This article is part of our latest Design special section, which is about getting personal with customization.
In architecture, the tension between freedom and restrictions animates the best work. We wonder how a building by, say, Frank Gehry can stand up, given the striking twists and turns of its form.
No matter how visually striking, structures have to follow local building codes, not to mention the laws of gravity.
In the Netherlands, a 10,625-acre community called Almere Oosterwold is demonstrating a democratic version of this balancing act, experimenting on the frontiers of house-customization in a country known for heavy regulation.
Owners have the freedom to design what they want — with or without an architect, or with software specially designed for the project, as long as it meets codes. One house in Oosterwold is powered by a bike and built on a rail so that it can turn and follow the sun during the day. There are prefab houses, tiny houses and a “garage house” that holds RVs owned by its older, part-time residents, who travel a lot.
Ironically enough, it took a lot of government planning to open the floodgates of self-expression. Almere Oosterwold may be the most planned unplanned place around.
Conceived more than a decade ago, the development now has some 1,000 completed houses, with thousands more in the offing. It is the first of four planned “garden cities” within Almere, which will all have a different concept and character.
Just 20 miles east of Amsterdam, on land that was reclaimed from the sea, Almere itself is a planned city that became a municipality in the 1980s. (Its police station was the first completed project by the now-famed Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas.)
The architect Winy Maas, a co-founder of the Rotterdam firm MVRDV, created the Oosterwold masterplan and has been involved in all aspects of the project; his firm has also consulted on some of the house designs and created the DIY software, HomeMaker.
“We developed a strategy that could attract people by giving them complete freedom in shape, in density,” Mr. Maas said. “People can do what they want, but they cannot harm their neighbor at all.”
Demand is quite high, Mr. Maas said, because the idea “has touched something in the younger generation.”
He added, “It expresses a fundamental aspect of liberty somehow. And in a country which is so dominated by rules, it’s a kind of relief.”
Almere and the Dutch government’s real estate development agency commissioned the plan from Mr. Maas, a passionate urbanist and designer of what he called “dense environments.” He worked with the former Almere alderman Adri Duivesteijn to get the project through bureaucratic hoops.
The bootstrap aspect of Oosterwold goes way beyond aesthetics: Energy, sewage and roads must also be figured out by residents, leading at least one person over the years to ask Mr. Maas, “Are you crazy?”
The HomeMaker software is intended to allay concerns. “We made it to calculate the ground price, the amount of water, the amount of solar cells needed,” Mr. Maas said. “It also figures out how to make a road — not only for the homeowner but for those who come after them.”
For the Dutch, the concept requires a new way of thinking.
“We have such a tradition of planning in the Netherlands,” said Michelle Provoost, an architectural historian and executive director of the International New Town Institute in Rotterdam. “New towns are always planned top-down, with no space for doing it yourself. So in that sense it’s groundbreaking.”
She acknowledged, “In some countries it wouldn’t be that experimental.”
What’s unusual, however, is the scale and density. When it’s completed, the plan is to have 15,000 homes and some 40,000 residents.
The Netherlands is the 32nd most densely populated country in the world, famous for harnessing nature with canals and windmills. Oosterwold’s master plan is driven by ecological concerns. New structures are only allowed to occupy up to a fourth of the land, and about half is devoted to agriculture, to bolster a sustainable ecosystem.
At the home of Barry and Shirley van Oostrom, the approach is not only green, but also dusky purple, at least when their Cabernet Cortis vines ripen. The couple, who had lived in Almere for 20 years before moving to Oosterwold, grow three varieties of wine grapes next to their new home, and they operate three bed-and-breakfast lodges, which they built in 2017.
They are always booked, because “people like sleeping by a vineyard only 25 minutes from Amsterdam,” Ms. van Oostrom said.
“A farm was our dream, maybe in Spain,” she added. “But when this came up, we decided not to leave the Netherlands.”
The decision was easy, but the design and construction, less so.
“It’s a different way of living, and it attracts certain types of people,” Ms. van Oostrom said. “It’s a lot of hard work. You have to do everything yourself.”
The couple consulted an architect on their design, particularly for the engineering, but they sketched out ideas and took the lead on creating their office area. Over all they wanted a U-shaped plan and sliding doors “like on a barn,” she said. They got it. The spare, wood-and-concrete house that resulted gave them the modern farmhouse vibe they wanted.
The autonomy was the selling point. “As long as it’s safe and you can live in it, you can build what you want,” Ms. van Ooostrom said. “The rest is up to you.”
But “the rest” can involve a lot of unusual tasks, as Anke de Boer, another Oosterwold denizen, is discovering.
“We started this three and a half years ago,” said Ms. de Boer, a translator who works at home, as does her biologist husband, Ricky. “The engineering stuff has yet to be done. We hope to be in come spring.”
“Finalizing the design wasn’t the problem,” she said of the wood-frame home, to be painted an “ocean blue-green.” The couple established their priorities with a pen and paper, chief among them a bedroom orientation that would allow them to wake with the sun. They consulted an architect whom they met through their construction company.
But to get to the house, you need a road, and there was not one. “We had to sit down with neighbors to figure out the whole road process,” Ms. de Boer said. “It’s one of the biggest issues here in Oosterwold. If there’s one thing that deteriorates relationships with neighbors, that’s it. You have to figure out how to divide the cost.”
After coordinating with 11 neighbors, she and her husband latched onto an association that had built a dirt road. Asphalt will be the final material.
Mr. Maas sees nothing but virtue in the process. “They have to do it together,” he said. “It moves from egoism to we-goism.”
Of course, freedom entails the liberty to design something not to everyone’s liking. Mr. Maas lamented some of the house designs by a developer that he called “Belgian Disney.”
“It depends on your definition of bad taste,” he added.
Ms. Provoost noted a trajectory toward less inventive design. “The houses have become more the same, and that’s disappointing,” she said.
She still finds Oosterwold “special” for its lack of pre-existing infrastructure and government-allocated open space. The closest comparison she could muster is the Ghanaian city of Tema, a planned port city developed in the 1950s and 1960s
She doesn’t think Oosterwold “will be repeated anytime soon.”