Villa Berkel is a residence designed by Architectenbureau Paul de Ruiter in Veenendaal, Netherlands. The site is surrounded by a dense wooded area that allows for plenty of privacy, but not enough light to make full use of its secluded nature. We will analyze the project and attempt to explain the design strategies and how to apply these basic ideas in Kuwait. First, a few paragraphs from the architect to explain the project:
“The woods around Villa Berkel, in Veenendaal, are dark, which means it is important to ensure that as much light can enter the house as possible. However, the more glass is used in a building, the more difficult it is to maintain the dividing line between inside and outside, private and public.”
“Therefore the building plot is divided into three long strips at right angles to the road. The bottom and southernmost strip is reserved for the garden, the middle strip contains the villa itself and the most northern strip offers access to the house: this is where the drive, parking space and the entrance are located. This layout of the site means that those parts of the house that the residents prefer to keep private are out of sight.
The layout of the site is repeated in the floor plan of the house. This is also divided into three strips over the 30-metre length of the villa. To ensure both openness and liveability, the floor plan is split. The western section, at the street side, contains the more ‘public’ functions: the entrance, study, kitchen and living; while the eastern section, furthest removed from the street, is reserved for the more intimate activities: a corridor that acts as TV lounge, the bedrooms and the bathroom. This means that the character of the functions gradually becomes more intimate. Each function has its own zone within the house, which can be cut off by means of translucent sliding walls.”
“To create openness and lightness and to give the residents the feeling living outside in the green, the house is entirely oriented to the secluded garden at the south. Every room in the villa looks directly out on to this garden, because three of the four façades are made of glass.
The spacious wooden terrace forms a room outdoors, partly covered by a wooden awning supported by steel brackets that taper upwards. This gives it the appearance of floating above the ground. Ponds have been laid on both sides of the villa, so that the house here, too, appears to be raised above ground level, emphasising the lightness of the building.“
Looking at the plan, we can see that the architect has decided to organize the project in a very linear way, with privacy increasing as you move east (north is up). The concept of the house is that the solid linearity will act as a sort of wall that would split the site into three strips, entry, home and garden. The north face of the villa facing the entry will be very solid and heavily insulated, and the others will be floor to ceiling glass to allow for maximum light to flood in.
The Netherlands are in a different situation to Kuwait in that they insulate from the cold and attempt to maximize solar heat gain. The sun rises from the east, moves south and then sets in the west. The southern facade of buildings are the ones that are exposed to the hottest sun at midday. This would be a problem in Kuwait, but is desired in colder climates such as this project. During the cold winter the sun is lower on the horizon and can penetrate deeper. Should this house have been built in Kuwait, you would expect the architect to flip the plan so the insulated wall would face south.
The solid north wall now acts as a datum (an anchoring line). All solid elements are fixed to this datum, such as the bedrooms and cabinetry. The wall is seen as a thick element as you will not see it as simply a wall, but as a solid object. The kitchen space is implied as being a part of this solid object as your eye would naturally extrapolate the lines that are already there.
This frees up the rest of the building to become open space. As you move eastwards through the house you will enter more private, intimate spaces. On the far west is a public study, moving east you enter the formal living room, the informal TV lounge, and finally the master bedroom. This conceptual simplicity is easily understood by anyone visiting the house.
A major problem that is unfortunately very prevalent in Kuwait is the lack of a transitional entry. There is an extreme difference between indoor and outdoor environments. Temperature, humidity, light and sound are all environmental factors that the human body can adapt to, but it needs time and space to do that. Our pupils constrict to stop excess light from damaging our eyes. Blood vessels dilate to force heat to escape. Body functions are reflexive and natural, but they do not happen instantly. They need a few seconds to adapt to a new environment. That is why we have transition spaces. The harm to our body by suddenly entering a completely different environment is called body shock.
The problem in Kuwait is that an entry is generally thought of simply as a door. It is not a door, it is a space. It’s very important physiologically that a person walk through a well ventilated, shaded area before entering a sealed air-conditioned space. This transition is an experience that also allows a person to mentally prepare for the changed environment, from the hectic to the tranquil. A lot of homes and buildings in Kuwait lack this transition space, and simply have a door that separates the harsh outdoor environment from the cold air-conditioned space inside. This is completely wrong.
In the example of Villa Berkel, the transition is fairly smooth. A person walks up a ramp and arrives at a shaded entry. A large pivot door awaits which leads to a roomy entrance space. This is not so big as to force you to add furniture, but allows enough room to welcome guests and to walk around in. There is a closet near the door, and also a very small toilet. This entry space leads both to the formal public study and to the informal semi-public kitchen.
Obviously, this home typology would not be applicable in the denser suburban plots of Kuwait. What we can derive from it is the ability to compose and design a home based on simple organizational strategies. Every element in the design has been created by analyzing the specific privacy needs of every space. The tectonic rhythm amplifies this by creating simple space compartments that increase privacy sequentially.
Once this grand order is set, the fun process of adding the many details becomes simple. Details such as the outdoor bathtub and the exposed master bathroom accentuate the concept of privacy because of their location on the plan. You would feel comfortable in them because you would subconsciously feel as if you were on the private side of the home.
This villa is one level and is 277m2. This would be considered criminally small in Kuwait, yet because of its coherent architectural language, it feels so much bigger. Many homes in Kuwait densely pack each level with so much wall and have terrible natural lighting that they feel much smaller than they really are. This is usually the problem when a bad architect (or engineer) thinks of his job simply as having to solve a puzzle in plan by trying to fit the requested number of rooms and spaces within the building code requirements. This is also when the client thinks that designing a home is simply organizing the rooms so it all fits (the tawzee’a). This is wrong and it pains me to see that so much built work in our country has been designed in this way.
Usually, the ground level is dedicated to guest reception and the family would all live on the upper levels, making the home feel even smaller. We think we’re living in spacious houses by building big, but most homes end up with cluttered and segregated spaces that feel small, suffocated and isolated. Bigger is not always better.
Location: Veenendaal, Netherlands
Project Architect: Paul de Ruiter
Project Team: Sander van Veen, Helga Traksel
Construction Adviser: Van Kessel & Janssen bv
Contractor: Bouwbedrijf Valleibouw
Site Area: 1,232 sqm
Constructed Area: 277 sqm
Project Year: 2003-2004
Construction year: 2004-2005
Photographs: Pieter Kers