Cheese Sandwich Housing

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Gerard van Bortel
Gerard van BortelAssistant Professor Housing Management
Management in the Built Environment, Faculty of Architecture, TU Delft

Cheese Sandwich Housing

’15 miljoen mensen op dat kleine stukje aarde. Die schrijf je niet de wetten voor. Die moeten niet het keurslijf in. Die laat je in hun waarde’* ’15 million people on that small piece of earth. Do not patronize them. Do not straitjacket them. Respect them.’

*Song text by Fluitsma and Van Tijn, translation by author

In 1996 singer songwriter Guus Meeuwis, had one of his greatest hits with the song ’15 million people’. The song recalls the particularities of ‘the Dutch’. Apart from the reference to our questionable inclination to prefer cheese sandwiches for lunch, the song proudly presents the Dutch as an informal and liberal people, an open and tolerant nation, a country of individualists, with 1.000 different opinions, a people that you cannot put into a straitjacket, a people averse of patronizing governments and institutions.

That all sounds positive, but is it true? Does, for example, the way we develop and manage our built environment reflect this individualism and freedom of spirit? Or are our dwellings, our homes, the bricks-and-mortar equivalent of a cheese sandwich? I’m afraid an honest answer to that question might be painful.

In the Netherlands we often take a formal, institutional, approach in developing and managing the built environment, including housing. Developments are often market-led or government-led, with limited active resident participation. The irony is that many professionals working for these market and government institutions are TU Delft Alumni.

Tenants and home-owners are often given, or are contented with, the role of passive consumers. The way we live is hugely dependent on policy-makers, politicians, planners and project developers. So maybe Dutch residents, tenants and homeowner alike, are being patronized and put into a straightjacket.

Can we make the way we develop and manage our built environment more resemble Guus Meeuwis’ song? Can we put citizens in a more central position: less dominated by systems and more connected with the lifeworld, providing more support for collaborative resident-led initiatives, more room for self-organised housing and co-production?

When Guus Meeuwis had his hit back in 1996, the Netherlands counted 15 million people, now we are with almost 17 million. We have a housing shortage of around 250.000 homes and we need to build one million additional homes by 2030 to address future housing needs. House prices are going through the roof. Land scarcity and increasing construction costs are seen as important factors driving up these prices. It is a broadly supported notion that the construction sector needs to innovate. Prefabrication, modularity, digitisation, mass-customisation. tiny homes, micro-apartments are widely seen as possible solutions. But without a more powerful role for residents as co-producers we might create our future problems: efficiently produced but soul-less housing.

Through research and education TU Delft’s Architecture and the Built Environment Faculty can contribute to meeting the challenge of providing sufficient numbers of homes that are not only efficiently produced but also socially and environmentally sustainable, resilient and affordable.

At MBE we educate and train the future ‘makers and shakers’ in the build environment. So, the million-dollar question for MBE-students and alumni: are you going to contribute to building one million drab ‘cheese sandwich’ homes or are you up to the challenge to change the way housing is delivered and managed. We need innovative solutions empowering residents, providing more room for entrepreneurial free-thinking spirits, and supporting tenants and homeowners that refuse to be put into a straitjacket and be patronized by governments and institutions.