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World Sustainability Centre Afsluitdijk, Netherlands


The Sustainability Centre Foundation, the Delft University of Technology and the Cartesius Institute initiated the international public ideas competition for the World Sustainability Centre Afsluitdijk.

The Afsluitdijk, a large dike in Lauwersoog, is located at the border between freshwater & saltwater between the Wadden Sea. The competition brief asked for an 'icon of sustainability' to help regenerate the area.

Though this ideas competition was held in 2009, we have since incorporated several of the sustainability principles tested in this design.

The intention was to use less, make the best use of the site ‘as found’, and make the building’s carbon footprint as low as possible - both in its materials, construction method, energy requirements,. The approach should be as close to ‘cradle to cradle’* as possible. Re-use rather than recycle is preferable.

As a form the building is ‘strange but familiar ‘. We sought for it ‘to be like something we already know’ but to have its own character- while being approachable and welcoming.

We rejected a new building as a fixed 'icon' and approached this design where the distinction between the landscape and the actual building would be blurred.

So the challenge became: how do we protect from the elements, yet remain part of them?

Utilising the available on-site resources:
Water;‘earth’ and wind are the most available here. We proposed using seawater to help heat and cool the building providing a long-term thermal store.
The made up ground of the Breezanddijk promontory was ‘adjusted’ to provide a new landscape for the centre. No further ‘fill’ was proposed, only adjusting what was already available on site. The wind, in abundance here, would be used to both passively ventilate the interior spaces and use evaporation to cool the water /air during summer.

Materiality/embodied energy:
Wood is well suited to marine conditions, after all - boats are made of it. The timber structure was ideal for flexibility with a structural grid 2.5m x 2.5m. Rooflights spread over the plan allow for internal spaces to be naturally lit.
The external façade was responsive to the external environment, opening up or closing down the internal spaces, acting as both window and wall.

To increase thermal mass we utilised insulated water heat stores under the building with reject/recycled bricks contained within the floor and roof. These would be cooled with passive night ventilation - a method that dates back to the Romans. The large pivoting panels on the elevations are 4 metres high and filled with high performance multi-foil insulation. They can be opened and closed by hand, and apart from increasing thermal insulation, also achieved an extremely flexible internal space. They would open/close depending on the desired amount of light or heat needed in the building at any given time.

The building itself is seen primarily as single horizontal space with elements of the programme lightly placed within it. These are seen as ‘rooms’ within the internal ‘landscape’. These rooms can move (like furniture) once the arrangement is required to change. The timber ‘waffle slab’ roof structure allows for the required large open plans. The service cores are independent of the perimeter wall.

The plan was deliberately ‘carved and sliced’ to make courtyard like spaces, where the outer landscape flowed into, and provided some protection from the wind in this exposed area.

The majority of internal space is elevated off the ground with an equivalent covered space below. This allows for other possible uses, and can function similar to a covered market.

The roof becomes an actual landscape. As food production is one fundamental issue for a sustainable future, this landscape can be used for both education and research into current and future ways in which we can feed our¬selves, or even to test wind power generators for instance. We see it as a cross between a laboratory, an allotment and a school garden. The illustrated layout is merely indicative – Dutch expertise in agriculture is renowned.

4 Towers:
The towers were both symbolic & functional. They housed heating/cooling plant for internal spaces with heat exchanger, evaporative coolers, wind cowls & other servicing plant as well as useable internal space.

The largest tower was an aerial laboratory for research projects, to be focused on energy, agriculture, or even to observe the migratory routes of birds. All of the towers are of a simple construction, similar to electricity pylons, ‘wrapped’ in high performance agricultural screens.

World Sustainability Centre Ideas Competition, Afsluitdijk, Netherlands

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