Creative solutions to modern-day problems

Given the Netherlands’ long history of water management, it’s no surprise that the Dutch know a thing or two about building and engineering. From holding back the tides to building densely populated cities below sea level, the nation has been showing the world how it’s done for centuries.

Times have changed though, and people are now focused on the challenges presented by global warming. In this regard, Amsterdam is already leading the way, too. From building facades equipped with temperature-regulating sensors to 3D-printed bridges and sustainable floating neighbourhoods, the city is meeting the demand for creative solutions at every level.

Architecture, urban planning and concept development company Space & Matter is one firm at the forefront of this evolution. Founded at the height of the financial crisis in 2009, it survived by creating projects when opportunities were scarce. Co-founder Tjeerd Haccou says the company started almost by accident. 

Tjeerd Haccou of Space and Matter

Tjeerd Haccou of Space & Matter

“We started in 2009 after winning a competition launched by the province of North Holland. It was a very bad time to start an architecture office because it was really the peak period of the crisis,” he says. “But we had some money from this competition and could just do whatever we wanted and didn’t really need commissions. And that was a good thing because we didn’t get any.”

How to innovate in a challenging economy

Limited opportunities didn’t stop Haccou and his team, though. Despite the challenging economy, they started developing new ideas with a unique focus on sustainability and community-building. “We just started generating our own projects and one of the first ones we did was the Sweets Hotel,” Haccou explains.

The hotel’s 28 rooms are located all across the city in tiny structures that once were home to Amsterdam’s bridge keepers, who were responsible for controlling boat traffic in the canals. The unique lodgings have been featured everywhere from CNN to The Guardian and allow guests to experience places once vital to the city’s infrastructure.

“We were just biking through the city and saw all of these vacant little bridge houses. We thought how cool it would be if we could make them hotel rooms. So, we went to the municipality and asked if we could create the hotels in these houses. It took a long, long time to get all the contracts and stuff, and eventually it took eight years to get it done. But it was one of our first self-initiated projects. And the self-initiated methodology is what we like best and do a lot.”

Creating unique, sustainable communities

This take-charge approach has played a major role in the success of Space & Matter. It also led to the firm procuring another prominent project: De Ceuvel, a sustainable workplace for social and creative enterprises.

When asked how it all came together, Haccou once again makes it sound simple. “The municipality gave everyone an opportunity to come up with ideas for this location. We gathered a big group of creative friends to submit an entry and won the competition.”

Despite its laidback, home-spun look, De Ceuvel is incredibly complex. Located on a former shipyard in Amsterdam Noord, it features office space, a sustainable café, a cultural venue and a floating bed and breakfast.

Everything is as eco-friendly as possible. Plants purge the soil of contaminants and sewage waste is stripped of nutrients and used to create biogas. In the kitchen, chefs chop vegetables from the greenhouse and compost scraps while heat exchangers capture and recycle warm air escaping from the offices. 

How all of the environment’s separate parts work together is an amazing feat of ingenuity. But Haccou is most excited about the ways De Ceuvel has changed its community and "the impact it had not just on local residents, but also on local policy, local businesses and the local mindset, as it encouraged people to embrace the principles of the circular economy." 

The desire to bring people together is also one of Haccou’s greatest motivators. “We really believe that if you see each other a lot and really know your neighbours, especially in a place like Amsterdam, you get a better city. So, we promote that with the design of our buildings. We call it ‘community building’ because we are building a community while building for the community.”

Making a change on a global level

Now that Space & Matter has an international reputation, the firm is pursuing new opportunities abroad. Currently, it’s taking the expertise developed creating Schoonship (a sustainable floating district in Amsterdam) to New York City for the BlueCity project. Located in the waters of Red Hook, Brooklyn, it will feature a climate laboratory, classroom, training facilities, public gathering space and gardens.

Space & Matter will provide “expert Dutch knowledge on floating housing and urban planning,” according to the project website. It also embodies the values that inspire Haccou, including strengthening low-income communities and providing environmental justice through urban farming and wastewater management.

Space and Matter offices

Space & Matter's office in Amsterdam

In the future, more companies from abroad will likely look to the Netherlands – and firms like Space & Matter – for support with similar proposals. And the Dutch are ready to partner up.

The Netherlands has long embraced the power of collaboration and it’s not uncommon here to see citizens and companies working together in pursuit of change. The City of Amsterdam and surrounding municipalities also encourage public participation when launching new initiatives. 

Combine this with the Dutch people’s entrepreneurial spirit and ability to identify a good export product, and it’s obvious why other countries are looking to them for guidance, especially when it comes to sustainable housing solutions.

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