Marc Koehler

Architect, Amsterdam

Marc Koehler

Architect, Amsterdam

Marc Koehler

Architect, Amsterdam

According to Marc Koehler the future of city living is where flexibility, community building, and sustainability all take center stage. His Superlofts are circular buildings that marry the spacial efficiencies of an apartment building with the creative freedom of building your own home. Each Superloft is deeply modular and can accommodate almost any wish—be it a blank white space, a cosy nest of nooks and crannies, or a mezzanine-like second floor. It also strengthens bonds between neighbors through communal areas that residents get to co-design. Koehler’s vision to create a network of ‘urban villages’ has made waves ever since the Amsterdam-based architect and his team completed the first complex, Superlofts Houthaven, in 2016. Widely recognized as a creative answer to the urban sprawl and ever-tightening cityscapes (Superlofts Blok Y in Utrecht just won the prestigious 2018 BNA Building of the Year Award), the now international housing concept demonstrates a new way of city living that Koehler, a Superlofts Houthaven resident himself, believes could help pave the way to a more resilient future.

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Marc, how did you come up with the idea for Superlofts?

The idea for Superlofts came a few years ago when these lots in the Houthavens were for sale. The economy was down in the dumps, banks were hesitant to lend money to developers, there was barely any new construction, except for private homes and self-build lots. That led us to the idea of stacking these self-build lots on top of each other, in a building, like a huge Billy bookcase where everyone gets to design their own home. That set-up allowed us to access the financial possibilities needed to construct a new building, even in an economic crisis. That building became the first Superlofts.

How does the concept work?

Everyone involved is a co-developer. There’s the real estate developer, the architect, and the homeowner, and together they create a new building. Each homeowner can design their home in their own way, and the communal spaces are designed together. You can choose between lofts of different shapes and sizes, work with a raw space, choose to customize one of the existing floor plans, or pick a finished loft design. The Superlofts are flexible, modular buildings with a variety of homes that cater to anyone from young professionals to families. The collaborative design process and communal spaces create a new way of city living—one with more social cohesion and more connection between residents, where people share anything from bikes to work spaces. And because the buildings are so flexible, they can easily adjust to future technologies and our ever-changing cities. Right now, there are five Superlofts completed or under construction in the Netherlands, and 16 more planned in cities like Johannesburg, Berlin, and Melbourne.

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You called it a “new way of city living”. Is that something you feel responsible for as an architect, to initiate change in society?

One of the most important reasons I became an architect is because I wanted to have a real impact on the world. I’m convinced that I can influence and improve cities and society with the buildings we create, and that architecture can and should change the world for the better. Right now, sustainability is one of the biggest challenges we’re facing as architects, and I want to use Superlofts as a vehicle of innovation, a kind of laboratory where we can test all these sustainable building solutions and inspire others. With every new building, we try to push the envelope. The knowledge we gain from building these Superlofts is our biggest asset. With all of our experience, we hope to be able to upgrade architecture to a fully sustainable, circular model on a neighborhood-wide scale.

Where do you find inspiration to develop buildings like these?

I find the metaphor of a building as a living being very interesting and relevant. In my everyday life, I focus a lot on my physical and mental health. I want to develop as an architect, but also as a human being. Every morning I head to the park with my trainer and we work out, then spend about half an hour talking about what might be causing stress that day. Finding a balance between body and soul is a huge inspiration for me, and buildings are a metaphor for that. Buildings aren’t just functional constructions, they have to have a soul, an identity. You have to give a building time to come into existence, pay attention to the details and materials, make sure it’s healthy. Health is an important theme in both my professional and personal life. I see our buildings as tools towards creating a balanced, healthy world.

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Did you apply this philosophy to the design of your own Superloft as well?

Absolutely. A standard home usually has the living quarters downstairs and bedrooms upstairs, but we switched it around. Our kitchen is upstairs, so you have to walk up and down the stairs a lot, which means lots of exercise. I designed the office as a multifunctional space that can also serve as a gym, and I have a steel bar attached to the top floor above the couch that I use for pull-ups. Our plants are part of the healthy living plan as well, as their leaves can clean the air in your home from harmful toxins and provide oxygen. And they help prevent mosquitoes! Besides that, we also work with natural, timeless materials like wood and stone. Materials that will stay beautiful forever and can be reused again and again. All of that is part of my vision to live a healthy, sustainable, and energy-efficient life.

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The upstairs kitchen occupies a prominent spot right at the heart of your home. How does this space contribute to your aim to live a healthy and balanced life?

Our kitchen island is like a temple for healthy eating, enjoying life, and having a good time with friends. We designed the kitchen as a meeting space, a way to turn cooking and healthy eating into something fun, a hobby rather than a bothersome task. This required a certain functional open-endedness that we achieved by seamlessly integrating appliances and approaching each kitchen component with more than one purpose in mind. The kitchen island, for example, functions more as a table now, a social component, which is also important for your health. It’s a place for moments to get together and talk about your day, a place to connect.

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Not every Superloft owner is an architect or interior designer, of course. Do you help them design their homes, or do they choose and create everything themselves?

They are free to choose anything from which kitchen appliances they want to how many walls they prefer, but we do like to inspire them. Right now, we’re in the process of creating a book about the 25 most beautiful Superlofts. There will be lots of visual inspiration, but also information about how they designed their space and where they found their materials. Sharing knowledge and inspiration is the next step for our Superloft community, and we hope it triggers even more communication and cohesion amongst different Superloft communities. Most people who choose to live in a Superloft are creative and like to make things themselves, and via this Superloft network they can find people and companies who can help them. For example, I could upload the design for our kitchen cupboard, and someone in a Superloft in a different city could download the design and have it made for themselves. It’s a nice, more collaborative way of designing your home.

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Technology has also revolutionized how we interact with our home, from smart appliances, to automation, to remote control. What are the tech-trends you embrace?

There’s a fine line between usefulness and invasiveness. I love things like smart locks, that allow me and whoever I grant access to unlock my apartment door via the phone. I also like the idea of smart fridges that order food based on automated consumption analysis. Wherever we can eliminate clunky physical controls in favor of more elegant phone interaction we should. And if our devices and appliances self-improve by learning from our behaviors, even better. I am however wary of turning our homes into fully quantifiable, monitored domains.

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Does your vision on health and sustainability influence the materials and technology used in the buildings as well?

Definitely. For our new buildings, we only want to use recycled steel from the harbor around the corner. We also want to use less concrete; we’re actually working with a new kind of recycled concrete right now. With every new building, we want to push the boundaries of what’s possible. Like recycling the waste water from showers and washing machines, for example. The water is purified using natural filters, and can be used again to flush the toilet or run the dishwasher. That saves about 60 percent of your water usage. The floors are cooled using water from the IJ [Amsterdam’s waterfront], and in the winter they get warmed using energy from the industrial area around the corner. In the Superlofts in Amsterdam-Noord, we reached the best energy rating ever in the Netherlands: -0,34 epc! The leftover energy can be sold to the net or to neighbors. Each new Superloft is a step towards a more sustainable future.

Architects are known to lead busy, chaotic lives. And when you come home, you basically come home to one of your projects. How do you keep a healthy balance between work and life?

My work is my life, and vice versa. As an architect, there’s no escaping from architecture, especially if you design your own home. When I look around the house, there are always things I wish I would have done differently. Working less is not an option for me, my work is my art. But our dog Tommy has helped a lot to bring structure and routine into this chaotic world of mine. You have to walk the dog, which creates a daily routine, and I think everyone needs a bit of that in order to live a healthy, balanced life. I’m a good 20 percent happier since we got that dog!

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