The case study of 'Town with a Skin' project is based on a typical Dutch row house in Honselersdijk, a suburban and low density environment situated within the metropolitan area of The Hague. The town functions as a satellite settlement and relies on private cars in order to fulfil the commuting needs of its residents. The location is characterized by its many greenhouses for food production and lots of row houses, constructed as an inexpensive and fast solution to deal with the housing shortage after WWII. The majority of these structures are poorly energy performing and do not meet the demands of their inhabitants in the contemporary context.
The project represents a solution that could be applied to 1.4 million high energy consuming Dutch row houses from around 1960. While transforming houses to be energy neutral on the basis of technological solutions, an urban strategy is elaborated. The major ambition of 'Town with a Skin' is to reconsider the lifestyle of today. This approach aims to improve not only the physical fabric but also the social aspects of the place. Strengthening of the existing communities is promoted by a concept of sharing amenities, which in this particular case is organised around food production (reflecting on the local characteristics) and energy production. In order to exploit the qualities of the streets as vibrant open spaces and improve the performance of the mobility system, a concept which relies on green modes i.e. walking and cycling on town level is promoted. There, cars are stored only on specific locations.
The Skin has the potential to contribute to sustainability on a larger scale: the house, the district, the neighborhood and even the city. It can be applied to a whole row of dwellings. Due to the toolbox, a concept that has been created and which will be explained below, the design can adapt varying orientations, size and identity of the inhabitant. Moreover, it allows a new relation with the street and the public space by enhancing community principles such as food. Combining these two major advantages, the whole neighborhood can become sustainable from both bottom-up and top-down initiatives facilitated by an inhabitant or housing corporation.
Aiming to reach a critical impact on the sustainability of Dutch housing ‘Town with a Skin’ transforms existing households into energy producing units as well as preserves them as individual homes. Furthermore, this idea is employed as the starting point for the development of an urban planning and design strategy.
However, simply the provision of energy neutral buildings does not make the areas self-sufficient. In order to aggregate the concept on a higher collective scale, it is necessary to create a strong and flexible urban development framework. Aiming to achieving this, the concept of ‘Max Town’ is introduced. It promotes optimal use of the urban resources, incorporating the flows of energy, vegetation, food, water, waste and mobility into a cohesive system; respectfully, promoting self-sustaining urban environments.
In addition, the planning framework supports a future where the prosperity of the urban areas is based on sharing resources, amenities, values and commitment among the communities in the pursuit of common goals. A few strategies such as architectural preservation, food production and collective mobility are elaborated with the intentions to establish strongly bonded neighbourhoods. The essence of the project puts a major emphasis on water management, food and energy production.
(1) Water Management
Without crucially intervening with the existing water management network ‘Max Town’ rather focuses on changes of the environment that reduces the amount of rainwater pressing the sewage and polder system through promoting more permeable surfaces and vegetation as well as extra water collection possibilities on both individual and neighbourhood scales. This results in better climate control, increased surface water quality, enhanced groundwater recharge rate and improved wildlife habitat.
(2) Food Production
Aiming to solve the complex conflicts of food production and distribution, the project is mainly engaged in the bottom-up direction. Inhabitants are reminded of the negative impact of mass food production while local initiatives are promoted. As it grows more rapidly, albeit from a small base, the local food production has the potential to play a greater role in the provision of sustainable food consumption. Apart from this, the approach is a powerful bottom-up engagement and educational tool which can be utilised as an element of community building while establishing a society in balance with the surrounding environment.
(3) Energy Production
The proposed vision promotes distributed energy generation, storage and re-distribution where local residents will be actively involved in the production and management of the electricity. This concept aims to invoke public awareness and shared responsibility regarding energy production and consumption. By utilising this approach, the project’s long-term goal seeks for neighbourhoods which will be relying on local energy grids and altogether can service collectively larger areas and even whole cities.
Urban Design Framework
This proposed concept also seeks a solution where sustainability is not just about creating energy efficient and comfortable spaces; it is also about promoting a lifestyle in balance with the environment.
For achieving this goal an ‘Urban (parametric design) Toolbox’ is created. It comprises various solutions the municipalities and residents can choose from: different design scenarios, ownership patterns related to the maintenance of the space, functionality and materialisation of the urban environment.
(1) Conceptual Design
It aims to establish a scheme based on main design aspects and their variations which have a substantial impact on the spatial organisation of the street. The different aspects could be combined in different variants on a matrix principle and result in diverse conceptual scenarios regarding the street design. Ideally, the decision-making should be an outcome of the local inhabitants’ desires and choices in respect to the defined design aspects which can differ on the basis of the specific context.
(2) Ownership Patterns
Another aspect, which is important regarding the urban design of the typology of suburban row-house streets in the Netherlands, is the space destined for private gardens in front of the dwellings. It is impossible to ignore its significance while speaking about the general design of the street and the transition between public and private spaces. Based on this assumption, the proposed Urban Toolbox includes the possibility for people to lend or loan parts of their privately owned front gardens depending on their personal desire of maintenance. This proposal aims to enhance the relationship between people and urban fabric and provides possibilities for new communal amenities.
(3) Functional Toolbox
Based on the contextual traditions and demands, a set list of appropriate functions is elaborated and utilised. It provides explicit impressions for the residents to imagine possibilities for numerous uses of their street that can be both individually or collectively organised.
(4) Materialisation Toolbox
The materialisation of the designs is tightly related to the chosen functions for every particular street. However, re-utilisation of existing materials within the urban space is encouraged as much as possible. This underlines a more sustainable approach towards design with respecting the physical fabric similar to the architectural concept of the project.
The street layout has been developed with a strong consideration of the house skins’ execution. As this technological solution itself works as a certain ‘membrane’, the street needed to become a sort of immediate continuation of the indoor life. In respect to the importance of the front gardens, as has been discussed earlier, the development of the Skin provides a softer transition between private and public spaces.
The parametric urban design approach aims to deal with one of the major shortcomings of the current practices - the production of strict designs which lack flexibility in terms of physical and functional aspects. Consequently, they restrict to certain extents the possibilities for adaptations by the users and, respectively, hamper the general utilisation of the urban spaces. By paying sufficient attention and effort on formulating a parametric design toolbox the ‘Town with a Skin’ project would like to emphasise not only on ‘what the future should be’, but also on ‘how the projected vision could be implemented with at least modest level of flexibility and generalizability’. The project team strongly believes that these aspects of the spatial design strategies are crucial for modeling a future which can deliver an impact on the battlefield for global sustainability.
Metropolitan scale transportation
The proposed concept does not address urban sprawl and suburbanisation directly but it deals with the unsustainabilities that it creates in the Netherlands. In a highly commuting context of Randstad (a conurbation of the four largest Dutch cities) the optimisation of the transportation networks is crucial.
Despite the high level of connectivity within the province of South Holland via railways and highways, Honselersdijk and the Westland region lack strong transportation links resulting in an explicit car-dependence. Thus, a fundamental feature for achieving a more sustainable metropolitan future is an efficient transportation network preferably supplied by renewable energy sources.
The electric bike is a good competitor of the car on short distances (up to 10 kilometres). Although it is powered by human strength, an electric motor delivers extra capacity as well. It is a financially reasonable mobility mode and self-evident that there is a substantial difference in terms of environmental impact between the electric bicycle and motorised vehicles. In almost all parts of the Netherlands, including the region of Westland, sufficient infrastructure such as separate bicycle lanes on both urban and metropolitan scales are already established. Another key action towards a sustainable mobility network for the region is the proposition of faster public transport lines, serviced by hybrid buses, and re-organisation of existing routes in the region. These actions can be executed with relatively limited investments while the applicability of a light rail system planned in the next decades can be also tested.
Urban scale mobility
On a smaller scale, cycling and walking are promoted as major mode of mobility. Numerous service streets are planned to be pedestrianised. This strategy is developed with strong consideration of the parametric design toolbox aiming to provide new possibilities for extra utilisation of the streetscape. The concept proposes collective parking areas which are strategically located in order to provide a parking spot for every household within a maximum of 150 meters. Many will be clustered around the energy micro generators or other energy hubs aiming to incorporate electric, hydrogen and hybrid cars to plug in directly to the town’s electric grid. A car-sharing program of electric automobiles will be implemented. These interventions are projected to result in a fall of 30% in the total amount of cars in Honselersdijk possibly reached by 2030.
Apart from supplying energy to the houses' consumption, the solar energy generation could also provide the daily full charge of an electric bicycle and support partly the street lights in the neighbourhood. As a part of the house skin, a car charging station can be optionally established. The electric cars and hybrid buses are supported by solar energy but predominantly rely on wind energy that can efficiently supply the whole regional transport system. Still, the project team is aware of the high car-dependency in the area. Therefore, the project urges for a smarter and more efficient usage of the private motorised vehicles rather than their denial.
For more inspiring visualizations, explanations and information on the toolbox, please watch the video below: