De Ceuvel: A cleantech playground

Closing loops at Amsterdam's circular living lab

De Ceuvel, a sustainable office park built on the site of a former shipyard in Amsterdam North, has become an internationally acclaimed circular economy case study. Home to 17 workspaces and a popular community cafe, the site was conceptualized as a ‘cleantech playground’ with numerous living examples of decentralized technologies and recycling of local resources. 

  • Client: Stichting DOEN, Waternet, City of Amsterdam, InnovatieNetwerk
  • Partners: space&matter, DELVA Landscape Architects, Jeroen Apers, Wouter Valkenier, smeele architectuur, Woodies at Berlin 
  • Date: Opened June 2014
The challenge

Turning a polluted city plot into a thriving, circular living lab

In an effort to transform the post-industrial neighbourhood of Buiksloterham into a mixed-use residential and commercial area, the City of Amsterdam awarded four plots of land to pioneering initiatives focusing on sustainability and circular urban development. In 2012, Metabolic and a group of organizations won a tender to turn the De Ceuvel site – formerly a derelict and polluted shipyard – into a ‘regenerative urban oasis’, with the aim of stimulating new ways of thinking about how we manage resources in our communities.

Together with our partners, the Metabolic team set out to find practical and creative solutions to build a circular urban hub with the following considerations in mind:

  • The specific needs and interests of the local Buiksloterham community
  • Heavily polluted land due to years of industrial activity
  • Minimal budget for construction and operations
  • City regulations regarding brownfield remediation, waste disposal, and water and electricity management
The challenge
Our approach

Designing the cleantech playground

Metabolic was asked to provide the sustainability masterplan for the De Ceuvel site, working with a large group of partners, entrepreneurs, and volunteers to transform the area. By upcycling 17 old houseboats into buildings, using specialized plants to clean the soil, and installing low-cost clean technologies to make the development’s resource management as circular as possible, we helped the City transition a dilapidated and polluted zone into what is now a sustainable community hub, workspace, and place for sustainability and circular economy education.

The site was designed to house the offices of around 30 companies, including Metabolic Lab – a learning hub for workshops and masterclasses – an on-site cafe, and an aquaponics greenhouse which provides microgreens for cafe meals served. Solar panels on the roofs of each boat generate electricity that is shared between the boats via a microgrid, and grey water from each boat is filtered through natural substrates so it can serve as water for the plants. Sanitation in each houseboat was designed to facilitate the collection of organic waste that can be fed into a biodigester and struvite reactor, from which valuable nutrients can be extracted for the greenhouse. 

The culture of the space is one where the creative and social enterprises that rent the houseboats-turned-offices have bought into the collective ideals and vision for a more sustainable and circular community. This is complemented by the energy and enthusiasm that comes from the people of the surrounding neighbourhood, who are encouraged to use De Ceuvel as a cultural and community hub to come together, enjoy shared experiences, and get involved in creative projects.

Our approach
The outcome

A showcase for circular experimentation

De Ceuvel is a blueprint for circular experimentation, showcasing urban, closed-loop thinking in action. Since its conception in 2012, the project has generated significant national and international interest and income to the area. Pre-Coronavirus, the site was receiving over 35,000 visitors each year, striving to attract everyone, from young students to utilities and locals from an older generation. It has welcomed students, policymakers, and businesses from Taipei to LA to Cape Town. 

It has also become an important showcase and research center in Amsterdam for applied sustainability and scalable solutions, winning many awards for sustainability innovation. Its experimental nature cultivates diversity, shares expertise, and contributes to open-source knowledge. It brings alternative methods of urban resource provision to life by setting a positive example and inspiring thousands of visitors every year. 

De Ceuvel is where visible circular development started for Amsterdam. Its successful birth in 2014, in tandem with the conceptualizing of neighbouring sustainable floating village, Schoonschip, prompted the signing of the multi-partner manifest for a fully Circular Buiksloterham. The city’s focus on circular urban development has continued to strengthen, with its current focus on numerous initiatives, one of which is the consideration of circular tendering procedures for the development of city plots, which has the potential to transform the entire city’s development patterns.

The outcome

“De Ceuvel isn’t just the hippest office park in town. It’s considered a model of eco-design.”

- Wall Street Journal

“The project is an example of Amsterdam’s commitment to urban experimentation.”

- New York Times

Founder and CEO


For more information about this project, please get in touch.

A Cleantech Playground

An extract from the report is included below. For the full report, in PDF, please follow the link below.

The Cleantech Playground (CTP) is a planned cleantech utility and demonstration ground that will be integrated throughout two adjacent sites in North Amsterdam: a land-based office and commercial park, de Ceuvel, and a water-based residential community, Schoonschip. It will combine urban agriculture, small-scale renewable energy technologies, biological water purification systems, urban food production, and several other components of a healthy urban metabolism to:
  • produce food
  • purify water
  • generate energy
  • treat organic waste
  • support cleantech R&D, and
  • provide education and inspiration for those wishing
  • to adopt decentralized and renewable technologies
This report presents Metabolic Lab’s recommendations for how to achieve these goals in a financially, socially, and technologically feasible manner. By following the recommended phasing plan and achieving the targets outlined here, de Ceuvel and Schoonschip can become among the most socially and ecologically sustainable developments in the world.
Our recommendations also include ways to make the system measurable and transparent; a network of sensors installed throughout both sites will monitor the system’s performance, display this information for the community, and provide insights for continued development. In particular, the de Ceuvel site will have many areas open for public visits where these technologies will be on display for all to see and understand.
Construction on the de Ceuvel site will begin in spring of 2013. The Schoonschip community does not yet have its site secured, but hopes to win a tender procedure held by the municipality of Amsterdam for a property directly adjacent to de Ceuvel.

Project Background

Schoonschip and de Ceuvel are two separate community development projects that were initiated by different, but overlapping groups of citizens. Sustainability has been a key objective of both projects since their inception, with both groups requiring all members to sign a manifesto committing them to sustainable living and practices.
Schoonschip was the initiative of Marjan de Blok who was inspired by the Gewoonboot, a largely autarkic houseboat docked in Amsterdam North, to imagine the possibility of a sustainable floating community in her home city. She soon found a group of citizens inspired by the same vision, and formed a foundation to oversee the process. This now close-knit community has been working towards securing a site for the execution of the plan since 2009, with many of the community’s members taking leading roles in pushing the project forward (among them, board members Sjoerd Dijkstra, Thomas Sykora, and Marnix van der Pool).
The de Ceuvel project was initiated by space&matter and Smeelearchitectuur, and the concept for the site was developed by space&matter. De Ceuvel is a 10-year temporary development that will feature beatifully retrofitted houseboats placed on the land and surrounded by a “forbidden garden” of soil-cleaning plants. The architectural plan for both sites has been developed by space&matter and the phytoremediation plan for the de Ceuvel site is being developed by Delva Landscape Architects in collaboration with the University of Ghent in Belgium. The overall feasibility study for both projects was conducted by space&matter (design) and Duurzaam Drijvend Wonen (finances).
In September 2012, Metabolic Lab received financial support from InnovatieNetwerk, a program of the Dutch ministry of economic affairs, to help translate the projects’ high sustainability ambitions into a concrete, implementable technical design with a workable business case. The design process involved close collaboration with the existing development team as well as regular feedback from both the Schoonschip and de Ceuvel communities and other relevant stakeholders. Metabolic Lab worked closely with these groups to develop a technological plan that was consistent with the broader vision behind both developments.

Project Outcomes

This document summarizes the work done by the Metabolic Lab team since phase two of both projects began in September 2012. Though this was officially a conceptual design and feasibility study for the technological aspects of the plan, our goal from the start was to ensure that the design we developed would lead to a socially, technologically, and financially realistic plan within the contexts’ of both Schoonschip and de Ceuvel.
From early on in the process, we knew that a single, inflexible design would not constitute a realistic solution for these sites. Both communities are diverse in terms of their financial means and desired levels of hands- on involvement. Moreover, due to the nature of both projects, there remain many unknown variables in how the development process will unfold. One of the clearest examples of this uncertainty is the fact that the de Ceuvel site will be populated with upcycled houseboats, most of which still need to be acquired. Properly retrofitting these houseboats will require a plan that is specifically adapted to the quality and typology of each boat. Meanwhile, the Schoonschip community has diverse income levels and housing preferences, which cannot be optimally served with a single design. To handle these unknown variables, we have developed an overall technological framework and toolkit that includes the following elements:
  • Performance targets: A set of performance targets for each major aspect of site construction (on the level of individual buildings as well as the level of each neighborhood as a whole).
  • Fixed and flexible elements: a mix of fixed technological recommendations and flexible elements that can be selected by users depending on their specific preferences and financial means (similar to buying a computer or car and being able to choose preferred options and add-ons).
  • A technology selection tool consisting of a set of decision trees that will guide users through the suitable technological options we have identified for the site.
  • A financial modeling tool that will allow users to see the cost and earnings profile of any selected technological mix, including upfront investment, overall costs, and payback times.
  • A phasing and deployment plan recommending when investments should be made in order to keep the project financially feasible while still reaching the highest sustainability targets.
  • Recommendations for creating specific management structures within both communities to handle do-it-yourself (DIY) constructions and shared oversight responsibilities, such as system maintenance, which will continue throughout the lifetime of both developments.
Taken together, these elements result in a flexible toolkit of technologies than can be selected by individual home or office owners based on their specific requirments, financial situations, and market prices for technologies at the time of construction.

Test Scenarios

To make our recommendations concrete, this document presents a worked out test case for each site to demonstrate that the toolkit yields options that are feasible even for the lowest possible range of financial flexibility.
We summarize the general plan, the anticipated system performance, and estimated costs for each site. For both Schoonschip and de Ceuvel, we have described the final vision of how the communities will function and relate to the suggested technologies. We have also included a more detailed deployment plan for how new technologies can be adopted over time by the users of both areas.
At the end of all three deployment phases, both sites should be fully self-sufficient in renewable energy, water management, organic waste processing, and a large part of food production.

Blueprint for Sustainable Cities

Besides aiming to exceed the targets currently set by state-of-the-art ecovillages, the drive behind the CTP is to fundamentally shift the pattern of urbanization by providing a reusable blueprint for development. A large part of this is the goal of making these systems transparent and educational for visitors who wish to see the functioning of the system.
Cities are currently consumers. They are drainage points for resources; river deltas of food, fuels, metals, minerals, and other valuable materials. Despite their enormous social, cultural, and economic value, the primary physical output of cities is waste. A majority of the materials that enter are destined to become pollutants of some kind.
As urbanization continues at a fast clip, we believe it is essential to alter this pattern of lineral material flows by making cities producers in their own right. This shift requires the adoption of new technologies, new infrastructural patterns, and changes in the mindsets of individuals and communities.

Urban Ecosystem

The Cleantech Playground can be seen as an urban ecosystem embedded into the fabric of the city. All ecosystems are made up of a complex web of actors: plants that harvest sunlight as fuel, herbivores that consume the plants, carnivores and omnivores that consume each other, and detritivores that break down wastes, bringing nutrients back into a state that can be used as food by other living creatures in the system.
Natural systems are not perfect, but they are much more efficient than most current urban and industrial human systems. Ecosystems are made up of diverse, complementary players, consuming and producing materials and energy in short cycles. They are also quite resilient to abrupt changes, like storms and modifications to the environment, because they have many different species fulfilling the same role and compensating for the decline of any individual actor or species due to disease or environmental stress.
Our goal with the Cleantech Playground was to create a system that works similarly to an ecosystem: harvesting ambient energy and water for use on site, cycling nutrients locally, and creating an environment that is supportive of natural biodiversity. Our goal is to create a new blueprint for biobased cities, rooted in the strength of human community.

Community Focus

Though much of the focus of this report is on technology, the essential core of this new developmental blueprint is the power of community. Without trusting communities of individuals who hold shared values and are willing to work together to build a greater whole, the kind of urban development we describe is not possible. People make up the most important part of this cleantech ecosystem. They become essentially linked to one another in caring for their local resources, trading energy, producing shared crops of food. This is not a retrograde approach hearkening us back to pre-modern lifestyles. Rather, it is a big step forward, where technology is used to assist in making connections between people, facilitating the transfer of knowledge, easing the burden of work, and increasing the comfort and joy of living. At both sites we have designed for the preservation of modern comforts to as great an extent possible.
Fundamentally, however the willingness of individuals to cooperate with one another, work together, share, and trust one another is the cornerstone of the success of these endeavors.

Project Targets

We believe that the Cleantech Playground will be a success if it exceeds the standards of existing eco-communities in at least the following ways:
  • Achieving the highest goals for renewable resource management
    (further defined in the “goals” section on pages 24 and 25).
  • Exemplifying integrated design principles. We recognize that sustainability goes far beyond just physical resource management. The CTP should support a healthy, enjoyable, and beautiful living environment. The technologies included should work with realistic behavioral constraints and contribute to a socially cohesive environment.
  • Providing room to experiment and to evolve over time. Neighborhoods should not be created in a static vision of what is possible right now: they should be designed to improve and grow over time. It should be possible to upgrade to newer and better functioning technologies as they become available on the market. The site should also be a testing ground for small-scale technology pilots that can become more broadly adopted if they are successful.
  • Inspiring and educating. The implemented technologies should be made visible and their functionalities explained. The site should be at least partly accessible to parties wishing to learn about this kind of development approach. Data on the system’s performance should be collected via an integrated IT system and used both in user feedback mechanisms as well as recommendations for policy development.
  • Replicability. Though pioneering projects can sometimes require an extra boost to get off the ground, we want the fundamental approaches used in the CTP to be financially viable within the short-to mid-term, and to be user-friendly enough that they represent a realistic alternative to the status quo. All of the designs and calculations for our work are therefore published under a non-commercial Creative Commons License and distributed broadly to encourage widespread adoption.

Project Execution

Perhaps the most important measure of success, however, will be to see the Cleantech Playground actually built. As part of our commitment to its realization, Metabolic Lab has joined the de Ceuvel community as a stakeholder; we plan to retrofit a houseboat on the site to serve as our own office. This houseboat can also potentially become a focal point for educational activities, public site visits, and the integration of new technology pilots on the de Ceuvel site.
We believe this project offers an opportunity to implement a working system of environmental technologies and community practices that can inspire the rest of the world to imagine what is possible.
The Cleantech Playground spans two linked, but quite different development sites in Amsterdam: land-based office park de Ceuvel, and floating residential community, Schoonschip.
Here we provide a quick snapshot of the two projects and the performance of both sites if the test scenarios detailed in this report are fully applied. Both the de Ceuvel and the Schoonschip communities have very high ambitions for sustainability, with the Schoonschip group expressing an even more pronounced desire for a sustainable and self-sufficient lifestyle.
The test case we have worked out for both sites, summarized on the next two pages, will achieve extremely high sustainability performance on both sites with a comparatively minimal investment. One of the key challenges to overcome was the limited budget of the whole de Ceuvel project and the financial variation among the members of the Schoonschip community. To cut the costs of our proposed technological system, we have used two approaches: a focus on “do-it-yourself” (DIY) and low-tech solutions, and a phased development plan which spreads investment over time.

“DIY” Focus

The DIY approach requires more labor from individual house owners and higher personal risk, but can achieve the desired ambitions for self-sufficiency at around a third of the price that would otherwise be possible.
We have recommended only proven technologies for essential functions on both sites, though some have been recombined in unique ways (for example, the custom-designed waste processing system we have recommended on both sites; see pages 51 – 53).

Phased Development Plan

To reduce the total amount of up-front investment, we have recommended three phases of technological deployment for both de Ceuvel and Schoonschip. For both developments, the first phase focuses on essential infrastructure, the second phase on power generation and food production, and the third phase on the continued addition of technologies over time to keep the system up to date and evolving as technologies become less expensive and improve.

De Ceuvel

De Ceuvel is a planned workplace for creative and social enterprises adjacent to a canal off the river IJ in northern Amsterdam. The land was secured for a 10-year lease in 2012. The formerly industrial plot has heavily polluted soils that will be treated with a phytoremediation garden (“The Forbidden Garden”) designed by Delva Landscape Architects in collaboration with the University of Ghent. Scattered throughout the plot will be reclaimed and retroffitted houseboats that will house offices, ateliers, and workshops. The de Ceuvel site will also have some public functions including a teahouse and bed and breakfast.

Strategy and Activities

The de Ceuvel development strategy we recommend takes place over three phases.
In the first phase of the de Ceuvel deployment plan, the boats will be retrofitted off-site to a very high level of eco-efficiency. The focus is primarily on basic repairs, insulation, and the installation of a solar heating system. The main goal of this phase is to achieve sufficient insulation and renewable heating capacity to eliminate the need for a gas connection. Secondary goals include installing a rainwater collection system, dry toilets for sanitation, and integrating ecological elements such as green roofs into the boat structures. We will work together with architects space&matter to ensure that the boats are retrofitted to a high level of architectural quality. The materials budget for phase one is capped at a strict limit of 5.000 € per boat. To keep to this budget, a lot of creativity will be required to scavenge free and cheap materials and adapt the plan during the retrofit process.
In phase two, the boats will be placed on the site, the phytoremediation garden will be planted, and the communal infrastructure will be built. A central feature of the technology plan in this phase is the construction of the D-SARR system, a waste treatment and resource recovery unit that will serve the entire de Ceuvel site, producing biogas and harvesting nutrients for on-site use. Additionally, urban food production and floating gardens will be deployed during this stage. Electric power generation capacity will also be installed in this phase if sufficient funding is acquired. If not, this step will be pushed to phase three. A site-wide IT system will show live feeds of all resources used and produced on site to give users feedback about their behavior and showcase the performance of these technologies for visitors to the area. This IT platform will also serve as a collection point for information on monitoring biodiversity, and sharing resources (such as cars or tools) among site users. The total estimated costs of phase two development are 10.000 € per boat.
By 2014, once the two first development phases of the de Ceuvel site have been completed, the houseboats on the de Ceuvel site should be fully self-sufficient in renewable heat and electricity supply, water collection and upgrading, and 50 – 70% lower electricity demand than a conventional office building. The buildings themselves will not only be highly eco-efficient, but also designed in a variety of architectural styles with creative exterior finishing.
In phase three of the development, which spans the remaining period of the ten year lease, the technological plan should remain flexible and continue to evolve. The site can serve as a pilot space for decentralized, renewable technologies. If the association managing the site is able to generate profits from festivals, educational activities, and other planned sources of income, these can partially be re-invested in the continued development of the plan.

Final System Performance

The de Ceuvel development plan has the following key features:
  • “Featherlight” footprint: infrastructure on site will be minimized, with the objective of all boats only having a connection to the electric grid, but no other utility demands. As largely autarkic elements, the boats will be able to leave the site after ten years without leaving much of a trace.
  • Regenerative development: the phytoremediation plan and biodiverisity measures will result in a cleaner and more biodiverse area than at the start of the project.
  • Fast return on investment: using a DIY approach and recycled materials, return on investment is possible in under five years for all recommended interventions.
  • Closed material cycles: reuse of nutrients and energy on site.
  • Evolving technology landscape: continual improvement of system performance by adopting new technologies as they become avaiable and affordable.

Final Targets Achieved (highlights)

  • 100% renewable heat and hot water supply
  • 100% renewable electricity
  • 100% wastewater and organic waste treatment
  • 100% water self-sufficiency
  • 60 – 80% nutrient recovery
  • 50 – 70% reduction in electricity demand over conventional offices
  • 10 – 30% vegetable & fruit production using locally recovered nutrients sensor network and real-time system performance displays