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Welcome to a world of travel, entertainment and culture, curated from a global collective of writers, photojournalists and artists. Each article of our award-winning magazine is sure to inspire, no matter which of our destinations you call home.
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Travel to Amsterdam


Aardehuis, Amsterdam

24 April 2016

Going off-grid these days isn’t quite as easy as it was in the 1970s. Then you simply quit your job and started planting vegetables in your front garden. Now it’s a fully self-sufficient community, a house built from scrap and a new life to embrace

Back in 2005 a Dutchman named Paul Hendriksen had an idea. He dreamed of creating a self-built sustainable community with zero negative environmental impact; one in total harmony with its surroundings.

Now, around 90 minutes from Amsterdam, on the fringes of a town called Olst, that vision is a reality. Its name is Aardehuis and it consists of 23 unique homes, a communal building that also serves as a visitor centre, and surrounding lands. That it exists at all bears testament to the power of a new way of thinking, adaptability, persistence and teamwork.

Hendriksen had learned of the ‘earthship’ concept, pioneered by the American architect Michael Reynolds back in the 1970s, and believed it could work in The Netherlands, not just as one-off self-sustaining units, but as a community of homes; a village that would function together. Crucially too it had to be able to withstand the extremes of the northern European climate. In short, he wanted to take Reynold’s proven concept to another level.

What he envisaged was the first Dutch eco-village, a place built by and for those who would live there. Hendriksen told some friends of his plan, one of which was Estella Franssen, an environmental scientist. Having established the Jane Goodall Foundation in The Netherlands, Franssen had gone on to teach people how to make the transition to a sustainable way of life. It seemed she and the project were made for each other. Soon enough a group of some 20 like-minded souls were in place, and together they would embark on a remarkable journey.

Founder member Franssen, an Aardehuis resident who now facilitates group visits, explains, “Originally we wanted to create the community and build the houses, in a nearby municipality,” she explains.

“They were more than a little hesitant. We were also told by building experts and architects that the model simply wouldn’t work because it was just too experimental. Self-sustainable houses, built by amateurs, and partly from waste materials, had never been done here. We were told that the houses would be too cold in winter, too hot in the summer. And, none of us were construction experts, we were all amateurs with little or no building experience.”

The outlook appeared bleak, but, regardless, a website was set up detailing the group’s vision. “Then, just when we thought we’d hit a brick wall, an adjacent local authority got wind of the plan,” explains Franssen. “Amazingly, they contacted us completely out the blue and told us that they loved the idea, and even had land available.”

So, it seems that not a little serendipity came into play, the cosmos effecting a proposal that was nothing short of revolutionary. A new take on an original way of thinking, it did, however, follow a blueprint. A tangible legacy existed of earthship structures that had been built and successfully occupied around the world. It bore testament to the fact that the idea could work in practice, albeit in climates very different to that of The Netherlands. Nonetheless it became key in winning over people who had to be convinced, namely town-planners, architects and construction experts.

“It’s a passive structure that relies on solar energy and is built using locally sourced and scrap materials,” explains Franssen. “They can be pretty much any design as long as certain core building principles and methods are used.”

Crucially, cement forms very little part of the construction, as its manufacture is incredibly inefficient and requires vast amounts of fossil fuels. “Fossil fuel is running out and we’re still so reliant on it,” says Franssen. “We have to find other sustainable ways to live without damaging the planet.” This in itself was a game-changer. “Our proposal was a little unusual to say the least,” she continues. “We wanted to build houses with a range of materials, including old car tyres, so that caused a few issues. Of course, the concerns were perfectly valid. The local authority couldn’t allow us to build houses that might collapse on our heads.”

Armed with endorsements from a range of academics and construction experts specialising in sustainable housing, the team at Aardehuis managed to address these concerns over time. Many improvements were suggested, and duly taken on-board, and eventually local authority approval was granted. Of course academics, industry experts and well-intentioned civil servants are one thing, banks another. The land on offer wasn’t a gift. It had to be purchased, meaning that strict financing needed to be in place.

“In the initial stages we used up all our savings,” says Franssen. “I guess it was a leap of faith. And we got some small grants from the municipality. But then came mortgages. We had to apply to the banks. There was no other way.”

Securing a loan, however, was not quite as easy as you might think. “Initially, the response from the front-of-house people was positive,” she says. “They seemed 100 per cent behind us. The problems came when it was sent ‘upstairs’ for loan approval. We just couldn’t get past that point. Everything got tied up in endless red-tape.” But the group persevered as they’d had to from the outset.

“In the end, thank goodness, two banks stepped in – Triodos and Rabobank,” says Franssen. “Triodos, in particular, is committed to environmental initiatives. That ethos worked in our favour. Mind you, it’s ironic that when you apply for a mortgage all your finances are analysed in minute detail, yet the sustainability of the house isn’t taken into account. The homes we’ve built have almost zero energy costs compared to traditional houses or apartments. We, on the other hand, pay next to nothing, just timber for the wood-fired stoves.”

With finance secured all that had to be done was build. Sounds easy and, if this had been a conventional construction project, it probably would have been. Here however, by their own admission, were a bunch of amateurs learning on the job. Most were more used to office work than wielding a saw or shovel, but they set about the task with gusto. First came a warehouse, complete with solar-panelled roof used to generate the bulk of electricity needed for power tools and machinery.

Around a third of the founders lived on-site while others rented accommodation nearby. In addition, more than 1,500 volunteers came to help out over the course of the project. “Although most were from The Netherlands some came from as far afield as Colombia, the US, India and Canada,” says Franssen. “We can’t put a price on their help.”

Aardehuis captured the public’s imagination, both locally and nationally. “A certain number of homes were designated as social housing,” says Franssen. “Three in all. That really created a buzz as the housing minister visited to officially open them. TV crews and press came along and we got a lot of coverage. I think people were amazed that we weren’t living underground in Hobbit houses, that we had all the modern conveniences.”

Aardehuis has, at its heart, been an organic process from day one. Originally the plan was for just five separate house designs to be chosen by residents according to needs and personal preference. Reflecting the true spirit of the project, there are now 23 entirely unique homes, all designed by Michel Post of Orio Architects. That seems only fitting, as what’s happened and continues to happen here is not only the effectiveness of a collective but also the triumph of the individual. The interior of each home differs too, reflecting the personalities of those who live there. Franssen believes, “It’s one of the best parts of the project. The materials and colours used make for a totally unique atmosphere in each house.”

Group visits can be arranged through the website and the project is keen to encourage schools, colleges, and anyone who’d like to explore doing something similar, to come along and see what they do and how they live. Plans are in place to buy more land too and set-up a permaculture park. Another Aardehuis resident is Fransjan de Waard, Estella Franssen’s partner and founder of the Dutch permaculture movement, so the park will be in expert hands.

When asked what it’s like to live and work in such an environment, in a place she helped create from scratch, Franssen says with a smile, “For the life of me I can’t think of any negatives. We wanted to create a uniquely sustainable ecosystem, so we built it. It’s a privilege to be here. I love it and I’m never going to leave.”

Today, although the final homes were completed just last year, it seems Aardehuis was always meant to be. The journey was not without struggle and compromise, and 10 years is certainly a hell of a long time. Changing people’s minds and winning over sceptics is no easy task, never mind getting finance for a project that goes against the grain of perceived wisdom. Yet do bear in mind that Earthship founder Michael Reynolds started out by building a shelter out of old bottles and beer cans in the New Mexico desert. His model for sustainable living has now spread across the globe. And let’s face facts, if you can convince the bank manager, you can probably convince anyone.


Eco-villages Across The Planet

Taos, New Mexico, US
The original of the species, Michael Reynolds designed otherworldly earthships amidst the peace and tranquility of the desert. Get off-grid, keep the mod-cons, and stay overnight to see what it’s all about for yourself.

Chole Mjini, Mafia, Zanzibar, Tanzania
Experience Robinson Crusoe-style living, on this little known yet breathtakingly beautiful tropical island just south of Zanzibar. Handbuilt tree houses await, all constructed with locally sourced timber. No cars, electricity or Wi-Fi.

Findhorn, Forres, Scotland
Initiated in 1985, and nestling on an idyllic peninsula on Scotland’s east coast, here you’ll find stunning scenery and a mix of eco-friendly houses including straw-bale, stone built and yurts. Courses in sustainability held year round.