Taking sustainability beyond Amsterdam

It’s no secret that Amsterdam is filled with sustainable buildings. Some are office towers like The Edge, while others are social centres for local communities, like De Ceuvel. By harnessing solar power, recycling rainwater and using the latest technology to reduce their footprint, they’re making the city a greener place to work and live. The distinctly Dutch spirit behind these buildings – one that embraces innovation and a commitment to doing things differently – is now being felt beyond the city’s borders. 

Rubble becomes new homes

As the founder and director of The Mobile Factory, Gerard Steijn has committed himself to helping people far from the Netherlands. When he discovered that 1.3 billion people around the globe live in tents, he began wondering why rubble, which is the world’s biggest polluter by volume, couldn’t be repurposed in countries with a desperate need.

Nowadays, he’s making it happen. The Mobile Factory focuses on helping people displaced by war and natural disasters by feeding the smashed up remains of buildings into a machine which is small enough to fit inside two shipping containers. Next, everything is turned into liquid concrete and transformed into Q-Brixx, building blocks resembling Legos. These can be stacked on top of one another to create basic houses in little time. 

By creating something new from something old, these bricks embody the innovation Amsterdam is known for, which takes many forms. For example, design firm Space & Matter turned abandoned bridge houses into a successful hotel while creative agency MOAM transforms textile scraps into high fashion. Building homes from debris seems like a natural next step in this journey of finding new life for discarded materials.

Avoiding the tent trap

“In 2010, there was a big disaster in Haiti,” Steijn explains. “There was 15 million tonnes of rubble and 1.3 million victims living in tents. This system of tent shelters keeps them in prison because if you leave your tent, you don’t get [help] anymore. You’re supposed to be on your own feet. But you don’t have a job, you don’t have an income, so you stay in your tent and get two meals a day.”

Steijn knew there had to be a better option than letting people languish in substandard housing. He also believed that truly making a difference meant helping people help themselves. “My philosophy was that if we re-use the rubble so these people can build their own houses, we won’t need the tents anymore and people will get work,” he says. “After a war or a disaster, people want to recover their country. But the system keeps them locked down and they live from an outstretched hand. But I am an entrepreneur. If we give them not an outstretched hand, but a hand to work, and we pay them for it, they can develop themselves.”

Affordable and easy to use

Shaped like Lego blocks, stackable Q-Brixx eliminate the need for mortar. The buildings they recreate are also highly resistant to earthquakes, stopping the cycle of constant destruction and rebuilding that gets in the way of creating stable communities. The bricks also reduce construction costs and the time needed to make new homes.

Most importantly, they represent opportunity. In Haiti, local people are being trained to build new homes with the bricks, providing them with a valuable skill and employment opportunities. Steijn is deeply moved by their commitment to improving their lives and making their country a better place. “We train people with no education, no profession. Now, they’re recycling the biggest polluter in the country…there’s no public transportation. They walk one or two hours to work to reuse the rubble in construction,” he explains. 

In the future, Steijn hopes to keep branching out and help people in more countries. Amsterdam’s excellent connectivity will make this easier as well. Schiphol provides access to hundreds of international destinations and when it’s time to send his brick-making machine across the sea, the Port of Amsterdam is here to help.

Proving the naysayers wrong

Though The Mobile Factory is capable of producing tangible results, Steijn still encounters his share of doubters. “Aid organisations don’t believe in it. They believe in construction companies. But we are training people to become simple construction specialists,” he says. With every brick, he’s proving the naysayers wrong, altering the way we look at sustainability and changing the lives of vulnerable people. 

Read more about sustainable buildings in Amsterdam and how buildings like Park2020 and  FABRICations are helping build a greener tomorrow.