The BSA is continuously looking into ways to help solve the housing crisis. One way we explored in our 2016 report is incorporating modern methods of construction (MMC) to the UK’s building repertoire to provide the homes we so desperately need. These build methods have been popular in Almere, near Amsterdam in the Netherlands, since the 1970s, which is why Paul Broadhead and myself led a delegation of BSA members and associates to visit there recently. Enabling BSA members and associates to see first-hand the inspirational way Almere was established (and continues to be developed) using the very latest in modern house building techniques.
Expectations were high and the itinerary packed. I knew how busy this group of well-respected building society chief executives and valuation panel managers were. We had two days to be inspired by and learn from this forward-thinking city, the pressure was on. I couldn’t wait to get started.
Meeting the Architect
Today did not disappoint. Our first stop was a presentation from Olof van der Linden architects. Olof spoke passionately about his work in Almere and the homes he has designed for his clients, with a real focus on building homes to suit people’s lifestyles. This was evident in a decadent open plan riverside family home with dedicated, separate spaces for children and parents. It was equally in the first-time buyer property where Olof designed over three floors and incorporated an office space to allow the self-employed contractor to work from home. It was interesting to see how using space in a more creative way can deliver so much, and much of this can only work by embracing innovative building techniques.
Olof talked about the variety of materials and building methods available, and how he selects the most appropriate to fulfil the clients’ needs. The majority of these options – including steel framed and concrete - involve at least part of the home being constructed offsite in a factory. When asked by the group of how materials are tested, and how they age over time, Olof was very confident about the long-term performance. He was able to describe the ways in which materials and techniques are used to ensure they meet the tough building regulations and remain within the scope of the allocated building permit.
Meeting the Lender
Rabobank – one of the Netherland’s largest mortgage lenders, then joined the group. There was a lot of anticipation before this meeting, as most attendees believed it would be one of the most important discussions of the trip - and key to understanding how lenders in the Netherlands were able to embrace MMC.
Colleagues from Rabobank explained that initial reservations towards MMC were superseded by the Netherlands’ confidence in building regulations - and their trusted assurance of durability. Dutch lenders rely heavily on building permits issued by local authorities, which stipulate the parameters of what can – and cannot- be built. So far, Rabobank has had a positive experience with MMC, and believe most lenders in the Netherlands are comfortable with these build techniques. As you’d expect, they told us that their valuation experts were key to the process, and we left with the impression that valuers with the relevant skills to assess these properties were readily available.
What I found interesting was that they were less concerned about loan to value of the property, their focus was on affordability. They certainly seemed quite relaxed about lending on these ‘new’ technologies. It felt as though perhaps we were looking for problems and what could go wrong, whereas their approach was more positive: if the buyer can afford it, and the valuer is happy, then it makes sense surely?
The plot shop
We left Rabobank in high spirits and arrived at the plot shop - or to use the Dutch name ‘Kavelwinkel’ - where we saw just how easy it was for potential self and custom builders to find a plot and get building.
The interactive screens allows easy access to land availability. You can easily choose your plot size, find a builder and source an architect if needed. The process appeared very quick and straightforward.
As long as you build within the regulations of the building permit, you are free to build your home in any style and shape you wish.
Out and about in Almere
The final part of the day was to visit some of Olof's projects that he had talked about earlier. Pictures just don't do these houses justice, what surprised me most was the amount of space created inside, which was deceptive from the outside: thoughtfully designed and robust. I definitely had a case of housing envy.
As we drove through the streets of Almere it struck me that whilst there is an array of very different looking housing, it all looks quite organic and the houses blend together. I expected it to look disorganised or untidy but the different areas and styles add character.
I thought about some of the uninspiring rows upon rows of duplicated houses in the UK, which in comparison to Almere seem a little soulless. “We can do so much better in the UK” I reflected, no wonder we are so in love with period homes with distinctive features when the alternative is arguably a little bland.
After a long but rewarding day we headed back to Amsterdam, it was time for dinner and then to gather our thoughts and prepare for another busy day.