Self-building in The Netherlands: the absence of a guideline, that is the guideline.

After a centuries long tradition in self-building the Dutch have somehow forgot how to do it: building your own home. A lot of old city centers, for example Amsterdam’s ring of canals, are the result of years of self-building. On the countryside it was – and still is – usual to build your own (Maes 2013, 117). To prevent miscommunication: self-building, better, private commissioning occurs when one or more private individuals acquire land(s) and determine with which parties they realize their house for own use (Dammers et al, 2007). With private commissioning, a citizen can realize his own wishes more easily than conventional house-building. One of the reasons for this sudden forget is the standardized, government driven house-building. Since the Woningwet of 1901 and certainly during the rebuilding after Second World War, quality (user-based) was not the focus point, but quantity. After a policy document in 2000 Mensen, Wensen, Wonenthe turning point from ‘public housing’ to ‘living’ was made and the focus shifted from quantity to quality again (Maes 2013, 118).

Since 2007, self-building is alive and kicking. The Dutch city Almere revived self-building on large scale and became an important example of the private individual performing as a master builder. Currently, as the development continues, one sees a large and interesting variety of homes emerge, including a number of architectural highlights.

This new degree of freedom for the private individual has consequences for the architecture that is being built in Almere. Based on aesthetic quality, are these consequences for architecture primarily positive or negative? My expectation: primarily positive.

Realizing a dream

Articles, books and magazines about self-building and private commissioning in The Netherlands are often illustrated with pictures of Almere. Especially those with a rich variety of facades, colors and styles (figure 1).

Self-building in Almere

Figure 1: A rich variety of facades, colors and style, found in Almere. Image courtesy of Johnny Wonder.

In fact, when talking about self-building one is often inclined to talk immediately about aesthetics. “How can anybody live in that”, “Why paint your house purple”, and more of these expressions of taste.  I can relate to these expressions though, as an aspirant architect I imagine designing and building my own house. When elaborating further on that thought, what are the chances my neighbor is also educated in architecture and to take it even more further, what kind of taste does he has, or lack? There is a chance that my neighbor will order his home straight from a catalogue, and realizes it next to my – surely – well-designed home. There will be a possibility that your future neighbors suffer lack of taste. Although it’s hard to produce evidence against lack of taste, it is possible to conclude a variety of tastes can emerge which possibly can conflict in some cases.

Should developers and urban planners warn people for extravagant and conflicting ideas? Jacqueline Tellinga, Almere’s project manager for Homeruskwartier, disagrees. She explains in an interview with Volume Magazine #43 the advantages of their way of building and planning. Her project team decided the urban plan in Almere Poort should not be a design based on aesthetics, but giving people freedom of choice. They ‘more or less forgot about urban and architectural aesthetics on purpose’. Currently as the development continues, one sees a large and interesting variety of homes emerge, including a number of architectural highlights. The variety of styles and homes in Almere is like never seen before. The earlier mentioned articles about private commissioning are almost always illustrated with images of this urban ‘plan’ for the reason that it is possible here to build a static notary house next to replicas of canal houses and modern day villas. And it’s very popular, all the plots are sold. The variety of emerged houses shows the modern day ‘freed citizen’, which is not only consumer but also a designer (Terreehorst 2013, 125). In the houses in Almere art expresses itself by means of form, decorations and detailing of the facades. The lack of a guideline creates a guideline. People are different, therefore their homes are different. The private individual builds big, small, freestanding or next to each other. All homes together, the ensemble, makes the street interesting. Resulting in being the opposite of the achieved architectural unity of the standard urban plans, private commissioning evolves into divers and colorful street scenes, creating a genuine beauty and far more interesting cities.

Return of quality

Despite subjective thoughts about styles, colors and building methods, self-building is also a process of quality-improvement. Project developers think of an average building, while private commissioning focuses on specific, and often higher demands in terms of quality (Van Gameren 2013, 125). The mass house builders have done such an appalling job of despoiling the aesthetic quality, so from this point of view self-builders cannot even do any worse and should be encouraged to continue (Heathcote 2011). Individual lack of poor design is not a real problem, the mass-produced building blocks of the postwar period are.

Next to the exterior, also the interior can be an improvement. The individual designs will provide an important contribution to a richer variety of house supply in the future (Terreehorst 2013, 126). When observing the trend of designing your own home, we must think outside the ‘building box’ for a moment. Ages we inspired and encouraged people to use their imagination and fantasy through arts, now we must not be surprised if they want to realize their ideas also for their homes. Everyone is in fact an artist (Terreehorst 2013, 125). That might be true for some examples in Almere, but not everyone thinks like this of its neighbor. After seeing Almere, people themselves asked about regulations to the planners of new areas. It even resulted in a policy by the Planbureau voor de Leefomgeving, referring to the area of tension between the individual wishes and the guarantee of an interdependent aesthetic quality of the environment. It prescribes regulations for local governments to prevent a cacophony of styles and lose control. This area of tension must be respected and acknowledged by the builders. When you build a house you are creating an asset for a hundred years. The design is not just a matter of personal taste, it has an impact on the wider community (Ellis 2011). People should take decisions with the future in mind.

Adri Duivesteijn, former City Council Member of Almere, thinks the quality in the streets of Almere returns through self-building. The role of the architect has been marginalized throughout the past years but now the architect becomes an architect again. While the aim was never to reach a higher level of professional architecture in terms of aesthetics (Tellinga 2015, 19), when observing Almere it is correct that each house is unique. The personal story of the self-builders gives an immediate appreciation of their motivations and personal touches.

Diversity has as a direct effect that craftsmanship is asked again. With every house a different window, door and façade, it’s difficult to ‘copy and paste’. On the internet are examples in which the craftsmen worked out an issue with the individual contractor, on site. It is how it should be, helping realize one another’s dream. Together with an architect Family Van Seggelen built their home in Almere on Kavel 700 (figure 2), a ship-shaped form. It represents also the question whether working with an architect makes sense. Mister Van Seggelen is a shipbuilder and wanted his house to be made like a ship is made. Together with the architect Jules Zwijsen he chose a timber frame construction, in which the architect proposed to use laminated timber frames. This frame ensured a structure which could be filled in with walls and floors rather easily. The combination of the dream and knowledge of the private commissioner and the experience of the architect resulted in a unique, high-quality house. Reality shows a house designed with an architect usually is worth more than one straight out of a catalogue (Maes 2013, 124). One sees a lot of architectural highlights in this neighborhood, compared to the rest of Almere.

AJBZ Kavel 700

Figure 2: Kavel 700 in Almere, designed by Family van Seggelen en Jules Zwijssen from ABJZ. Image courtesy of ABJZ.

The self-building trend requires a different attitude. Everyone should value the conventional building blocks that are being built and I can conclude only one thing: self-building brings positive elements into our built environment. The new type of building requires a step-back for project developers to realize ‘who is the client, what does he want and how his home should look like’. A home is like a custom made suit. Therefore we need an open mind, we need to be prepared for unexpected ideas. People are different, therefore their homes are different. Almere convinces the critics that the lack of a guideline can in fact be the guideline. When seeing all homes together, the ensemble makes the street much more interesting. Regulations about urban and architectural aesthetics are not always needed, because freedom of choice directly transforms into diversity. This diversity fills the Dutch streets again after years of static building blocks built by large corporations. Today’s individual self-expression is visible in Almere, through divers and colorful street scenes. For the future, the outlook is therefore promising. Where will the next chapter of self-building start?


Dammers, Ed, Lára Pálsdóttir, Hanna, Van den Broek, Lia, Klemm, Wiebke, Tisma, Alexandra and Like Bijlsma. 2007. Particulier opdrachtgeverschap in de woningbouw. Rotterdam: NAi Uitgevers.

De Castella, Tom. 2011. “Self-build: Should people build their own homes?” BBC News, July 19. Accessed June 20, 2015.

Eckardt, Florian, Heijne, Karin, Hinterleitner, Jutta, Roos, Carla and Jacqueline Tellinga. 2013. Hoe bouwt de particuliere opdrachtgever? Rotterdam: nai010 uitgevers.

Mulder, Henk. 2015. In De Democratie van het zand, zelf bouwen in het Homeruskwartier in Almere, by Corine Koole. Amsterdam: Prometheus.

Oosterman, Arjen. 2015. “Building your own.” VOLUME #43: 19-25.

Tegenlicht: Bouw ‘t zelf. 2015. Producer: VPRO.


1: Johny Wonder. 2013. “Zelfbouw In Almere.” Accessed June 3.

2: Zwijsen. 2010. “Op bezoek bij zelfbouwer Kees.” Accessed June 3.


Self-building, aesthetic quality, trends, housing, architectural critique

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