New typology for Dutch refugee centers

Since 2014 we have been working with Centraal Orgaan opvang Asielzoekers, COA, on different assignments for refugee housing. We find it a very rewarding job to work on projects to enhance the living circumstances of people in hardship. The general brief for refugee housing is relatively new. In The Netherlands (permanent) refugee centers only exist for 30 years now. In this period the base type for housing evolved somewhat, but we found there was still a lot to be gained on the level of the typology.


left: typical plan layout with bedrooms adjacent to living room; middle: families retreat with their furniture to their bedrooms (©photo Sjaak Verboom); right: the living room left abandoned, a waste of precious space.

When we started our project for the redevelopment of the refugee center in Emmen, we spent one day from 8:00 until 20:00 at the center. We walked the rounds with the people of COA, followed the case managers, talked to the refugees about the apartments and to the children’s board about the playgrounds and places to hang out. It gave us a better understanding how live goes on in a refugee center.
AZC Emmen is a so-called family-center. This means that although the refugees have been given notice that they are not accepted in The Netherlands, they will only be exiled when their children reach the age of eighteen. It is a grim prospect and for some it means that the stay at the center could last for years.
In the regular apartment of 80 m2, COA houses two families. Four double bedrooms are organized around a shared living room with kitchen, a bathroom and a toilet. Since the two families are placed together in one house, many conflicts arise due to a lack of privacy. The result often is that the families retreat to their bedrooms, putting all beds in one and use the other as a living room. The shared living room is left abandoned as a neutral zone.


Brief for a two-family apartment. When 1 m2 is added to each double bedroom, the space could function as a living room

We started to look for a possibility to create more flexibility in the housing type to enhance the privacy for the inhabitants. When we took a closer look to the brief we recognized that there was a small difference between the area required for a living room (11 m2) and a double bedroom (10m2) if we would just add 1 m2 to the bedroom, it could also be programmed as a living room. That opened up a lot more flexibility in use.

We designed a new type of apartment for two families. They still share the bathroom, toilet and kitchen, but we introduced a second “hall”. It is a space that can be closed off from the shared spaces and that provides access to the private rooms, of which one could be considered as a living room. The type is also still perfectly operational for the traditional program for eight individuals.


type for two family apartments in two levels

SPUTNIK COA locations

This approach was acknowledged by COA and we were asked to provide our vision on various assignments and architects selections. We envisioned the redevelopment of office buildings (Maastricht, Apeldoorn) military quarters (Katwijk) and even a church (Apeldoorn) and produced typologies for new center projects in Emmen, Almere and Burgum.


final design for AZC Emmen

SPUTNIK COA Almere type2

In AZC Almere the housing density would be a bit higher than in the city, but still comparable. However the amount of inhabitants per ha will be extremely high, since the average occupation per house is almost four times more. For us this meant that the public space around the buildings and the personal space would be under pressure. We therefore proposed an urban plan with as much distance between street and facade as possible. The housing types varied from gallery types to the “Dutch” bebo; a stacked type with all front doors on street level.

The planning concept for AZC Burgum was given by COA. The center is located next to a housing neighborhood. We were asked to prepare the housing units for a second life after the function as a refugee center. Therefore the strategy should make it easy to change the houses in the future to regular single family houses and sell them to private owners.


future transformation from 8-person AZC house to single family house