24 August 2023 Case

Totaal Lokaal: what does the self-sufficient city of the future look like?

Title Lab: Totaal Lokaal (Totally Local)
Design Question: What if… our cities were fully self-sufficient?
Commisioner: Sweco 
Design Studio’s: Bram de Vos, Studio Floris Schoonderbeek & Studio Tjeerd Veenhoven
Period: May 2022 – October 2022

Too wet or too dry, too hot or too cold, a scarcity of raw materials and too stressful. Does how we arrange our living environment still meet today’s challenges? That’s what Sweco, Europe’s largest architecture and engineering firm, asked themselves. When it participated in What if Lab: Totaal Lokaal in 2022, the firm returned to basics: in search of the self-sufficient city. Three designers each developed an application for a different sub-theme: energy, water and food. What concepts did they create, how did that process unfold and where are they now?

Totaal Lokaal (Totally Local)

“At Sweco, we work with our customers on, among other things, the challenges that urbanisation entails,” says Sanne Dondorff, external communications consultant at Sweco and project leader Totaal Lokaal. “We do this from the engineer’s perspective. In a What if Lab, we work together with designers who think outside the box. This is how solutions arise that are both realistic and innovative.” For What if Lab: Totaal Lokaal, three designers delved into self-sufficiency applications: Bram de Vos explored how an estate can generate and store energy locally, Tjeerd Veenhoven developed a product for rainwater storage and Floris Schoonderbeek devised a new way of farming.

Bram de Vos

Multifunctional energy park

“If you look at how solar panels, wind turbines or storage systems are made now, you will find it is far from being totally local,” Bram de Vos explains. “The raw materials often come from China or South America. I wondered: could there be alternatives closer to home?” In a model he recreated Landgoed De Wielewaal near Eindhoven into a self-sufficient green park: “Using a wooden wind turbine, upcyclable solar panels and local energy storage, I sketched a proposal for a multifunctional park that can be developed locally. For example, there is room for a forest that supplies wood for the turbine.”

Collection of excess water

Tjeerd Veenhoven focused on water: ” As a result of climate change, we are seeing less and less constant rainfall and more extreme drought followed by downpours. This causes flooding, especially in cities, because the sewer system cannot handle such a cloudburst.” This gave Veenhoven the idea for vertical water storage in the form of a ceramic facade panel. Another advantage of this concept is cooling: “Evaporation of the retained water cools the facade of the building. In cities, it is soon 10 degrees warmer than in the countryside. This way of building relieves heat stress.”

Circle Farming – Floris Schoonderbeek

Circle farming

How can we provide for our own food needs? Floris Schoonderbeek’s answer to that question is his Circle Farm concept: “No longer the rectangular patchwork blankets with monoculture, but strips of various crops in a circular shape.” This organic layout of agricultural land cleverly uses the scarce space: the circles free up land on the edges for housing or forestry. Schoonderbeek: “The cultivation of these round fields is done with an arm that moves people or tools. By using robotics, farmers can work 24/7 and the different crops yield more harvest than monoculture.”

3 themes, 3 designers

What is unique about this What if Lab is that not one, but three designers participated. Dondorff: “The subject of ‘self-sufficiency’ is so broad that we divided it into three sub-themes. Each designer developed their own concept.” Initially, Sweco wanted to award a cash prize for the best design. Veenhoven: ” All three of us felt that this clashed with the idea of working together on one social theme. Together we decided to convert the prize into a development budget.”

Freedom vs. restraint

During the process, Sweco and the designers met every two weeks. Both sides had to figure out what the relationship between freedom and restraint should be. De Vos: “For me, it was a matter of finding the right balance: on the one hand, including the client in your design process, but at the same time also being free to experiment.” Dondorff adds: “The outcome of a What if Lab is not predetermined. As a client, it is then a bit nerve-racking to hand over control. But if you accept that uncertainty, the most amazing things can happen.”

Dutch Design Week 

In October 2022, Sweco and the designers presented the three projects during Dutch Design Week (DDW). The preparation time of five months was fairly short. Veenhoven: “DDW is a hard deadline: a presentation moment in a very public place. So you have to make sure that your prototype is ready on time”. In the end, that worked out and all parties look back positively on DDW. De Vos: “Dozens of tours visited our site every day. I spoke to many relevant people and expanded my network enormously.” Schoonderbeek: “The conversations with visitors strengthened my plan to continue with Circle Farms.”

Development budget

After the presentation of the three concepts, the close cooperation between all participants was over. Sweco made a development budget available so that the designers could continue with their plan after Dutch Design Week without the firm. As an engineering firm, Sweco fulfils the role of adviser and matchmaker. Veenhoven: “At Sweco there were ambassadors for my concept. But in my case, if I wanted to continue with your project after delivery, it was up to me to tackle this independently. It is important as a designer to be aware of that.”

Grip on process

“Make sure you keep a grip on the process yourself,” Schoonderbeek therefore advises other designers. “If you know that you can also take on every step of the process independently, you reduce the chance that your idea will strand after the end of the lab.” He set up a foundation for the further development of his Circle Farm: “I am now making a commercial version of the robot arm on a small scale for use in urban allotments. I am also talking to Wageningen University and Breda University. I am talking to Breda University about setting up a minor in Robotics. In this, minor students investigate which technology can work best in the robot arm.”

Totaal Lokaal elsewhere

For De Vos’ energy park, a concrete implementation is not possible in the short term. But he has not yet finished with the project: “The energy transition theme fits perfectly within the practice of my studio. Participation in this What if Lab was therefore a nice case study. I expect the concept to land in one of my other projects in the future.” Veenhoven’s rainwater storage system has been proposed by Sweco to a customer who is now investigating the possibilities for implementation. In addition, he is working on the technical optimisation of the product himself: “I am talking to a designer in China. They make facade panels from recycled ceramic waste. That is of course not just around the corner, but contributing to the solution of a local problem elsewhere in the world is also Totaal Lokaal for me.”

Industry vs. design world

This year Sweco is participating in What if Lab for the third time. In doing so the firm brings industry and designers closer together. Project leader Anne-Marije Potter: “This year we opted for a new form. This involves studios in the triangle: designer – agency – customer. A current customer case is central to this as this increases the chance of a concrete application of the concepts after DDW.” De Vos: “These two worlds are naturally far removed from each other, even though they want to answer the same questions. Reducing that distance is a great added value.”

Accept the challenge

All participants recommend other companies and designers to join a What if Lab as well. “Accept the challenge” says Potter, “there are some ups and downs, but don’t be afraid to try. The challenges in our world call for this kind of collaboration. As a firm, we learn to think in a different way and wonderful ideas emerge from that.” Schoonderbeek: “The format of What if Lab is great. Disciplines that normally do not come into contact with each other easily are brought together here. As a designer it is great to work with a large party on such relevant themes. Everyone benefits from that.”

Totaal Lokaal Expo @DDW22 (photo: Max Kneefel)
Totaal Lokaal Expo @DDW22 (photo: Max Kneefel)
Totaal Lokaal Expo @DDW22 (photo: Max Kneefel)