Vrijburcht, Amsterdam


  • If they are properly supported, independent community groups can form effective client bodies that can instruct architects and contractors, keep an eye on finances and manage the recruitment of project residents
  • Housing associations can play a key role in helping independent community groups get off the ground and in reassuring mortgage lenders of the long-tern success of the project
  • Community group members are often already involved in other socially-focused projects in the local area and can integrate these programmes effectively with the development of new housing if given the opportunity


The project provides 52 homes and was developed in response to a call from the City of Amsterdam for collective proposals in the newly-created district of Ijburg. It is one of the largest Collectief Particulier Opdrachtgeverschap (CPO) projects in the Netherlands.

It is regarded by the City of Amsterdam as a model project, and many similar developments are nearby, including individual private homebuilding schemes and smaller collectives.

The project holds a long lease on the land it stands on, rather than owning it. This is standard practice for most developments in Amsterdam, where the city owns around 80 per cent of the land.

This project has a very high proportion of shared and community-facing facilities and contributes significantly to the neighbourhood. This was a key aspiration of the commissioning group and ultimately underpinned its successful application for a building plot from the City of Amsterdam. These facilities employ around 40 people.

Although initiated by a community group, the project was led by an architect who functioned as a ‘process adviser’. He steered the group through the process, including developing the initial concept for the project.

The group was also significantly supported by the De Key housing association. It acted as financial guarantor during the construction phase and continues to run some of the community facilities.


Vrijburcht (or the ‘free castle’) is a collectively commissioned mixed-use project in the Ijburg district of Amsterdam. It is a prime example of Collectief Particulier Opdrachtgeverschap (CPO) – a method of collective custom build housing that is well established in the Netherlands.

Initiator: Community

Scale: Medium

Site: Urban

Affordability: Intermediate

Opportunity: Collective

Built Form: Terraced and Apartments

Country: NL

Key Statistics

Completed: 2007

No. Units: 52


For the purposes of this Toolkit we have made the following definitions:

  • ‘self and custom built homes’ as properties commissioned by people from a builder, contractor or package company (this is known as ‘custom build’ housing). When people physically build themselves, sometimes with help from sub-contractors, this is known as ‘self build’ housing. We call all these people ‘private homebuilders’.
  • ‘serviced building plots’ are shovel-ready parcels of land with planning permission, laid out and ready for construction with access and utilities/services provided to the plot boundary. Some private homebuilders just purchase a plot; others opt for a ‘shell’ home (that they then finish off), or they select from an extensive menu of options offered by developers/builders.
  • ‘group projects’ mean homes built by private homebuilders who work as a collective.

The ‘CPO’ model of collective custom build

Collectief Particulier Opdrachtgeverschap (or ‘CPO’) is a method of collective custom build housing that is well established in the Netherlands. The phrase translates as ‘collective private commissioning’ and refers to the legal structures developed to bring private individuals and families together to collaboratively plan and build homes for their own use.

Broadly speaking, the model involves individual households securing individual mortgages, which are then drawn down in stages that relate to the construction of the project, which is designed and built as a single contract.

The model usually relies on a single lender providing all of the mortgages on a scheme, as this allows the lender to conduct effective due diligence on the likely success of the project in terms of end sales. We have seen examples of this working effectively on developments of up to 50 homes.

The individuals that form the group then establish a building company to which they make payments in line with the key stages of the build. This company is vetted by the bank who usually also insist that the group hires a ‘process adviser’ – typically a consultant with a background in construction, project management or architecture.

The bank also often provides any additional pre-development or development finance needed to cover the cost of any homes that have not been allocated. Alternatively a housing association or commercial developer acts as a guarantor and underwrites any vacant units. This support allows a group to proceed before it has allocated every home to a purchaser.

Housing associations or developers may also take a longer term interest in some of the units or other facilities within the scheme and may require some decision-making power in return for their guarantee, but usually decision-making power remains with the group of private homebuilders.

The process adviser’s job is to guide the group through the development from start to finish. Their presence reassures the lender that relevant experience is being brought to bear on the project. The group appoints other consultants separately, such as architects and engineers.

The process adviser’s job is to manage the project team; they also coordinate when payments are required from individual households in order to cover the cost of design and construction work, and they handle any necessary permit applications.

For further information, you may want to refer to other Briefing Note on Support and training for individuals which also discusses how similar arrangements work in other countries.

When the project is complete, the final stage payments are drawn down, ownership of each home reverts to its occupier and the building company is usually wound up. In some cases, the company is retained as a management company, or becomes the ‘landlord’, if the homes are rented or the ownership is shared.


Vrijburcht is located on the island of Stiegereiland in the Ijburg District of Amsterdam, an artificially-created island in the city’s inner harbour area, about 15 minutes by tram from the city centre and main international railway station. The project is also immediately adjacent to a bicycle bridge that connects to the city via an extensive cycle network.

The project has a prime waterfront location with views across to the historical Deemerzeedijk sea defences.

Ijburg is located on an articificially created island to the east on Amsterdam’s historic centre

Stegereiland is located at the north-western tip of Ijburg

The Vrijburcht project sites within an area that is largely comprised of individual private homebuilding projects


The project was initiated by an architect who had been involved in many community projects across Amsterdam. He set up a non-profit foundation to act as the client for the project and invited people he knew who were interested in commissioning a home to sit on its board.

The foundation developed the initial proposals and applied to the city for a plot of land. Later, it was also responsible for instructing architects and contractors, monitoring the finances, recruiting resident members and stewarding the vision for the project.

Working in consultation with the potential residents it developed these three key principles for the project: –

  • To offer families from the city attractive, decent sized urban housing for reasonable prices
  • To involve people in the design of their homes
  • To create special shared services that make living and working conditions more attractive and stimulate social and cultural interaction

The foundation remained after the completion of the project and oversees the management of the block, including the programming of its cultural spaces and serves as landlord for the tenants of the commercial units.

Hein de Haan initiated the project and supported the group as a ‘process adviser’


There are 52 owner-occupied units of between 65 and 256 sq m, including individual flats, maisonettes and studios in small clusters. These sit on a plot of about 4,400 sq m plot, and provide a total living area of ,650 sq m. The average home size is around 100 sq m.

Some homes are accessed via a first floor deck that has been designed to offer useable outdoor space overlooking the courtyard. The shared greenhouse is also at this level

The project’s governing principles attracted people who were active in other local social projects, and one member introduced the idea of providing assisted-living facilities. Other members supported this and the project now provides homes for six young people with slight mental-impairment, administered by the De Key housing association, referred to as De Roef (‘the Roof’).

The group went on to incorporate extensive community-facing facilities including a shared garden (550 sq m), two guest apartments (65 sq m each), a ‘hobby’ space which is largely used as a shared workshop (60 sq m), a communal greenhouse (35 sq m – which also doubles as a winter-garden for sharing meals), and a theatre space (100 sq m). There is also a publically accessible waterfront that includes a dock for sailing boats, and a swimming pier. In addition there is around 115 sq m of bike storage, which is shared with the surrounding streets, three commercial units for small business (currently all in use by residents) and an underground garage.

On the same site the De Key housing association separately runs a large community café, commercial spaces, and a children’s day-care centre for around 40 children. It total this provides around 1,700 sq m of space.

The theatre has developed a varied programme of weekly and monthly events and is a much loved community facility.


The project is home to 151 people, including families, singles and seniors and is currently evenly proportioned in terms of male and female residents.

The project participants changed significantly during the planning phase of the project, with a number of the initiators dropping out and being replaced by new members – although there was always a core group that were able to carry the project’s vision through.


The majority of homes are privately-owned. A ‘homeowners’ association’ – a special group formed after construction – is responsible for the maintenance of the building fabric and the shared spaces, while the ‘Vrijburcht Foundation’ – a continuation of the founding group – manages the theatre and common rooms.

The De Key housing association leases the assisted-living units from the homeowners’ association. It also runs the community café and children’s day-care centre (and pays a nominal rent).


The architects were CASA Architechten (www.casa-architecten.nl), based in Amsterdam. CASA’s principle architect, Hein de Haan, was a central figure in Amsterdam’s squatting subculture and helped many groups to legalise their occupation of buildings and to construct new homes and other community facilities.

Following initial feasibility work by CASA, the first step was to establish a non-profit foundation (the ‘Vrijburcht Stichting’) to act as the client for the project.

The building is designed as a perimeter block and retaimns the same building line as the neighbouring streets in Ijburg. While homes in the surrounding area cost around €900,000 (about £700,000), Vrijburcht’s largest homes only cost around half of this due to the CPO approach.

Vrijburcht is set within an area of much grander individual private homebuilding projects

The focal point of the scheme is its central courtyard garden and large first-floor greenhouse, which accommodate communal dinner parties and festivities for all but the coldest months of the year. The project also includes giant rainwater tanks for reusing water from the roofs, as well as bird and bat boxes integrated into the fabric of the building, especially around the shared courtyard. There are also a number of public artworks – some freestanding, and others integrated into the facades.

The inner courtyard sits above the shared parking and is well used by residents thanks to the generously proportioned access decks at first floor level

The homes are arranged around the courtyard and are all at least dual aspect. Instead of designing small waterfront homes and reserving them for professionals who might be able to pay more for a premium location, the group decided to make these family-sized homes, as parents and children were more likely to be at home enjoying the spaces during the day.

Family homes are positioned at the water’s edge

Generous external areas provide leisure space, as well as access to the homes

Each home has its own entrance

The children’s day centre can accommodate about 40 children and has direct access to the shared courtyard garden

Each home has a parking space in the underground garage

The theatre can accommodate a professional show and a modest audience

The theatre space being used for a community event (left) and the communal greenhouse for a shared meal (right)

The café space is open day and night and is popular with people in the local area

The workshop is a multi-functional space that is well-used by the residents for messy hobbies like painting and carpentry

The project’s street-side façade where the commercial spaces are located

An aerial shot of the project shortly after completion (left) and a block plan (right)

Ground floor plan showing homes clustered around a shared courtyard. The homes at the bottom are narrow to maximize the number with a waterfront aspect. The yellow elements highlight the café and theatre space (1), day care centre (2), children’s sandpit (3), office spaces (4) and the unit used by the sailing school (5)

First floor plan, with yellow elements highlighting the shared greenhouse (6), guest apartment (7), theatre (8) and assisted living units (9)

Second floor plan

Third floor plan

Section through the scheme showing the garage beneath the shared garden

Hein de Haan sadly passed away in August 2015, shortly after contributing to this case study. He was working on another CPO project at the time of his death – Nautilus (www.nautilus-amsterdam.nl) in the city’s Zeeburgereiland district – which further develops the Vrijburcht model and includes neighbourhood run energy-production facilities.


The project cost €16m. The enabling architect did a lot of the initial feasibility work for free – this was needed to secure the initial option to build. After this point, the De Key housing association provided some predevelopment finance to help the group develop the design and recruit other members. Later design fees and the construction work was paid using the stage payments from each of the members’ mortgages ( which was organised through the CPO legal framework – see earlier boxed text).

The land is still owned by the city, and is leased to the group on a 50-year lease, with a perpetual presumption in favour of renewal.

The leasehold rates vary depending on the different uses in the project. In 2006 the rates were €285 (about £220) per sq m for the residential units, €145 (about £110) per sq m for the commercial units and €654 (about £500) per sq m for the café space. In total, the lease costs around €2m, which covers the entire 50-year period of the lease (rather than representing an annual cost) – for a 100 sq m flat, the 50-year lease costs around €28,500 (about £22,000).

The average purchase price for all the homes was €2,420 per sq m (about £1,800), which is very reasonable by Amsterdam standards and this figure includes each resident’s share of the lease. The smallest flat (65 sq m) cost €157,300 (about £121,000) and the largest (256 sq m) €619,520 (about £476,000).

Residents also pay a service charge of €19 per sq m per year.

Although both charges are worked out on the areas of the residents’ homes, they include a fairly-apportioned share of the costs to build and maintain the shared spaces.

Residents can sell their apartments on the open market, though there is an agreement that any advertising should be linked to the Vrijburcht website so that potential buyers are aware of the nature of the project.

The role of De Key housing association

De Key only became a formal partner in the project after the client group had been established and the City of Amsterdam had offered the site to the group – although before this, they assisted with project planning and viability checks in an informal way.

De Key contributed to pre-development costs and offered to act as guarantor for any apartments that were unallocated at the time the project needed to start on site (which was ultimately unnecessary as the project was heavily over-subscribed). It has also taken ownership of some of the community facilities such as the assisted-living apartments, children’s day-care centre and the community café. However, the tenants and managers of these spaces were sought and selected by ‘Vrijburcht Stichting’, the project’s founding organisation.

The role of housing associations in the Netherlands has recently come under scrutiny, resulting in restrictions on activities that do not directly relate to the provision of social housing.


  • City of Amsterdam puts out call for proposals for ‘collective housing in self-initiated building developments’ for sites in the newly-constructed district of Ijburg

  • Project initiated by Hein de Haan of CASA architects includes extensive community facilities alongside housing

  • Vrijburcht proposal selected and is granted a 50-year lease on the site

  • Vrijburcht Stichting’ (foundation) formed made up of project members (residents). The foundation secures the support of the De Key housing association

  • Municipal housing helps the group recruit additional members

  • Project completed and residents move in

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This case study was compiled with reference to the following sources:

Hein de Haan – CASA Architecten

Marije Raap – City of Amsterdam

Further Reading

The following case studies offer useful insight into the issues discussed in this Case Study:


56-64 Blenheim Grove, London

Kleine Bergstrasse, Hamburg

Spreefeld Genossenschaft, Berlin

Kalkbreite, Zurich

Group Projects in Strasbourg

Elf Freunde, Berlin

Vrijburcht and other similar projects are also covered extensively in a number of publications, notably:

Id:22 (2012) – Cohousing Cultures – available via www.cohousing-cultures.net

DASH (2012) – The Architecture of Collective Private Commissions


The NaCSBA Research & Development Programme is funded by the Nationwide Foundation and aims to promote the self-build and custom build sector as an affordable route into housing for a greater number of people in the UK.

For further information, please visit:www.nacsba.org.uk or www.selfbuildportal.org.uk