Green Cities Fit for Life

Image by C. Spahrbier

Arne Broekhoven, Resident at IEWAN, Nijmegen’s Social Housing Eco-Village

Nijmegen, European Green Capital Award winner 2018, NeatherlandsArne Broekhoven is a resident of the Dutch city of Nijmegen. However, he isn’t just any ordinary citizen, he is a part of the innovative group of people who came together to build the biggest straw building in the Netherlands.

Not your typical neighbourhood, the eco-village IEWAN, where Arne has lived for the past three years, is an apartment complex comprised of 24 social housing units made of wood, straw and loam (soil made of sand, silt and clay).

What makes this village even more special is that it was constructed by the residents themselves. Arne and the other future residents worked alongside one another with a group of volunteers, professional builders and a housing association, to bring their dream of sustainable homes to life.

The small village is a shining example of a sharing economy, with residents of all ages sharing everything from washing machines, to guest rooms and a garden.

And they’re already seeing the benefits. The residents recognise the benefits, not just for the planet, but for themselves, in sharing these resources. One resident explained, “You live together, so why not do things together and bond while you’re at it? Some things are more practical to do together. When you’re buying tools, why not share them? It seems much more logical to do that with the people living around you in your neighbourhood.”Nijmegen, European Green Capital Award winner 2018, Neatherlands

These many benefits mean that Arne and his housemates not only save on space and money, but they also help the environment by reducing consumption. In addition, the social interaction that occurs as a result prevents social isolation and loneliness.

As the saying goes, ‘many hands make light work’, and this couldn’t be more evident in the community of IEWAN. Once a month everyone works together to maintain the house and garden, and there’s a job that suits everyone’s skills. Arne explains, “Everything in the garden and in the building runs on the principle of self-maintenance, so there is something for everyone to do. Some people do all the technical stuff and deal with the drainage and the building, and then there are other people who look after the trees and then another group of people who are in charge of organising the rental of the communal building or running the website. Even though the building process is over, it still takes a lot of volunteering efforts from all the people living here, and that’s something you sign up for when you decide to live here.” Arne continues by describing their big plans for the gardens in IEWAN; “We are going to plant a number of trees and edible plants. There will be fruit trees, herbs, and vegetables. This garden will be open to anyone who wants to visit the neighbourhood and pick some berries.”

Nijmegen, European Green Capital Award winner 2018, NeatherlandsThe unique building is made entirely of sustainable materials. It has a wooden frame construction, with straw insulation, and is completed with a finishing layer of clay. All the materials used were untreated and natural, making them easy to recycle and reuse. Arne and the group of residents, professional builders, and over 200 volunteers managed to complete the project in just under a year.  Although they received professional assistance throughout the building process, it was the future residents of IEWAN who made all the key decisions regarding what materials would be used, what it would look like, and how big it would be.  Arne notes, “Since we contributed to the building process ourselves, everything was designed according to our wishes – the wishes of the people who were going to live there. We made all of our own choices regarding the materials, and therefore created an entirely sustainable and ecological building process.” One resident explained how their role in the building process was entirely hands on; “I’m insulating my own bedroom with straw. That’s a really nice thought to know that you’re actually building your own house.” Building their own home as a community also gave residents an opportunity to really get to know one another, making the whole idea of communal living a lot easier to adjust to.

It was through the use of a volunteer scheme that the residents managed to save enough money to be able to spend on other ecological initiatives, such as solar panelling and ‘the reed pad’. Arne sheds more light on what they’ve been doing, “In the first year, solar panelling covered about 85% of what we needed in terms of energy, but that didn’t include heating. So this year we have started using a wood burner, in which we burn palettes to generate heat.” The ‘reed pad’ is where the residents of IEWAN filter all of their water. There are separate areas for rainwater and wastewater collection. He continues, “When the wastewater comes out of the reed pad it is clean enough to drink, but obviously it’s not legally possible so we use it to flush our toilets. The rainwater we collect from the reeds is used in our washing machines. Then we just use regular drinking water wash the dishes, shower and actually drink water. Overall, we have been able to save 2/3’s the amount of water that a normal household would use.”

The housing project was first proposed by a small group of innovators almost 9 years ago. It took 7 whole years to get the housing company and the city to commit to the project as Arne explains, “The building itself was completed in around 9 months. What took the longest time was all the talking around the project, gathering support, and ensuring we had enough money.”

The apartments are designed to be affordable and welcome to all living groups, with spaces designed for one and two parent families, couples, the elderly, as well as larger groups of friends, co-workers or students. “Everything is built within our budget. It’s a social housing project; everyone living here has low incomes. It is through our own volunteering and some extra subsidies that we have been able to afford all the extras, such as solar panels, outside of the social housing budget,” Arne highlights. Another reason they decided to keep the rent low, was to encourage people to move to this area of Nijmegen. He continues, “We really wanted this building to bring some life into this part of Nijmegen as there wasn’t a lot happening on this side of town, and it was very quiet.”

The IWEAN community has completely turned this around three years on, with a long waiting list of people hoping to secure a spot in the ecological community. Arne counts himself as one of the lucky few; “We really wanted to build something here at a time when nobody was really eager to build. So we started here and then this sort of attracted other people in the neighbourhood, and made them think, ‘Okay I want to live where those people built the crazy straw building.’ You can find some more buildings in the neighbourhood that are built with wood and straw and other sustainable options. Some of these buildings are built within a week, it’s amazing.”

Most of the apartments share a kitchen and a bathroom, and then there is a communal building, which is open to everyone, including people from the surrounding neighbourhoods. The communal building is used for everything from yoga lessons to theatre and dancing groups, small parties, as well as the community’s own regular meetings. While the living apartments are small, the communal space is vast. There is a shared guestroom with four beds, a living space, a kitchen and a bathroom, for any resident who wishes to have guests stay over. The idea is that everyone has their own flat and personal space, while at the same time living together, sharing the garden, the multifunctional space, and other collective responsibilities.

Nijmegen, European Green Capital Award winner 2018, NeatherlandsThe people behind it all began with their own values and a dream to live sustainably with a small footprint on earth, a dream, that, in the beginning, no one believed to be possible. At the time, Arne tells us how, the concept of developing a project with a group of people was much more common in Germany than in the Netherlands;  “It took a long time to complete the agreement because it was all new and had never been done before so we didn’t know what was possible and what was not. Even throughout the building process there were so many instances where a builder or construction worker would say, ‘We’ve never done this. We don’t think this is possible.’ So we had to show them – we said, ‘We’ve got examples here and we can show you this, or we suggest you use these materials.’”

Arne and the other residents of IWEAN hope to remove the misconceptions about ecological living and the disbelief that it is possible on a low budget; “Ecological living is often perceived as something for people who have money or who can afford to live primitively. We want to show people that you can make the impossible possible by contributing work yourselves.” The successful ecological community Arne has helped to create shows us it is possible to achieve sustainable living in a social housing context with low rents. Arne and the other residents hope that their innovative project will be an example and inspiration for future projects.