement. He was clearly happy with his new home and would not otherwise have been able to afford anything as good – small but light and well-designed, with low energy costs and plenty of storage space.


In another part of Almere the only design stipulation was that houses should be architecturally innovative. This house, windowless at the front, was surprisingly light inside. I am not sure, however, that the design innovation will catch on.


All-in-all, the custom build part of Almere has provided much needed and popular new homes. At the ‘plot shop’ we learnt how part-ownership houses are funded. The buyers get homes they could not otherwise afford and, because the property appreciates in value once built, they are able to move on if they wish. When the houses are resold on the open market for full ownership the municipality makes a healthy profit which it reinvests in new part-ownership homes.

There is much to like about Almere and useful lessons for the UK: get on with it; public investment in housing need not be ‘subsidy’, it can make a healthy return. But I was not convinced that it works yet as a place. The homes were certainly built and designed with care, but the public realm seemed neglected by both municipality and residents. Almere, or what we saw of it, lacked a heart. Perhaps that will come in time, but for now it felt less like a city than a giant new low-density suburb .

Our visits on the second day were more inspiring. First we visited a former industrial site in Buiksloterham, a suburb of Amsterdam. What impressed here was the speed with new homes were being built.


Then we visited IJburg, a neighbourhood controversially created from the IJ Lake in 1996. It is worth noting that the old Mark Twain line, “buy land, they’re not making it any more” does not seem to apply in Holland: Almere and IJburg were both built on reclaimed land, and our last stop was to see floating homes on homes or homes raised just above the lake.




People’s willingness to invite 50 or 60 strangers to troop through their homes was one of the wonders of the visit, and the house we visited in IJburg was beautiful. The only time I have ever watched a property programme was in a dentist’s waiting room and I do not generally suffer from property envy but I did then.

The family who owned it, and who worked with the builder and architect on its design, traded location (central Amsterdam) for space, but still only 10 minutes from the centre by tram. The photo shows the back garden, opening onto two neighbours’ gardens so that the families’ young children can play together without supervision.



CPRE came into existence in 1926 partly in a reaction against plotlands. Peacehaven, Jaywick and ‘Cottabunga’ appalled our pioneers. The story is well told (though not particularly sympathetically to CPRE) in David Matless’s invaluable Landscape and Englishness, recently republished: “Plotlands became symbols of speculation, deprivation, visual disorder and social marginality, transgressing the preservationists’ morality of settlement, hardly a place and beyond public authority.”

But I think Sir Patrick Abercrombie and Clough Williams-Ellis would have appreciated the care taken over the design of many of the homes we saw. In Holland, selling plots to individuals has clearly resulted in good quality homes, quickly built.

CPRE’s main criticism of current housing policy is that local authorities are forced to allocate land for many more houses than the house builders are able or willing to build. Too few homes are built of too poor quality and they are often built in the wrong places.

If local authorities try to focus development on brownfield sites, they are told the sites are unviable and that they must release greenfield sites – see, for example, the case study of Salford in CPRE’s report Community Control or Countryside Chaos?

The Dutch experience shows that it does not have to be like this. Custom build housing is beginning to get going in Britain – notably the 1900 home development at Graven Hill, Bicester – and I hope it will prosper, delivering large numbers of quality homes quickly and, in the process, saving countryside. But for this to happen, there will have to be some big changes – a really concerted push from central government, local authorities making (mostly brownfield) land available, and mortgage lenders providing finance available.

But the prospects should be good because the idea is good and experience elsewhere shows that it works. As Jon Sawyer of Igloo says: “Custom build is an amazing concept. Pay less for a new home and get more choice in how it’s designed and built for you. Surely it can only go from strength to strength?”

[1] Good Cities, Better Lives: How Europe Discovered the Lost Art of Urbanism, Peter Hall, Routledge 2014.

4 Responses to “Custom build in Holland: lessons for the UK”

  1. 1 New Moons For Old October 11, 2016 at 4:18 pm

    I can see the first Almere property shown above slotting into our countryside, as it looks like a sympathetic but stylish farm building conversion (I avoid the term “barn conversion” because so many today are neither barns nor conversions, just new houses built on old agricultural footprints and sold at inflated prices), but not the other properties shown. What is CPRE’s stance on this kind of “innovative” architecture? It strikes me that there must be a balance between meeting housing needs and constructing what appears to be kind of mini-Barbican, at Ijburg, in the countryside here.

  2. 3 Peter Cleasby October 11, 2016 at 9:58 pm

    Shaun, many thanks and most interesting. From what you say the plot structure at Almere has led to low density housing. Did the other places manage higher densities? Peter

    • 4 sspiers October 12, 2016 at 9:24 am

      Peter, we saw some higher density housing.

      The home we visited in IJburg, the one that caused me property envy, was owner-occupied, though with a pretty high annual rent, i.e. the house was owned, but not the plot. The house felt large, but mainly because it was four storeys. Even with the garden, it probably occupies less space than many smaller ‘executive’ homes favoured by British developers. But IJburg is a mixed community, and at the end of the same street there was – if I understood it right – some custom build social housing, apartments co-designed by the tenants.

      In Buiksloterham the houses seemed reasonably large, but the neighbouring plots were very close, probably closer than would be allowed in the UK, or than would be popular.

      We saw a small part of Almere, but the suburban feel of what we saw was less down to the size of the plots, which mostly did not leave another space for gardens, than to the ‘public realm’. There were wide pavements, wide roads, quite a lot of empty spaces that didn’t seem to serve much purpose. We also didn’t see much sign of shops, cafes or community centres. Maybe all that will come, but I was left with a sense that although the houses had been designed with care and I would be very happy living in them once I’d shut the front door, I’d be less happy living in Almere.

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