27 Sep 2021

Meet Schoonschip, a sustainable floating neighbourhood in the Netherlands

Sara Arko, IRI UL researcher

A quick ferry over the river IJ behind the Central Station and just a short bike ride through Amsterdam North takes you to one of its numerous canals. A typical post-industrial district that borders it still reminds the visitor of its heavy-industry past which left behind empty space, abandoned shipyards and heavily polluted plots. One can notice there’s a transformation under way – residential and office buildings are being built as part of the larger re-development plan of the northern banks of the IJ river, so easily accessible from the city centre. The district of Buiksloterham has been carrying out an ambitious vision of its own – to become a living lab for circular, smart, and biobased development (Circular Buiksloterham). Strolling along the quay, a unique sight standing out from the surroundings takes the visitor’s breath away: 30 beautifully designed homes float on the river, intertwined with a network of stylish wooden jetties, filled with greenery. Meet Schoonschip!

A view of Schoonschip neighbourhood from the river canal bank. (Sara Arko, Amsterdam, September 2021)

Schoonschip was initiated by a group of four people with the goal to create the most sustainable floating neighbourhood of Europe, bringing more like-minded individuals and families together and then jointly embarking on a long, community-led, and demanding technical, legal, and social journey to fulfil their dream. From formulating the initial idea in 2008, to concretising plans in 2010 when the location was selected, to feasibility studies, acquiring tenders and fighting for legal exemptions, setting up the collective infrastructure, to designing, constructing and towing in the individual floating houses – in the beginning of 2020, the neighbourhood was finally complete. While the Schoonschip floating community was realised through self-investment and effort of the community members, who exercised effective full control during the development and in operational management, a number of individuals and organisations were involved in realising this pioneering project, including architects, legal advisors, and innovative companies such as Metabolic and Spectral.

Today, the 30 “boats” (legally interpreted as such) offer home to 46 households with over 100 inhabitants (including children). The neighbourhood is, however, more than just an exciting village of floating houses – their goals and activities address a number of sustainability and social (community) aspects. Among others, the materials used were carefully considered to ensure sustainability – the future residents had three lists of potential materials to integrate into their floating homes, the red list was off limits (e.g., aluminium), the materials on the orange list were potentially acceptable, while the green list were best choice materials (e.g., wood). The community has also lowered water consumption and installed (waste)water systems, they have incorporated shared mobility, and are considering the social aspects, health and well-being, and ecology – in addition to carefully populating the once-bare river banks, Schoonschip’s jetties are bustling with green, while a third of each rooftop is dedicated to a roof garden.

A network of jetties connects the 30 floating homes in Schoonschip. (Sara Arko, Amsterdam, September 2021)

What are the other two rooftop thirds for, you may ask? Energy. Schoonschip has taken a number of measures to ensure that its energy consumption is as low and as sustainable as possible, and the community owns 502 PV panels, consisting over 150kWp of PV production, as well as over 30 solar thermal collectors, 30 inverters, solar boilers, 31 heat pumps, 30 batteries (7,5kW) that operate in a cluster as one, a central energy management system, multiple smart meters per building, and a community platform dashboard for visualizing. Schoonschip namely runs a so-called “private smart grid”, which optimises the supply and demand of sustainable energy on a local level and shares only one connection to the grid operator. In 2016, they managed to obtain an exemption from the Dutch Energy Law for experimentation purposes, which has proven to be crucial for establishing a well-functioning smart grid.

As an advanced smart-grid energy community, Schoonschip is one of the nine pilot energy communities involved in our Horizon 2020 project NRG2peers, which aims to support the uptake of a next generation of European peer-to-peer energy communities. Both Stichting Pioneer Vessel (SPV – Schoonschip’s entity for upscaling and commercial initiatives that sprout from the community project) and Spectral (smart micro-grid operator and aggregator) are members of the NRG2peers consortium, which recently met in Schoonscip’s common meeting room (below water level!) for the 3rd project Consortium meeting. In addition to discussing the project’s ongoing and upcoming tasks, the meeting allowed for a first-hand experience and exploration of not only one, but two NRG2peers pilot energy communities. Namely, the Buiksloterham district is home to yet another sustainable neighbourhood – De Ceuvel, a “city playground for innovation, experimentation and creativity” which aims to make sustainability tangible, accessible and fun. (But this is material for yet another blog post – stay tuned.)

Schoonschip is one of the nine pilot energy communities, involved in the NRG2peers project (Horizon 2020). (Sara Arko, Amsterdam, September 2021)

The Schoonschip experience shows that innovative, out-of-the-ordinary, sustainable energy projects demand more than just state-of-the-art technologies (for more detailed information on Schoonschip’s story, innovation, experience, best practices and lessons learned, visit their open source Greenprint website). The invested time and effort of the residents, and their continuous engagement are paramount to its success and development. For instance, there are 23 internal workgroups within the Schoonschip’s Owners Association, involving different number of people and ranging from energy, sanitation, water quality, to website and dispute management (but also a workgroup on meetings & party). Close cooperation with key stakeholders is likewise essential for tackling any legal, technical and other challenges that inevitably arise along the way. This is why the NRG2peers project also intertwines people-centred, ethnography-inspired research, led by IRI UL, into the wider study of (very diverse) energy communities’ experiences. Along with an insight into the policies and regulations, as well as technologies integrated, the project’s work will allow development of tools that will support the uptake and multiplication of attractive, financially, legally and technically viable, user-centred energy communities. Furthermore, the two communities located in the Buiksloterham district demonstrate that innovative sustainable projects can contribute to transforming degraded areas, and that courage and innovation go hand-in-hand.

© Copyrights for the featured photo: Greenprint – Schoonschip