Here’s how Amsterdam built an archipelago to solve its housing crunch

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(Courtesy Amsterdam)

The islands of Ijburg, with Center Island jutting out to the right (Courtesy Amsterdam)

Amsterdam’s overflow population will soon have a roof over its head—and artificial sand bars beneath its feet. Europe’s boldest engineering and housing program yet proposes a series of artificial islands built over Ijmeer Lake, with shoreline houses occupying sand bars made using a so-called “pancake method.”

A mixed-use city block in the still-growing Ijburg neighborhood (Courtesy Amsterdam Architecture Tours)

A mixed-use city block in the still-growing Ijburg neighborhood (Courtesy Amsterdam Architecture Tours)

The local vernacular refers to a method of spraying sand through porous screens to form a layer of batter-like sludge. As the layer settles and drains through the fine mesh, it hardens and another layer is sprayed on top. Pancake by pancake, the artificial island rises until it is six-and-a-half feet above water level.

An Ijburg home by Architectenbureau Marlies Rohmer built on an artificial island (Courtesy Architectenbureau Marlies Rohmer)

An Ijburg home by Architectenbureau Marlies Rohmer built on an artificial island (Courtesy Architectenbureau Marlies Rohmer)

So far, six of the total 10 planned islands are complete, although not entirely built up or populated to maximum capacity. The islands are covered with low and medium-rise housing and self-build plots, while floating homes flank its edges. The three main islands contain urban streets and mid-rise buildings, with the smaller islets between the main islands and the coasts featuring a more suburban character.

(Courtesy Architectenbureau Marlies Rohmer)

(Courtesy Architectenbureau Marlies Rohmer)

On the islets, low-rise single-family homes line the shore, which will soon receive a cover of foliage and reed banks. Each island is thin in order to maximize views of the Ijmeer, but environmentalists still bristle at the threat posed to one of the scenic highlights of the Netherlands – also a vital habitat for birds. Construction of the final four islands, knowns as Ijburg Phase II, is finally due to commence after an interval of more than a decade.

(Courtesy Architectenbureau Marlies Rohmer)

(Courtesy Architectenbureau Marlies Rohmer)

Officials commend the interim between Phases I and II as a learn-and-grow buffer against construction pitfalls associated with the pancake method. In bad weather, the screens holding the island’s shape would rip and leach sludge onto the lake bottom, threatening the integrity of the island and the mussel beds below. To avoid these goof-ups for the next big island on the assembly line, called Center Island (Centrumieland), the Dutch government amassed public input for a year while consulting with the Amsterdam Architecture Center.

Slated to begin construction in 2017, after the last pancake layer dries, Center Island will host 1,000–1,200 homes. A range of local architects undertook designs for housing across the various islands, from MaccreanorLavington  to Atelier Kempe Thill, VMX, and Architectenbureau Marlies Rohmer.

Ijburg under construction in  November 2004 (Courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

Ijburg under construction in November 2004 (Courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

A 1,967-foot breakwater has been built to the east of the island to protect the sludge screens by sheltering them from the current. Future islands will feature more vegetation cover, with more low than high-rise settlements and a band of green around their fringes to preserve lakeside views. Meanwhile, developers have considered a uniform implementation of solar cells and district heating, while ceding more real estate to self-builders, who are more likely to install well-insulated, eco-friendly heating and wastewater systems.

Today, three more islets called Outer, Middle and Beach Islands (Buiteneiland, Middeneiland and Strandeiland) are also in the pipeline. The first island was inhabited in 2002, and the city’s tram network extended to the islands in 2005, bringing the former backwater within 15 minutes of Amsterdam’s Central Station.

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