New Exhibition on Housing in the Netherlands Proposes Solutions to High-Density, Multi-Family Residential Dilemmas

Multi-family housing in the Netherlands is designed to be part of the urban fabric.

As the seasons change this week, a new exhibition opens at the University of Minnesota that examines ways in which Dutch housing complexes are proposing new solutions to the need for high-density, multi-family housing in urban areas. Dutch Complex Housing is now on view in the HGA Gallery in Rapson Hall.

Curated by U of M School of Architecture professor Julia Robinson, author of the just-released book Complex Housing: Designing for Density, the exhibition addresses issues relevant to the Twin Cities, as multifamily housing continues adding density to areas such as Minneapolis’ North Loop and U of M areas, and as St. Paul issues plans for the Ford Site—amid neighborhood controversy—in hopes of creating a “21st Century Community.”

An accompanying symposium, Complexity: Dutch and American Housing Symposium, takes place October 6-8. Participants will examine and answer questions about livable, dense housing. We talked with Robinson about why the exhibition is particularly relevant now in the Twin Cities.

What does the exhibition communicate to residential architects and homeowners about design options? 

In the Twin Cities more and more dense housing is being built to create sustainable, pedestrian-oriented, public-transportation-friendly residential areas. However, neighborhoods, such as those near the Ford Plant site, are wary because of past experiences with badly designed dense housing. The exhibition and associated symposium present housing built in the Netherlands between 1990 and 2010 that is designed for high-quality living.

What is innovative about this housing typology? Could it work here?

Some of the special things about complex housing are that projects typically include housing for rent and for purchase, a variety of housing types, outdoor space for each dwelling, a mix of uses, and a courtyard area. Additionally, the housing in the Netherlands is designed not as a single building, but as an urban fabric, or as a part of a neighborhood plan, with each project having a unique architectural expression. The typical project is 4-8 stories high, about a city block in size, sometimes incorporating a tall, but narrow, 10-20-story tower.

This housing could work here. Designers and developers are becoming more aware of the rich variety of housing around the world. The first challenge is for those who finance buildings to accept more diversity in housing design. A second challenge is to improve the design standards.

The housing regulations in the Netherlands require more light and air than do ours, require an outdoor area for dwellings, and have different fire codes based on concrete construction (where smoke is the problem), rather than wood construction (where combustion is the problem). As a result, there might have to be modifications made in some of the designs or regulations to address important fire concerns.

A third challenge is the creation of owners’ associations, as in the Netherlands, that allow individual owners, whether residential, commercial, or civic to engage in project maintenance with developers, who represent the project renters.

Is this typology something that might work on a site like the former Ford Plant?

Complex housing could easily work on the Ford site. In Dutch neighborhood designs, complex housing is often used as a counterpoint to lower density row housing, whether on a park, a town square or on a busy street. The buildings are usually less deep than American buildings because of the use of single-loaded gallery flats and maisonettes superimposed on row houses that provide light on both ends. Building corners are often made up of vestibule flats. This design enables the creation of a courtyard surrounded by a variety of housing. Often a gateway to the courtyard is created by housing that bridges over an entrance on one side of the block.

How and why did you select the local projects that are part of the symposium? What do they tell us about what works and what doesn’t? 

The symposium organizing committee—made up of architects, landscape architects, developers, market researchers, academics, and community members—chose the projects in neighborhoods they thought represent the variety of approaches to housing taken in the Twin Cities. The four neighborhoods are East Franklin and Midtown, Uptown, Lowertown, and St. Anthony Waterfront. The selected projects tell us that we are successfully addressing many different circumstances and incomes, building new housing, renovating old housing, and transforming industrial buildings into housing. For the most part, however, we are not mixing incomes, combining housing for purchase with housing for rent, or mixing several different housing types in one project. Furthermore, the architectural expression is conservative.

What are the primary challenges facing designers and developers in Minneapolis-St. Paul who want to create high-density housing? What might they take away from this exhibition and symposium? 

The primary challenges are designing livable, architecturally rich housing projects and getting them financed and built to house people of all incomes in the same project. Some of the questions that the symposium and exhibition address are: Why did complex housing develop in the Netherlands? How do the Dutch create livable dwellings? How do they mix low, middle, and upper income people in the same complex? How do they create socially viable projects? How do they plan housing as urban fabric? How do they create housing as outstanding architecture?




By Camille Lefevre


Personal Designer

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