A new standard for urban family living

| Architecture and Dwelling

TU Delft | Architecture and Dwelling

“High density and an inclusive city, those are the challenges in the Housing Graduation Studio. Set in the heart of the soon to be developed area of Haven-Stad in Amsterdam, the buildings designed in this studio need to be highly urban as well as open to different user groups. With Richard Sennett’s ideas of the open city as a guideline, it needs to marry idea with form, ideal with concrete design proposals. With this project I graduated from the TU Delft.”

The Netherlands is, according to Dutch minister Kajsa Ollongren, faced with a massive task of creating a million new homes before 2030. Critical looking at the typologies which will be used to achieve this seems to be logical step. My graduation research, tried to add to this evaluation. As the housing stock is increasing, as well is the call to densify the city in order to maintain surrounding green. This is also the case for Amsterdam. The Minervahaven is an old harbour within the ring of Amsterdam which is appointed by the municipality to be transformed into an highly urbanised area. If we look at the composition of the inhabitant types of Amsterdam, we can recognize a trend. Young families are leaving the city, moving to outskirts and surrounding municipalities. There seems to be a mismatch, in an increasing amount families cannot find a dwelling or think that living in the city is not suitable for children. This is an undesirable trend, as children determine to a large extent the support of many facilities, make cities alive and maintain the cities culture. The one million new homes, to be built to a large extend in the bigger cities, need amongst other things to accommodate these urban families and decrease the great exodus. But as stated before, the future of building in the city is in high density. This brings up the research question of this graduation project: In what suitable way can we house urban families in high density?

“There seems to be a mismatch, in an increasing amount families cannot find a dwelling or think that living in the city is not suitable for children. This is an undesirable trend, as children determine to a large extent the support of many facilities, make cities alive and maintain the cities culture.”

To answer this question, I looked into how children interpret their living environment. Research showed that the immediate living environment has a different meaning for children of different age groups. Very young children like to play in a safe environment and in the sight of adults. A lawn or a sandbox in the neighbourhood can be a first introduction to playing in the public space. Older children regard the public space as a social meeting place. It is a place of freedom, where it is nice to be out of sight and reach of their parents. In the ideal neighbourhood children grow up in a smooth flow, where their world increases in steps, providing liminal and fuzzy zones supporting young people in the transition to adulthood.

“In the ideal neighbourhood children grow up in a smooth flow, where their world increases in steps, providing liminal and fuzzy zones supporting young people in the transition to adulthood.”

Buildings with a high density has not always proven to provide these transition zones. Below an exaggerated example is shown. The gentle transition from the low-rise building cannot be seen in the mid-rise structure. The circulation space is often minimal designed and create a hard cut between private dwelling and public street.

There are many buildings which try to mitigate this problem. I used four of them as a case study to research their transition from private to public. Those were the Justus van Effen housing complex in Rotterdam (the first gallery in the Netherlands), Robin Hood Gardens (a brutalist social housing complex in London), Babel (a Rotterdam residential tower inspired by the painting ‘The Tower of Babel’ by Pieter Bruegel) and Family scraper ‘de Maasbode’ (a tower with vertically stacked streets inside the building).

In order to research how the transition can be smoothen from private to public in a high-density building, a combination of literature research and case-studies is used. By doing literature research, the general conditions for a smooth transition are researched, as well as certain qualities for each step in the transition. These conditions were than tested on case studies with the help of annotated floor plans, descriptive images and isometric illustrations. This resulted in flowcharts where each step in the transition was illustrated together with four parameters. The parameters are coloured indicating if the value was according to the earlier defined proper transition from private to public. These flowcharts where able to quickly show qualities and bottlenecks within the transition of the different case studies. The combination of drawings, images and illustration together with a consistent type of flowchart showing the full transition enabled the reveal of properties which were not visible from examining isolated elements of the transition.

Important lessons taken from the case studies are to design habitable spaces next to the street (to make the façade porous), make the full sequence smooth (not only a part) and create enough height when covering semi-public spaces. With the help of conceptual models the stacking of the dwelling complexes is researched as well, these models are shown below.

Stadhaven Minerva is a historic part of the harbor near the Amsterdam city center. While the character of a robust industrial port has been retained, the area has been transformed into a richly varied business park for creative entrepreneurs, culture and events. At the moment it mainly houses new fashion, media and design companies.

Together with three other students, we developed an urban plan. Borneo Sporenburg is the starting point for our urban design. By implementing the characteristic canal stripes to the Minervahaven it forms a relation with the existing urban plan of Borneo-Sporenburg that we also can find in the Amsterdam Harbour area. Designed by West8 architects the system enhances a certain freedom of the different designed familiy houses which are all proposed by different architects. The DNA of the project consists of a rigid grid that is interrupted by the placement of „Icons“ which each give a special character to the plan. Therefore the plan consists of a contrast between the high-densed low-rise dwelling strips and the larger ‚iconic‘ buildings. We tried to implement the system of Borneo on the site of Minervahaven and translate it towards the specific location characteristics. The new urban design has been developed within the system of the same rigid low-rise grid and the cut-outs with the icons. Our plan consist of four larger icons that each can have a special character that have a contextual relation with the Minervahaven.

The project in located in the Minerva Harbour. If we look at the position of the proposed plan. We see that the design is one of the so-called icons, sitting in the green, to break the grid. The building design indeed breaks the grid, but in such a way, that many lines can continue. One of the routes leads over the building, hereby making the top of the building part of the neighbourhood.

The building is facing two squares. One is more public than the other. The east side of the building gives access to the waterfront, the main attraction of the neighbourhood. A commercial space in the design is facing this area. The west side of the building is more focused on the neighbourhood, providing a primary school and a sports hall for the area.


The ideal transition from dwelling to public street consist of multiple steps in order to endorse communal activities and smoothen the transition from private to public. The most favorable structure is that of different communities forming a larger community (Gehl, 2011, p. 59). This is as a structure well illustrated by the Oscar Newman publication of Defensible Space (Newman, 1972).

The first step is the step from the private dwelling to a semiprivate space. In order to smoothen the transition a garden or a so called “Delftse stoep” can be used (van Ulden, Heussen, van der Ham, van Eijk, & Galema, 2015). This was the starting point of the design.

In order to densify the plan, these dwellings can be stacked on top of each other. If this is continued, a few problems come into sight. As soon as the activity takes place higher than the level of the spectator the engagement is greatly decreasing. Meaningful contact with ground level events is possible only from the first few floors. Between 3-4 floors there is already a major threshold in contact (Gehl, 2011, pp. 97-98). This, and the anonymity which is the result of too much repetition made the stacking of three dwellings undesirable. Another difficulty was the space underneath. Without daylight and an unusual shape, this building volume becomes hard to make usable. This results in fourth stacking principle. In this concept, courtyards are created in the sky. Hereby is social interaction accommodated, distances are small, and the density is high.


Roughly, the design consist of three layers. Each layer is different in it’s typologies and the semi-public space surrounding the dwellings.

1). The top layer sits as a crown on the dwelling complex. Wide streets with curvy bridges enable access to the apartments on top. Most of these dwellings offer a view over the neighbourhood. The galleries are wide and with a front-garden as transition zone, they are like streets in the air. A central staircase in the centre of the plan enables the main access, every corner gives access to stairwells as well.

2). The layer below provide the bases for the semi-private courtyards. By shifting the whole building through the centreline, 3 courtyards are split into 6, creating a higher lever of intimacy. The courtyards have a soil base, grass and planters with bushes and flowers create a green space. Additional trees are planted in the layer of storage spaces below. It is within this floor that the proposed scheme of the Oscar Newman publication of Defensible Space (Newman, 1972) is clearly visible.

3). The plinth consists of public functions, lined by dwellings. On the left-hand side, the entrance of a primary school and a sports hall are visible. A street runs over the building, making the building part of the neighbourhood. Below the street resident functions are located: a parking spot for both cars and bicycles. The east part of the plinth is in its hearth a commercial space, suitable for a small supermarket.

The roof of the sports hall consists of a layer of storage spaces. By using this layer as a truss, the height of the storages decreases the amount of material needed to span this distance. In this layer, a few storage spaces are left out and serve as a pot for trees in the deck above.

In order to make the neighbourhood suitable for children, even close to home, multiple play railings are proposed. Families can have their children, or the neighbourhood children, in sight from their terrace. The railing is made of wooden uprights with metal netting in between. This give children the ability to contact children below, by enabling sound and sight through the fence. Not only big play facilities can be part of the railing, also little wooden puzzles can be.

The full publication is accessible on the TU Delft Repository

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