Garden Shed as Architectural Assignment

Located on the fringes of all large towns in the Netherlands are allotment gardens containing small plots where people have a shed or summerhouse and where they grow flowers and vegetables in a park setting. Many people move into their house early in the summer season and only move out when the season draws to a close.

A new breed of allotment garden is taking shape at the foot of Prins Claus Bridge in Utrecht. Groenewoud Gardens provides green surroundings for office villas interspersed among the allotments. Particular attention was paid to the architecture of the sheds. That is why Aorta architecture centre in Utrecht organised an evening devoted to 'Allotments and Garden Sheds'.

The evening was the second in a series devoted to greenery and outdoor life. Art historian Gerrie Andela recounted the development and culture of allotment gardens. She pointed out that Bruynzeel once developed a standard shed, that a snail house at Blijdorp Zoo is built of pallets, and that Krill Architects from Rotterdam recently completed a flexible, plastic garden shed. To Andela, Groenewoud represents the latest stage in the emancipation of the allotment garden. She was followed by Wim Kloosterboer of Made Architects who discussed his design for a prototype garden shed for Groenewoud.

Groenewoud is a multifunctional allotment complex. For a site at the foot of UN Studio's newest bridge, the Leidsche Rijn project office commissioned West 8 to come up with a plan for 150 allotment gardens and eight office villas sited in a publicly accessible park. Green areas close to offices are usually deserted outside of office hours, but it's the very opposite with allotment gardens. So a combination of business park and allotment gardens makes sense. The combination makes for a better office environment and eliminates maintenance costs. Some offices have already reserved gardens for employees. The highly varied group of allotment owners is expected to include lawyers and other office staff, regular gardeners, and people from Kanaleneiland.

The plan, and in particular the proximity to top-class office facilities, prompted the Leidsche Rijn project office to give serious thought to the architecture of garden sheds. Standard DIY sheds were forbidden, and the external appearance of sheds required municipal approval. The 150 sheds had to be soundly integrated. The project office asked Made Architects to design a prototype costing a maximum of 20,000 guilders.

Wim Kloosterboer showed existing sheds that contain a permanent core. In all cases the occupants adapted the sheds to suit individual needs. Adaptation thus became the starting point for the prototype. To achieve maximum flexibility, the shed is made of solid wooden panels glued together. Various openings are possible without affecting strength of the shed, and rules and styles are unnecessary. Dimensions are limited by transport only. The main volume of the shed is a cube with sides 3.4 metres in length. Attached to this volume are rectangular volumes containing kitchen, shower, toilet and storage unit.

Alas, the shed found no favour in the eyes of gardeners' association members. To them the cube with its appendages didn't look like a garden shed. The architects came up with a second design in which they distinguished between outer layer and inner layer. The outer layer, or 'raincoat', is an independent element, a tarpaulin that is pulled tightly over the volume and that can be zipped open like a tent where necessary. The tarpaulin protects the wood and is aesthetically pleasing. Diffused light penetrates the interior, while colours and patterns create a varied and abstract exterior. The design can also be applied to beach huts and thus offers advantages of scale. Critical comments from listeners varied from 'an allotment complex full of those boxes' and 'the people who use the gardens don't figure in your design thinking' to 'beautiful abstract sculptures'.

Meanwhile, another shed has been submitted and approved. Designed by West 8, it is a traditional shed of red cedar with gable roof and plenty of light penetration. With a basic price of € 5500, the shed is much more expensive than those available from DIY shops and garden centres. West 8 sheds are available in different sizes. Or you can choose to build your own shed, but only if you keep to the same materials, detailing and dimensions as the West 8 shed. To compensate gardeners for the extra expense, the Leidsche Rijn project office is offering subsidies of € 2250 per shed up to March 2006. But at € 3300, the most basic model is still too expensive for most people, and their only alternative is a uniform tool box in the same material. The West 8 shed differs very little from the standard sheds sold by DIY stores and garden centres. The subsidiser (which is the community) and the gardener, both of whom operate on tight budgets, are asked to pay a high price to escape the hegemony of DIY architecture.

And what's more, the tight regulations formulated by West 8 eliminate all possibility of 'architecturally responsible' differentiation. Those garden sheds mentioned by Andela in her lecture won't make it to Groenewoud.