Prototypes – The Work of Cepezed

The book is as clearly structured as the work of the office. Prototypen is a bulky volume that documents projects by Delft architecture firm Cepezed as well as various aspects of product development, building process and architecture that the office has been involved in over the past 35 years.

Divided into three chapters – product, process and architecture – the book includes contributions from eight writers in circles around Cepezed that explore the special position of the office in the field. Each article is followed by a case study of a project related to the theme under discussion. In the chapter ‘Process’, the article on Engineer Led Design and Build is illustrated by the PTT Post distribution centres. The text and a selection of photos, sketches, details and design drawings illustrate precisely those elements that are relevant to the theme in question. As a result, the book offers perhaps an unusual project overview, because not every project is extensively featured and integrally documented. It does, however, offer very incisive insight into the office philosophy and the line of development that Cepezed has drawn straight through architectural history. The hefty size of the book, with big photos and drawings, makes it easy to convey the meticulousness of the office’s designs. A simple and clear style of drawing, consistency in terms of scales, and the sparse hatching all combine to present a clearly communicate the ambitions, working method and evolution of the office. Included at the end of the book is a complete overview of projects with extensive information about publications, employees, biographies and the authors.

Silver metallic was chosen for the print ink, probably as a reference to the colours and materials used by Cepezed. This doesn’t make the book any easier to read, however. Moreover, some images are so small they no longer communicate much. But apart from the occasional frivolous element, the layout and form of the book make it very similar to a Cepezed design: clear, logical and efficient.


In this section of the book Jan Westra, Maarten Willems and Els Zijlstra describe the history of prefabrication in construction and the protracted process from pilot run to mass production. For Cepezed and other pioneers of prefabrication, the prototype usually marks the end of the road unfortunately. This is largely down to the fact that the prototype is usually seen by the risk-bearing party in the construction sector as a ‘finished’ investment object rather than a working model at full scale as a stage on the way to a pilot run. The unfulfilled ambitions of the office in this area are well expressed in the introduction by editor Piet Vollaard when, referring to the Heiwo industrial house-construction system, he writes that Cepezed had a brilliant answer to a question that was never posed. In the case of Cepezed, however, that is not to say that development ceases once the prototype has been made. The further development of semi-finished products, ideas and design principles only really takes place when these can be applied again in later designs. Numerous innovations in the field of façades and floors, such as self-supporting sandwich panels, climate screens and integrated floors, were created by Cepezed and refined and improved in each successive project. One of the most surprising later applications is probably the prefabricated sanitary unit, originally designed as a bathroom for the 1982 Heiwo dwelling and applied for the first time in the renovation of the Entrepotdok in 1997.


Frustrated on the one hand by development parties who view the prototype as the end of a process, and on the other by contractors who keep on making up their own details and drawings, Cepezed decided to integrate both forwards and backwards into the design and construction process. In their contributions, Ad Bisschops and Menno Rubbens describe the efforts of Cepezed to achieve more harmony between design and building by planning the construction process in a different way, improving the continuity of the process and reducing the time needed for completion. Such attempts go beyond the mandate of an architecture firm. With the establishment of BGC (Bouwteam General Contractors), Cepezed is assured of a party that can take on the coordinating role in construction and act directly on the instructions of the client. The adopted method of partial tendering demands that construction be easily split into building components that can be assembled by the suppliers. The meticulous technical ingenuity in the integrated designs of Cepezed has far-reaching consequences for the building process, but the chosen building method with components and carefully planned phases influences the design too. Despite the chosen process organisation, innovation remains troublesome as long as parties that avoid taking risks continue to play a leading role in the industry. Cepezed Systems was set up to facilitate Engineer Led Design and Build, a form of contract in which Cepezed takes on the risk for construction. Cepezed distinguishes itself from other Dutch architecture firms through its concern for the total production process and the consequences for business operations, and it seems to have found a strong answer to the marginalisation of the design profession.


In the third section of the book Ronald Schleurholts, Ed Melet and Olof Koekebakker describe the design methodology employed by Cepezed, the romanticism of steel structures, and the way in which the office deals with the issue of identity in architecture. The section on the Cepezed design methodology reads like a cookbook. It describes the seemingly simple and rather hermetic recipe for a good Cepezed building. The first choice is between a box-in-a-box principle and a laterally zoned building. Then the building has to be adapted to the urban context. This is achieved by allowing the building, or a second skin, to adopt the form of the site. Finally, the tested materials and details – some of which may have been improved – can be deployed and the neutral structure can be used as a billboard. A rational, extremely controlled and logical architecture is the guaranteed result. Using a writing metaphor, Koekebakker says is it more poetry than prose, and within that genre, more a haiku than a sonnet.

The book offers a fitting overview of 35 years in the development of a quintessentially Dutch firm of architects and inventors and its steady search for optimal techniques and processes to create clear buildings that are enjoyable to use. In addition to the timeless aesthetic pleasure that can be experienced in the designs and the craftsmanship displayed at detail level, the much-discussed role of the architect in the design process today is examined in the book. For fellow architects, the steps taken by the office to get a better grip on the entire design and building process are probably more important than the innovations that Cepezed has achieved within integrated design thinking. A must read for every architect who wrestles with the threatened depreciation of the discipline.