Flexible living in Groningen – MASSA

This remarkable housing scheme was completed as part of a major wave of redevelopment in the post-war neighbourhood of Corpus den Hoorn in Groningen. Architecture firm MASSA designed a series of single-family homes, entitled Flexwonen, in which buyers enjoy a lot of freedom in determining the layout of the interior layouts.

The 101 dwellings are divided into two phases. Phase one, already completed, clearly shows the individual freedom. While the front façade is rigid and orderly, with a sturdy and traditional appearance, the rear side of the dwellings is a remarkably playful mix of personal preferences in the size and layout of rooms. The same material is used throughout. This timber structure makes it possible for future occupants to make changes relatively easy. The client, Nijestee housing association, has already started on phase two.

To talk about restructuring in Groningen is to talk about neighbourhood renewal. And if you talk about neighbourhood renewal, then you usually talk about the physical interventions in Vinkhuizen and Paddepoel, or the social programmes in the urban regeneration areas of De Hoogte and Korrewegwijk. Corpus den Hoorn, built in the late 1950s, was tackled later during the wave of neighbourhood renewal, and has always remained somewhat in the shadows. Despite that, and thanks in part to the lessons learned from previous projects in other neighbourhoods, highly successful new urban-design forms and housing typologies have been developed in Corpus den Hoorn that are in harmony with the rigorously rhythmic arrangement of orthogonal blocks of housing.

The idea behind the Flexwonen project is that the buyers themselves can determine the layout of their homes, within the framework comprising a number of guidelines. To assist buyers in the design and building process, Nijestee sought help from KUUB, a centre for private construction. The first information evening took place in August 2004. The number of people who were prepared to embark on the process remained limited, however. In the end, only ten families joined the project at the start. Others felt it was too risky, especially on account of the financial uncertainty that comes with building your own home. Yet Nijestee decided to build the homes in one go. The buyers of the remaining (43) dwellings were still offered a number of options to build onto the rear and side façades. That’s why ten dwellings were built by private individuals, and the rest were commissioned by Nijestee, but with a lot of choices made by the buyers.

A stipulation that Nijestee and the architect Koos Kok set for the plans by private builders was that the individual freedom should be in keeping with the existing urban context. So a number of architectural guidelines for the dwellings were drawn up and a carefully designed urban plan was agreed upon. The ensemble consists of four rows of dwellings, the middle two of which are separated (or rather connected) by a green axis, which will soon connect the first and second phases visually. The dwellings at the end of the four rows are slightly deeper so that the ground to the rear is more enclosed in character. A maximum building height of three floors and a prescribed brick front façade ensured a coherent design that permitted the incorporation of individual preferences.

The flexibility of the dwellings lies largely in the plan arrangement. Buyers and private clients were free to build extensions onto the rear or sides of their homes, provided they were made in the material stipulated. This resulted in a wide range of typologies, which will only increase over the years. In that sense, the dwellings are ensured a long life. Even in determining the façade composition the buyers enjoyed considerable freedom. They could choose from five types of brick and were free to decide the placement of window frames. Moreover, they could use frames of varying widness. Only the height was fixed.

With the Flexwonen project Nijestee wanted to tie new residents (i.e. buyers) to the Corpus den Hoorn neighbourhood. That effort has largely succeeded. Although the number of private owners/builders was lower than hoped for, later buyers were still very pleased with the wide range of choices open to them. Nijestee has therefore decided to develop the second phase along the same lines. The variety is thus guaranteed, even though the idea of home construction initiated by future occupants themselves (whereby candidates can commission the design and construction of a dwelling with a layout of their choosing on a site also chosen by them) has been dropped. The dwellings are all part of one entity in terms of material and rhythm. But no matter how the dwellings are commissioned, it is a fact that the diversity in what was previously a rather monotonous neighbourhood has increased thanks to this project. With that, Flexwonen is both physically and socially a wonderful example of what neighbourhood renewal should be: a fresh and enduring addition that respects existing structures.

MASSA bureau voor architectuur

Koos Kok (projectarchitect)
Karine Schenkeveld
Jolan Sterenborg
Henny Volmuller
Nicandra Nocera
Arjan Hordijk

Nijestee housing association and 10 private individuals

Hippocrateslaan Groningen

101 single-family homes on three floors: 53 in phase 1 and 48 in Phase 2.

Combination of co-development and consumer-oriented building while respecting a coherent urban appearance. Space for wishes of individual buyers is provided to the rear.

date of 1st sketch
August 2003

start of construction
May 2006 (1st phase)
mid-2009 (2nd phase)

Autumn 2007 (1st phase) mid-2010 (2nd phase)cost of construction 6.5 million excluding options/site, including VAT (price level May 2006)

Varies per dwelling from 130 m2 (row house, basic size) to 220 m2 (end house, maximum extended)

Varies per dwelling from 377 m3 (row house, basic size) to 638 m3 (end house, maximum extended)

proud of
The fact that the concept we were after, namely a good balance between control and freedom, has worked. This produces an stable and enduring appearance to the front while the variety of housing wishes is visible to the rear.

do differently next time
The price should be determined sooner during the process so that private clients are immediately aware of the possibilities and costs.