architecture circular economy

De Ceuvel’s playground for sustainable cities

Lots of European cities have former port quarters that have seen better days. Whether they’re on the sea or on rivers, docklands are less important than they used to be. Over time, warehouses and wharves are being replaced with apartments and waterfront restaurants and retail. Amsterdam’s Buiksloterham district is doing it a little differently.

This particular docklands regeneration effort is more experimental. It’s rooted in localisation, sustainability, and new ways of living and working. The architects behind it describe it as a ‘playground for circular cities’.

At the heart of it is De Ceuvel, a co-working space and a hub for local artists, entrepreneurs and sustainability researchers. It’s based on a series of radically renovated houseboats, which have been craned up onto a former shipyard and joined together by a winding boardwalk. In-between is a garden of phytoremedial plants that will draw toxins out of the heavily polluted soil. The project is temporary. It’s designed to be there for ten years. When it is dismantled, the site will be cleaned and ready to host something else, an intriguing example of a restorative development.

While it’s there, De Ceuvel will have little impact on its environment, as it has a number of strategies to reduce waste and reuse as much as possible on site. Food waste generated by the businesses or the cafe goes into a wormery. More unusually, the hub uses composting toilets. Waste is separated, with urine going through a struvite reactor to extract the minerals and produce an odourless white fertiliser. Solid waste is composted through the toilets and then a tumbler, with the compost reused in the gardens, a greenhouse and aquaponics system. That, in turn, produces food for the cafe.

Energy is renewable, of course. Each houseboat/office has solar panels fitted, and since the boats are insulated and have heat exchangers, this provides for heat as well as power. There’s an innovative way of encouraging businesses to use less power too. Each boat has a smart meter that records output from the solar panels and the occupants’ usage. When an office generates a surplus, they earn points in a local cryptocurrency called ‘Jouliettes’. These points can be exchanged with other boats when they need to draw more power, and it operates as a reward scheme for those who run more efficiently. As the area around De Ceuvel regenerates, there are plans for Jouliette to become a functioning local currency based on solar power.

There’s more – the biogas boat that the cafe is building so that they can cook with biogas, or the floating B&B. The way that it ties into the wider development of Buiksloterham is interesting too. The area is inviting people to self-build their own eco-homes, with plans to make it the most sustainable neighbourhood in Europe. But you can read more on that for yourself on the De Ceuvel site.

One final thing that’s worth mentioning is that there’s an economic idea behind all of this too. Waterfront land is highly prized, and it makes a wonderful location for apartments and local amenities. The trouble is that as post-industrial land, it’s polluted. The only way to make it safe is to mechanically remove polluted soil, which is time consuming and costly. In order to justify the expense, developers then have to build premium apartments on the land. Docklands regeneration, as you can see in London all up and down the Thames, almost always caters to the luxury end of the market. It all looks very smart, but local people are priced out in the process and community is destroyed.

That’s what was happening in Buiksloterham too, incidentally. But it was just getting started when the financial crisis happened, and building sites were more or less abandoned. That gave local people an opportunity to pause and decide what they could do differently. De Ceuvel is one response – put in place a temporary development that will heal the land naturally, for a fraction of the cost. The area will regenerate with circular economy principles, but it will be an inclusive development too.


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