The luminous, tailor-made home where architect James Jeffries lives with his wife, Emily, and their two-year-old son, Jack, in Amsterdam’s Oud-West neighborhood is a far cry from the crumbling structure they bought in 2012. Built in the early 20th century, the brick building consisted of just one main floor under a pointed roof with ramshackle tiles. There had not been any major renovation for decades, and there was no central heating. Most crucially, the wooden pillars were in poor shape, and the building was sinking due to a weak foundation. "The structural condition of the house was so bad that the existing facade would have had to have been torn down when renewing the foundation," says Jeffries, a partner at London- and Amsterdam-based firm 31/44 Architects.
"The house needed complete rebuilding. I was immediately interested—this level of renovation usually comes with the opportunity to do something special." —James Jeffries, architect and resident
The property is in a former industrial area once known for its blacksmiths, timber factories, and tanneries. Merchants used to bring materials into the city on large barges from the surrounding countryside and seaports via a wide canal at the end of the family’s street, and the cargo was then off-loaded and stored in warehouses. The small, low-rent houses usually sheltered large families; some of them were replaced in the 1980s and 1990s by nondescript social housing blocks. The last decade, however, has seen an influx of private renovations and new builds, which have preserved an almost village-like touch in the area.
Jeffries and his team at 31/44 envisioned replacing the existing structure with a new house that would serve as a modern update on the local vernacular. However, permission to demolish had to be granted by the urban planning department. "Our argument was that the facade was not historically exceptional enough to be worth rebuilding," Jeffries says. "Luckily, there were quite a few new buildings on our street, so the commission was lenient." Complicating the plan was an extra story the firm hoped to add. A proposal to set the house back a few feet reassured the department that it would not obstruct sunlight for the rest of the street.
After the planning department signed off on the new construction, the next step was to get approval from the city’s aesthetics committee. The firm had to reference the neighborhood’s heritage in its design. "We used bricks and a gable to blend in," Jeffries says. Gray bricks subtly distinguish the house as a contemporary take on the local style.
"Wherever possible, we left materials exposed—it achieved the look we were after and was more budget-friendly."—James Jeffries
Once the plans were approved, construction finally began. A prefabricated wood frame helped cut costs and speed up the building process. "While the new foundations were being installed, the timber frame was being made in a factory outside Amsterdam," Jeffries says. The building shell is kept visible in the ceiling—another cost-saving tactic and a common design move seen in old Amsterdam houses.
Since the aesthetics committee had focused its attention on the house’s front facade, the rear—clad in Equitone panels—is where its modern character is most clearly identifiable. But even there, the architects chose an exposed steel chimney flue in a nod to the area’s industrial past.
Jeffries describes the building as "a mix of up-to-date architecture and old history," and this project is a rare example of how new construction can fit into Amsterdam’s rich fabric.