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Dirk Roosenburg and Fritz Peutz, seismic-resistant building in the 1930s in Heerlen, the Netherlands.


Abstract and Figures

Coal mining in Dutch Limburg eroded a widespread area with a labyrinth of subterranean shafts and tunnels. Instability and unexpected movements in the subsoil caused by collapsing cavities are affecting building foundations to this day. Similar problems are occurring in the north of the Netherlands due to the exploitation of natural gas. Almost 90 years ago, in the city of Heerlen, two modernist architects, Roosenburg and Peutz, dealt with this seismic movement of the subsoil in the design of their buildings. Although their goals were the same – to find resilient solutions for building on unstable foundations - the measures they took to achieve these goals were very different. Roosenburg started his career in the office of Berlage. The open floor plan and the steel structure of Berlage’s Holland House in London formed a permanent inspiration for Roosenburg. The finely meshed, structural segmentation, in a simple overall volume that he used for the 1931 Oranje Nassau building, holds a clear reference to the Holland House. Fritz Peutz´s retreat for catholic nuns, only two kilometres away from the Oranje Nassau building, is an icon of Dutch expressive modernism. It takes up the Dudok heritage: a suprematist composition, expressing the building´s programme and connecting it with the surrounding landscape. To realise his architectonic intentions on a site that was expected to incline two meters, Peutz had to solve a contradiction between an architectural wish - massive intersecting volumes - and the constructive need for a lightweight, adjustable construction. The paper describes the precautions that Roosenburg and Peutz took, in both their façade design and the primary construction, to make their buildings resilient to expected deformations. It highlights the constructive differences and similarities between them, used to solve comparable problems but based on two different architectural languages. Moreover, it illustrates how the solutions found to tackle the threats of cracks and other severe building damage proved helpful in appropriately restoring the two buildings. With these two ´old examples´, the paper will give some inspiring directions for our contemporary building practice in how to establish resilient building structures through an intelligent fusion of architecture and engineering. Keywords: Historic resilient façade construction, regional contextual modernism
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Dirk Roosenburg and Fritz Peutz, seismic-resistant building in the 1930s in Heerlen, the
The influence of architectural personality on decisions regarding resilient façade constructions in Dirk
Roosenburg’s Oranje Nassau Mines Office Building and Fritz Peutz´s Monseigneur Schrijnen Retreat House.
In recent years, the Netherlands has seen a renewed surge of interest in building in areas with
unstable subsoil conditions. Decades of gas extraction in the north of the country have destabilised
the subsoil, and minor earthquakes and subsidence are almost commonplace. The consequences are
considerable: cracking and other damage to thousands of buildings, homes being declared
uninhabitable, legal claims, and much human suffering. The disruptive effects of gas extraction on
the soil conditions and ground strength were initially not deemed to necessitate constructional
measures. However, a design has now been prepared for the Dutch Practical Directive (NPR), which
standardizes what needs to be considered in certain areas. (1) From around 1900 to 1970, large-scale
coal mining took place in the south of the Netherlands. The South Limburg subsoil is eroded with a
labyrinth of subterranean shafts and tunnels. Not long after the mining industry started to boom, it
became clear that mining galleries, fault lines, changing rock formations and subsoil layers with or
without load bearing capacity were having a significant influence on building practice in Limburg.
Where possible, architects and constructors took account of this in the structural design and
architectural choices for their buildings.
Based on a description of the structural and architectural characteristics of two buildings from the
late 1920s and early 1930s the Monseigneur Schrijnen Retreat House by the architect Frits Peutz
(hereinafter: the Retreat House), and the Oranje Naussau Mines Office Building by Dirk Roosenburg
(hereinafter: the Oranje Nassau building) it becomes clear how the programme, location, personal
preferences of the architects, building technique and materials, as well as a healthy dose of
experimentation determined how these two architects tackled comparable constructive challenges in
a way that was entirely their own.
Fig. 1 Oranje Naussau Headquarters Fig. 2 Monseigneur Schrijnenhuis
The architects Roosenburg and Peutz
We can discern several interesting similarities in the careers of Roosenburg and Peutz. They both
studied at the Technical University in Delft, and started their studies as civil engineers but ended up
as architects. Roosenburg and Peutz both started working as independent architects after a short
stint in employment. They were both known for their meticulousness and accuracy regarding design
and execution. Obviously, they were not completely the same: Roosenburg can be characterised as a
pragmatic functionalist, and Peutz as a spatial functionalist. Whereas Roosenburg was cosmopolitan,
a citizen of the world, erudite, and not religious, Peutz's roots were in the provincial town of
Uithuizen in the northern Netherlands, from where his parents sent him for his secondary school
education to Rolduc in southern Limburg a bulwark of conservative Catholicism. Peutz was a
thinker, a deeply religious man with a strong philosophical bent.
Fig. 3 Dirk Roosenburg Fig. 4 Frits Peutz
Roosenburg and the Oranje Nassau building
Many will have heard of Roosenburg as the grandfather of Rem Koolhaas. Koolhaas praises his
grandfather for his professional skills, wisdom and charm, but does not regard him as a source of
inspiration for his work. Roosenburg was highly pragmatic, and although very well-read and
bestowed with many talents, he eschewed grand theories in his architecture.
Dorine van Hoogstraten characterises Roosenburg thus: “From an artistic point of view, his work was
generally not extravagant or avant-garde because that was not his way of looking at things. For
Roosenburg, quality was about the combination of constructive, functional and artistic aspects. He
can certainly be considered modern when it comes to being forward-looking and innovative. He
focused on contemporary types of buildings such as airfield buildings, offices and advanced hydraulic
engineering works, and on innovative construction methods. He built for hypermodern companies
such as KLM, Philips and Shell. He had little affinity with designers such as Granpré Molière,
considering his work to be sentimental and troublingly retrogressive. At the same time, however, he
considered architecture to be more than a lifeless and literal translation of the client's set of
requirements. He set great store by expression and symbolism.” (2)
Apart from being an architect, Roosenburg was an excellent constructor and a competent networker
who managed to connect with the biggest clients in the country from the outset of his carrier. He
was a functionalist of the highest order who, however, was not overly constricted by style. He knew
how to extricate the concept of style from functionality, and could thus work effectively in various
circumstances and with a wide variety of clients.
After a short spell with the architect Luijck, Roosenburg's career as an architect began at the office of
the renowned H.P. Berlage. From 1914 to 1918, his activities included working as a project manager
for Berlage's Holland House, an office for the firm Müller & Co in London. This design was strongly
inspired by the American school of architects, which included Sullivan. A steel frame allowed for a
floor plan with a flexible layout, the façade has strongly vertical bands, the overall scheme is modest,
with ornamentation and more luxurious materials being purposely applied in the entrance and
stairwell. Roosenburg was a great admirer of Berlage; the sober scheme and flexible floor plan that
he learned about there came to be recurring elements in his own oeuvre, not least in the Oranje
Nassau design (3).
Fig. 5 inspiration Berlage: the Holland House in London Fig 6 the Oranje Naussau Building
In an article that Roosenburg wrote about the Oranje Nassau building in 1932 for the architecture
magazine Bouwkundig Weekblad, he explains what he considered to be the main challenges of this
assignment: “A maximum of programmatic flexibility to allow for future changes in use, and to erect
a building on subsoil that is highly flexible, unstable and unpredictable” (4). He continues, “I did not
find it at all easy to adjust to the opposite of all my experience of building. Fortunately, I received
support from people who were familiar with the mining area, but people who have seen everything
cracking and creaking around them start to realize that many efforts to prevent this have thus far
been in vain.” (5) The mine engineers advised him not to oppose the movements but ´to go with the
constructive flow´. In response, Roosenburg developed a construction principle that he compared to
the segmented body of a caterpillar: “An elongated body composed of mutually moveable sections
supported by multiple short legs. The caterpillar's lesson was observed. Flexible material, consisting
of small segments, for the superstructure; minimum own weight; foundations with each segment on
its own supports, which can move entirely freely of each other, possibly allowing mutual movement
in horizontal and vertical directions.” (6)
Fig. 7 The caterpillar principle Fig. 8 Typical Floorplan
The main structure of the building consists of a steel frame with a bay distance in the façade of 0.9m.
From the two façades to the central corridor the span is 6.30m, the corridor itself is 1.8m wide and is
flanked by columns at a centre-to-centre distance of 2.7m. This gives rise to a simple rectangular
building volume with stairwells and entrances at the head ends. The building has two expansions. As
in the admired Holland House, the floor plans are flexibly configured.
Fig. 9/10 open floorplans
To make it possible for the "caterpillar segments" to move, all the connections between the casings,
between the casings and the main structure and between partition walls, floor and supporting
structure are in the form of sliding connections. Weight was kept to a minimum in many parts of the
construction; the floors are made of pumice concrete where possible, and hollow terracotta
elements are used for parapets. Insulating cork sheeting was applied to the cavity, over which the
thin steel plate cladding was attached. The steel columns are founded on individual concrete bases,
with the basement being placed as a separate construction between the steel columns and bases. All
the bearings are executed with riveted connections, and the connecting holes are oval to be able to
accommodate sliding movements. In case of strong deformation and damage to the riveted
connections, extra safety bearings are provided for the steel beams. Particular care was given not
only to the connections and the lightness of the materials; implementation was also characterised by
extreme precision: All the iron parts were sandblasted and covered with a red lead primer. On site, a
check was carried out for mechanical damage to the red lead primer, and new primer applied if
necessary. Linen cloths soaked in red lead were applied between all connections between iron parts.
Fig 11 section floor/partition/façade fig 12 window fixture fig 13 additional support for beams
Peutz and the Retreat House
The Retreat House for nuns commissioned by the Catholic Monseigneur Schrijnenstichting
foundation was to be erected on top of the Molenberg hill in Heerlen, a location that afforded a
stunning view of the mining region, but which was also precisely above a fault line in the subsoil,
where strong, irregular, unexpected and highly local subsidence could be expected. The conservative
Catholic community had always had its buildings constructed in a traditional manner, i.e. in brick or
natural stone. It was quite something for the clients to decide to work with a ´modern´ architect like
Peutz. What probably convinced them in the end is that Peutz took religious matters very seriously,
and that he was not only a very experienced architect regarding constructions, but was also a seeker
who was fascinated by eternal questions of time and space.
fig 14 Molenberg with the Retreat House 1920/1940/2005
“We can only grasp space by imparting the perception of time to the concept of space, but
conversely, we only approach the concept of time through the spatial perceptions of movement and
rest (7), and “The plasticity of the building does not serve first and foremost to accommodate the
functional components but should be seen as a composition that responds to the environment,
which engages in connections with landscape and building, but is also a complete composition in
itself.” (8) Typical statements by Peutz as a spatial functionalist. Although he is often seen as an
architect in the expressive school of Dudok, his work was both more functional and more ´spiritual´.
He was a great admirer of Duiker; the circular staircase in the Retreat House is a clear architectural
quote referring to Duiker's Zonnestraal sanatorium, but functionalism had different connotations for
Peutz. Geert Bekaert wrote the following about the Retreat House: With its clarity, tautness and
honesty, it does not only manifest an "international style" in its specific situation in the landscape. It
internalises and personalises the style as if it had been invented there on the spot. (6)
The Retreat House reveals many of Peutz´s architectural fascinations, such as the pulsing spatial
sequences of movement and the special connection between building and landscape. With the
Retreat House, Peutz also takes an important step regarding the theme ´building and ornament´: the
plasticity of the building as a whole becomes ornament.
Fig. 15 building and ornament: ilia Chashnik, supremolet 1927 Fig. 16 Peutz´ Retreat House
Fig. 17/18 spatial sequence in the Retreat House, entrance, stairs, hall, ´veranda´
Fig. 19 Retreat House floorplans
To fulfil his architectural wishes in this inspiring but unstable setting, with all its foundational
problems, Peutz soon became aware that a solid structure for a building of the size of 22,000m2
would be impossible. Even a concrete skeleton with brickwork cladding would be too heavy and rigid.
An enormous subsidence of as much as 2m was expected over a prolonged period, which, as Peutz
put it, would not go down like the floor of a lift. After consulting with the Limburg mine engineers,
Peutz eventually opted for a steel structure with light built-in components and lightweight but tough
and strong cladding. All the parts from which the sculpture of the building was constructed spatially
and functionally were divided into sections and founded separately; even the individual columns
were adjustable horizontally and vertically at the column base. In the event of local subsidence, the
columns can each be jacked and positioned independently of each other. To prevent cracking, the
built-in walls and inner cavity walls stand unconnected on the concrete floors and do not have fixed
connections to the steel frame.
Fig 20 Retreat House steel structure
The cladding was effected with a system imported from the US known as Steeltex. Steeltex is a
network composed of 5x5cm grids of steel bars, with a backing of bituminized paper onto which
plaster can be directly applied. The network is affixed to the main structure using a secondary steel
structure and comprises extra supporting sections at façade openings. Sufficient expansions were
applied so that movement in the steel frame would not lead to cracking in the façade. Peutz used the
linear patterns of the expansions in the façade to show that although the Retreat House consisted of
solid volumes regarding composition, the outer walls of these volumes themselves were not solid.
Peutz's craftmanship and the ensuing long, relatively problem-free existence of the building and
construction are apparent from his description of the materials and constructions that he used. After
many tests and specimens, Peutz was able to vary the directions for use of the product in such a way
that an optimum solution was found for the local conditions, allowing a robust façade to be
constructed. Peutz describes this process in the architecture magazine Bouwkundig Weekblad in
“The Americans stipulated the following for plastering the Steeltex:
1st layer: cement mortar 1: 1 3/4 with cow hair or hay, no lime, no waterproof additives.
2nd layer: after the first layer is air-dried, after at least 26 hours, cement mortar 1:2 1/3, with an
addition of lime only if there will be a coloured third layer and if necessary, with waterproof
3rd layer: cement mortar 1:2 1/4, with a maximum of 10% whitewash or "Edelputz".
Our tests forced us to deviate from these directions. The second layer proved not to adhere well to
the first layer. The plasterwork also developed wind cracks. We obtained good results with:
1st layer: 1 part cement to 3 parts sand.
2nd layer: before the first layer is air dry, apply 1 part cement to 3 parts sand and 1/4 lime, flatten and
3rd layer: after air-drying of the 2nd Montenovo plastering, flatten and comb tool after 24 hours.
If the weather was wet and cold, we used Cockeril cement, and Enci when it was dry and hot. Pit
sand yielded better results than river sand but we did not dare to use pit sand when there was a
chance of frost.” (9)
Fig. 21. Page 6 from: Better wall for better homes, national steel fabric corporation-Pittsburgh 1927
Fig. 22 Detail of damage to Stucco and STEELTEX Wire Lath Fig. 23 from patent application 1597507 Steeltex, 1926
Peutz set to work with great precision on each and every part of his building, and experimented a lot
with low-tech solutions for the Retreat House. Particularly remarkable here are the use of a grey
water circuit, the insertion of special prism glass building blocks in the floors to allow light to filter
deep into the basement, and a sophisticated ventilation system with suspended ceilings and chimney
pipes that brought about natural air circulation flows.(10)
Fig. 24 corner façade detail Retreat House
Fig 25 Window and detail of the Fascia Retreat House
From then on
Over the years, Peutz´s and Roosenburg's buildings changed ownership and function several times. In
the 1960s, the Retreat House became a theological college, and in the 1990s, an office building with
the architectural firm AGS as its main user. In 2003, AGS restored the Retreat House, winning the
national public award for restoration. After the mines closed, the Oranje Nassau building, known
until then as the "NV Mij tot Exploitatie van Limburgsche Steenkoolmijnen genaamd Oranje Nassau
Mijnen" was also closed. The building was fully restored in 1995-1996 by architects firm Jo Coenen &
Co Architecten, after which it was occupied by the Rijks Geologische Dienst (Geological Survey of the
Netherlands). The building currently houses offices, storage space and despatch space for the
dreaded assessment notices from the Dutch Tax and Customs Administration. The iron sidings were
painted again in their original green colour for the restoration.
Fig. 26 Oranje-Nassau House after restauration with its original green colour
Both buildings, after having been in service for 85 years, are still in a very good state of repair. In
both restoration works, the original building substance was retained to a remarkable extent. In both
the Oranje Nassau building and the Retreat House, all the casings could easily be removed, cleaned
and reused thanks to the sliding flexible connections. The occurrence of rust was minimal due to
good working details and protection, and the thin outer cladding on the façade has also stood the
test of time. The care Peutz took regarding implementation, varying the composition of the mortar
applied according to the weather conditions, was undoubtedly a contributing factor in this.
Moreover, the division of the sidings and the additional support underneath the sidings prevented
cracks and fractures from occurring. The cladding of the Oranje Nassau building, too, has remained
free of any significant damage for almost 100 years now due to the good working details, with
sufficient tolerance, overlap and ventilation.
Fig. 27/28 easy removal of window frames in the Retreat House
The ´freedom of movement´ in the main structure and the flexibility of the connections between the
inner layout, outer wall and main structure did indeed accommodate major subsidence and shocks,
thus preventing damage. (The movement in the expansion joints in the Oranje Nassau building had
already reached 3cm after only a few years!). Furthermore, the built-in units of inner walls and
ceilings, which were applied separately, ensured that both buildings were multifunctional. The
restoration of both the Retreat House and the Oranje Nassau building involved the implementation
of remarkable energy concepts. A sophisticated functional layout that excluded work areas in sun-
facing rooms made it unnecessary to apply additional outside sun protection or heat-absorbing glass.
This means the façades remained virtually unchanged. The Oranje Nassau building and the Retreat
House now both accommodate computer data centres, with computers that produce so much
residual heat that it can be used for heating and cooling purposes. For the Oranje Nassau building,
this meant that that the original single-glazing could be retained, while in the Retreat House, a
relatively thin double-glazing was sufficient in the original casings. Thanks to this innovative climate
concept, parapets and closed parts of the façade did not need fill-insulation for the restoration.
There are standards and directives governing the conditions for erecting new constructions in areas
facing significant subsidence and seismic movements. Like many other standards and directives, they
are not without risk; simply following these conditions to the letter, often while taking into account
an extremely short economic life-cycle of 40 years for new buildings, leads to uniform solutions with
no leeway for creative, innovative designs that are inspired by their context.
These buildings by Roosenburg and Peutz show that there is another way of doing things; a strong
architectural signature ensues in buildings that rise above mediocrity and are appreciated for their
original character. The constructive insight of these two architects made them aware of the gaps in
their knowledge and the need to fill these gaps with specialized knowledge; in this case, from the
mine engineers who were more familiar than any with the situation regarding the local soil
conditions, and the do's and don’ts of building in that particular area. And finally, they both
possessed true architectural mastery, not only in the architectural design of their buildings but also
regarding their knowledge of material properties and working details, which were essential to realize
their architectural dreams in these specific, challenging locations. It is more than just a nice bonus
that this shows that it is also possible to build for the long-term using simple, inexpensive materials
such as cement, iron and glass. The innovative, experimental pleasure in working with the
architectural constructive challenges that is evident from these buildings, and also the
uncompromising awareness of quality in the work of Peutz and Roosenburg, aimed at an optimum
and long-lasting functioning of their buildings, form an inspiration for our current building practice 85
years on.
Fig. 29/30 Retreat House before and after restauration
(1) NPR 9998:2017 Ontw. Nl, Assessment of structural safety of buildings in case of
erection, reconstruction and disapproval - Basic rules for seismic actions: induced
earthquakes. Delft: Koninklijk Nederlands Normalisatie-instituut Icst 91.080.0193.020
(3) Van hoogstraten, D. 2005 Dirk Roosenburg: 1887-1962. Rotterdam: publisher 010. isbn
(4) Roosenburg, Ir. D. arch. BNA. ´Kantoorgebouw Oranje Nassau Mijnen in Heerlen´, in
Bouwkundig Weekblad en Architectura nr 51. 1932, pp 469-473
(5) Idem
(6) idem
Van den berg, Wim H.J. ´Motieven´ in: Peutz, F.P.J; Arets, Wiel; van den Bergh, Wim;
Graatsma, William. 1981. F.P.J. Peutz, architekt 1916-1966, Heerlen: Stichting F.P.J.
Peutz Architekt 1916 1966. ISBN 9789090002484, pp 359-370
(7) Idem
(8) Bekaert, Geert. ´het fenomeeen Peutz´ in Peutz, F.P.J; Arets, Wiel; van den Bergh, Wim;
Graatsma, William, 1918. F.P.J. Peutz, architekt 1916-1966. Heerlen: Stichting F.P.J.
Peutz Architekt 1916 1966. ISBN 9789090002484 pp 359-362
(9) Peutz, Ir. F.P.J. ´gegevens over de constructie van het Monseigneur Laurentius
Schrijnenhuis te Heerlen´ in, Bouwkundig Weekblad en Architectura nr 7. 1934. pp 63-
(10) AGS Architecten. PowerPoint presentation ´Peutz and UTP´
Image credits
Fig 1/26 Rijksgebouwendienst
Fig 2/14/19/27/28/29/30 AGS Architects, Heerlen
Fig 3/ 4 Wikepedia
Fig 5 Het Nieuwe Instituut, Rotterdam. Object number TENTo14
Fig 6 Image Werner Manz, collection Nederlands Fotomuseum Foto
Fig 7 Author
Fig 8 Het Nieuwe Instituut, Rotterdam, Roosenburg, D. e.a. / Archief
Fig 9 Image Werner Manz, collection Nederlands Fotomuseum.
Rotterdam. Foto WMA-100091_B-r
Fig 10 Image Werner Manz, collection Nederlands Fotomuseum.
Rotterdam. Foto WMA-100092_B
Fig 11/12/13/14 Roosenburg, Ir. D. arch. BNA. ´Kantoorgebouw Oranje Nassau
Mijnen in Heerlen´, in Bouwkundig Weekblad en Architectura
nr 51. 1932, pp 469-473
Fig 15
Fig 16 Het Nieuwe Instituut, Rotterdam. Object number TENTn125
Fig 17 Image Werner Manz, collection Nederlands Fotomuseum.
Rotterdam. WMA-2024_BAF
Fig 18 Image Werner Manz, collection Nederlands Fotomuseum.
Rotterdam. WMA-371_BAF
Fig 20 Image Werner Manz, collection Nederlands Fotomuseum.
Rotterdam. WMA-2096_BAF
Fig 21/22/23
Fig 24/25 Peutz, Ir. F.P.J. ´gegevens over de constructie van het
Monseigneur Laurentius Schrijnenhuis te Heerlen´in ,
Bouwkundig Weekblad en Architectura nr 7. 1934. pp 63-70
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