The refugee issue as a driver of innovation in the housing market

Designers can contribute not only to the accommodation, but also to the integration of migrants.

Floris Alkemade

The refugee crisis is causing considerable tension and unrest. The question being asked in this UN conference concerns the way in which the refugees who are admitted can integrate into our society. It is a question that those working in design and construction must also consider. For me, an effective way to stimulate integration, is to consider the provision of reception facilities for asylum seekers in a broader context that includes other people in society who often struggle in the housing market; people such as students, first-time buyers, the elderly, and those living on their own. By looking in this way for broader social added value, we can build a more inclusive society. I firmly believe that the targeted use of design capabilities and resources can play a key role in this regard.

As chief government architect, I am therefore mobilizing design capabilities in the Netherlands for the purpose of achieving the greater inclusion referred to. Since the total number of refugees who will have to be assisted and accommodated remains unknown, those working in design and construction are facing a unique challenge in that design work must be performed against a backdrop of uncertainty. This challenge will take a great deal of creativity to overcome.

In 2015, 1.25 million applications for asylum were submitted in the EU.1 The Netherlands is exactly at the European average of 2.5 per 1,000 inhabitants.

There is uncertainty among people living in the immediate vicinity of planned asylum seekers’ centers. They are wondering how many asylum seekers will arrive, who will be arriving, and how to handle a situation in which the actual number of arrivals far exceeds the expected number of arrivals. While discussions on the matter are therefore never easy, at the present time in the Netherlands, more volunteers than can be meaningfully engaged are offering to help.

It is mainly the uncertainty about the quantity of new asylum seekers who have been admitted which are now seeking a home that is creating tension, because the market of affordable homes is tight and people have often been on a waiting list for years.

To an important extent, the refugee crisis is therefore also a housing issue. The question in this regard is how do we add a large number of affordable homes that can be used flexibly to the regular housing stock for the benefit of refugees who have been granted temporary or permanent resident status in the Netherlands?

It is not a straightforward matter. While demand can increase tremendously, it can also simply come to a halt.

It would therefore be logical to broaden the context and view the issue of demand in terms of the general need for affordable, flexible housing.

The Netherlands has a long and rich tradition in the field of public housing. This tradition reached maturity in times of prosperity and reconstruction; in times in which both the questions and answers were much clearer. For the architects of today, the complex combination of uncertain circumstances and urgent questions is providing a wonderful and rare opportunity to revitalize this public housing tradition. This time, however, without a central government exercising tight control on the basis of a welfare state ideal. Although times have changed, the social impact of public housing has not.

As they seek to find new answers to new challenges, those working in design and construction can embrace the influx of refugees and the unpredictability of this influx as a driver of innovation in this housing segment. Based on this perspective and together with the Central Agency for the Reception of Asylum Seekers, I set up a competition for ideas. The title was “A home away from home.” Although the competition was first and foremost about the housing of refugees, those taking part were encouraged to think about a much broader group of people seeking homes.

We established two categories in the context of the competition: outdoor and indoor. The outdoor category concerns ideas for new, lighter forms of housing that can be temporary in nature but serve equally well as permanent accommodation because the design is such that the structure or set of structures enriches the city’s urban landscape.

It is not our intention, however, to only look for solutions in terms of new buildings. The transformation of vacant buildings is also a key form of innovation. An estimated fifty million square meters are vacant in the Netherlands. Even converting only a small part of the vast amount of vacant real estate in the Netherlands into affordable, flexible homes would go a long way toward meeting the need for additional housing. My argument is therefore that the Netherlands is not full, it is empty.

The second category was therefore established to generate innovative ideas that will make it possible to use the large number of vacant office buildings, school buildings, stores, and industrial buildings, as affordable, flexible residential accommodation. Areas in our cities that are currently deteriorating because of high vacancy levels could be transformed into dynamic and attractive environments.

With respect to both categories, a limited budget is not an excuse for low quality or poor architecture. Also the proper organization of public space and the spaces that are used and shared by all population groups is of vital importance. This is also something that we must work on. Differences between population groups must be visible: interaction is required if integration is opted for.

The role and organization of the public space are of vital importance. In the context of both categories, the ways in which opportunities to integrate are promoted are therefore just as important as the innovation in a technical sense.

Almost four hundred plans were submitted, an enormous number. In the first round, we selected six teams for both categories. With a limited budget these teams are now further developing their ideas into achievable plans. We will select six winning plans before the summer and the intention is to actually build prototypes.

The “One roof under the sun” plan, for example, combines a solar panel field with modular homes. Under this plan, one home for refugees would generate the additional energy for one single-family home in the Netherlands. The mobile “Domus Suitcase” makes it possible to create a “home” that has a kitchen, bathroom, home systems, and communication facilities within two hours. The “CLIV” project focuses on using vacant buildings for original and flexible living. This example concerns the use of vacant office space as full-fledged, permanent residential accommodation for a very affordable budget.

The underlying purpose of the competition is to encourage innovation and integration. The plans selected so far are therefore based on distinctly different approaches and have different aims. Rather than selecting a single answer, the best way to handle an uncertain context is to opt for a range of possible answers.

In conclusion, it can be said that, for the receiving community, the refugee issue is also a housing one. If we mobilize design capabilities and resources to achieve the kind of innovation in the Dutch housing market that can be applied in urban and rural contexts, we will be able to provide new and enriching solutions. The housing of refugees will then become a facet of more holistic considerations regarding the needs of a much broader group of people seeking homes. We would gain a great deal from the additional dynamics that would become possible in our cities.

Architecture has an important role to play in this crisis. The fences that close borders constitute architecture of a powerful and intimidating kind. Now, more than ever, architects must use their powers of imagination to create new possibilities and social added value.

Floris Alkemade is Chief Government Architect for the Kingdom of the Netherlands. This is a transcript of his speech at the Critical Challenges in Migration in Cities of UN-Habitat at the United Nations Headquarters, New York on May 18, 2016. On May 22, Alkemade addressed similar issues during Next Salon #2: Refugees in the City.



Floris Alkemade at IABR–2016. Image: Fred Ernst