Ship Shape

Originally published in 

Pieter Weijnen’s brand of maritime modernism brings a touch of magic to Amsterdam’s Steigereiland, where the architect built his family’s home. Inhabiting one of the development’s narrow plots, the house harkens back to the area’s nautical roots with a suspended shiplike story, visible from the street.

The Blue House

Architect Pieter Weijnen’s tall, skinny blue house stands on Steigereiland, one of seven artificial islands dredged from Amsterdam’s IJ Lake in IJburg, the city’s most recent urban expansion plan. The house is not much older than the ground it’s built upon and is surrounded by deep-blue waters and a dizzying range of forms, finishes, and hues—just minutes away from the historic city center.

Weijnen secured one of IJburg’s coveted “private plots” (parcels of land with fewer imposed aesthetic regulations) and built an appropriately whimsical structure for his family. “When I meet someone new to the area,” he says, “they say, ‘Oh, you live in that blue house with the fairytale boat in it.’ It’s become a local landmark.”

The “fairytale boat,” so visible from the outside, is also the first thing you see upon entering the house. Suspended above the ground floor, the enigmatic, scaly, blue-green mass hovers, just as likely the belly of a sea dragon as the hull of some fantasy ship. From below, the color and texture of the copper plates, with their beautiful verdigris, form a sculptural centerpiece for the house, articulating and enhancing the vertical thrust of the space rather than interrupting it.

“We always intended to have the kitchen at street level and the living room above it,” says Weijnen, explaining how “the ship” evolved. “So I decided to suspend the living room on a platform 13 feet from the floor. As it’s so visible, the platform needed to have an interesting shape. A friend of mine who builds yachts designed a hull-like structure for it, and we finished it off with recycled copper from a church roof, cut into plates.”

Weijnen and his wife, Renske, and their two children, Puck (eight) and Finn (five), lived in a loft on an older island in Amsterdam’s docklands before moving to Steigereiland, and they wanted to create a similar feeling in their new home. “Given the size of the plot, the only way to do that was to create a kind of vertical loft,” says Weijnen. Omitting the second floor created a soaring, 24-foot-tall space stretching between ground level and the third floor in the 2,228-square-foot home. In place of supporting walls, two onumental beams of salvaged tropical hardwood (originally used as mooring posts near Amsterdam’s Central Station a century ago) serve as diagonal braces.

“The beams weigh a ton each,” says Weijnen. “They’re so hard that cutting them destroyed several chainsaw blades.” The giant weathered braces are mounted on concrete blocks set with shells, the idea of the project builder, Jasper Kerkhofs. “He was a great person to work with,” says Weijnen. “He interpreted my drawings brilliantly and was constantly thinking along with us.” The team used recycled materials throughout the house, which the architect intended as “an experiment in sustainability.”

“As an architect, you can have a big influence,” Weijnen says. “In the Netherlands, builders, architects, and developers are all waiting for each other, happy to stick to the legal minimum requirements for new buildings. So I think we just have to get on and do it.” Accordingly, Faro Architecten, the firm Weijnen cofounded and which currently employs a staff of 38 on a range of large-scale projects, “now tends to build in sustainability,” he explains. “But with developers, I don’t talk about things like climate change. I talk about added value and better sales instead.”

The Blue House, which Weijnen describes as “a learning process” in sustainable building, uses half of the energy normally used by a new house of the same size. On the roof terrace, where several apple trees (a gift from a local farmer) are growing, a double-pipe solar water heater uses hot wastewater to help heat clean water. Under the recycled-wood garden terrace, a large tank collects rainwater that is used to operate toilets. An air-cooling system inspired by traditional Arabian wind towers conveys the air outside in underground pipes, which cool it before pumping it back in.

Choosing cross-laminated pine (known for its strength) as the primary building material cut down on labor costs, as it is readily sourced in Holland and easy to build with. “It’s usually seen as requiring lots of maintenance and as not holding its value,” says Weijnen, “but it’s a sustainable resource, and wood processing takes relatively little energy.”

He points to the timber houses in the quaint old village of Durgerdam, across the IJmeer from IJburg, as evidence of the potential longevity of wooden architecture. “Those little houses are 400 years old,” he says. “They were my inspiration, not least because you can actually see them from this island.” The finished result, painted in blue with contrasting white details, keeps with the island’s maritime feel as well as Weijnen’s own love of sailing. “The wood gives the place a unique feel, smell, and sound,” he says. “It moves and creaks; you hear the house. It has a lot of personality.”

Sustainable features distinguish the Blue House, but its true mastery lies in the details and the execution of space. As Weijnen sees it, “Just because it’s sustainable doesn’t mean it has to be boring.” The stairs, for example, mimic the magic of “the ship” by appearing to float without support. “I drew the stairs like this, but I had no idea how to construct them,” says Weijnen, laughing. Kerkhofs came to the rescue, using two iron rods to fix each stair to the wall. Steel cables were added to guard the sides of the staircase. At the top of the first flight of stairs, the living room is compact and cozy, a nest of a space where the intimate mood is enhanced by curving organza curtains and colored LED lighting. It’s an insulated, island-like cocoon.

An entirely different atmosphere is achieved on the top floor. Four narrow, closely spaced windows on the north wall provide a remarkable prismatic play of light on the wall beside the staircase. “I do think northern light is more poetic,” says Weijnen. “It has a more mysterious quality. But I hadn’t really anticipated this effect—it was a gift from nature.” Similarly, the master bedroom and bathroom are beautifully downlit by a skylight in the roof. “It’s a gentle sort of alarm clock,” says the architect.

On the family’s big recycled-wood kitchen table sits a model of Weijnen’s next house (a natural progression from this one), which will soon be built just a couple of streets away. “We built the Blue House intuitively,” he says. “The energy-saving systems are all add-ons. But in my next house, they will be part of the architecture.” The next house will use no energy (though Weijnen insists it will be equally beautiful, with photovoltaic cells in the roofing and a turbine), illustrating his conviction that architects should design with sustainability in mind, not as an afterthought. “At the moment, I’m trying to figure out how to make the facade out of photovoltaic cells and make it look sexy, too,” he says. “Beautiful buildings are preserved—you can’t get more sustainable than that, can you?”

The response to IJburg has been equivocal due to the merits of its progressive urban plan and demerits of its ecological impact. The scheme has been organized with an eye towards density, integrated green space, and public transit—arguably serving as an alternative to sprawl, though few could claim that dredging the IJmeer is without consequence. Weijnen can only hope that the ideas expressed in the Blue House’s narrow footprint will spur a sea change in the character of this burgeoning development, which will—like it or not—house 45,000 city dwellers in nearly 18,000 dwellings by 2012. After all, no house is an island. 

To see more images of the project, please visit the slideshow.

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