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The five commandments of Nice Developers Nice guys Robert and Mark strive for change, connection and sustainability

Oct. 01, 2021

In late 2019, Robert Winkel and Mark Compeer presented themselves together as Nice Developers: the friendly neighborhood developer. A shared interest in people, frustration with the current development climate and their entrepreneurial spirit brought them together. In 2021, their ambitions and motivations have not changed, but they have gained useful insights. They see even more clearly where their field of work needs to go, a challenge they summarize in five commandments that lead to the desired progress. The result? An innovative project like SAWA, with a strong identity, inclusiveness, biodiversity and room for connection.

'Nice guys' Robert and Mark are exclusively building a city in which their children can grow up safely and they themselves want to grow old, the statement reads. Especially for the next generations, they want to contribute to healthy neighborhoods and cities. In recent years they have made good on this promise: they contributed to a healthier city precisely by not contributing anything at all. Their first and award-winning wooden building SAWA will soon rise in the heart of the Lloyd Quarter, where architect Robert Winkel himself lives and works. In the same neighborhood, at 467 Westzeedijk, the duo opened their own pub: Nice Place. Why? Mark: "The pub was empty and we thought it would be fun to make a place here where we could host people. During the construction of SAWA, local residents can come here with questions."

Nice Place illustrates how Nice Developers operates: with humor and a clear vision of what fits a specific place

You're guaranteed to walk out of here with a wooden head, but that's not so much because of the SAWA beer on tap, but more because of the lumbering ambitions of the gentlemen. Here at the bar they alternate hectic drive, belief in the good and witty jokes. Robert: "Do you know what color that is, on the ceiling? Nicotine yellow!" The color was chosen deliberately, just like the sanseverias in the windowsill and the Persian rugs on the table. Even the bar stools with skai leather upholstery and the dart board were carefully selected to match the place. And that is exactly how Robert and Mark go about their work: with a refreshing humor and clear vision of what fits a specific place, and why.

Special start with SAWA

Although both men have already successfully completed many projects - Robert has over 25 years of experience as a developing architect, Mark has been working in area development for 15 years - the innovative residential building SAWA is their first joint achievement. Although it is only truly successful when it stands. Robert: "It is great that we get all kinds of awards, but its realization is a long road of always one step forward, two steps backward." So it is not the easiest path they took, starting with a 50-meter-high residential building constructed entirely of wood. Mark: "The building is built entirely in cross laminated timber (CLT), which offers many advantages. The building is more sustainable because the CO2 and its wood can be reused later. Moreover, its construction time is shorter than building with concrete. The innovation at SAWA lies in the clever combination of design solutions and technical elaborations." The result is a building with a support structure made of more than 90% wood. Robert: "That makes it challenging and fantastic at the same time. That's also how it was received, with a lot of media attention and registrations from interested parties. That was a special start for us."

SAWA is the sum of its parts and provides the desired change, connection and sustainability

SAWA backs up the bold promises Robert and Mark made at the start in 2019. "Not enough rental housing for middle-income households is being built in Rotterdam, but it is needed. That's where we see opportunities. Making a profit is not an end in itself for us in this regard. Of course we have to make money, but in the first place we want to realize beautiful things together that add value. By adding community facilities, for example. And by building rental housing where people can live for 700 to 1000 euros per month. That happens too little now and we want to fill that gap." With 50 rental homes in the middle segment and an additional 59 free sector homes (rental and for sale), Nice Developers shows with SAWA that it can be done, if only you want to. Robert: "The sustainable timber construction, lots of green for biodiversity and climate adaptation, a rooftop vegetable garden for the neighborhood, an EPC of zero as well as a good balance between rental and owner-occupied housing: SAWA really is the sum of its parts."

Speaking of sharing: any development, according to the gentlemen, should start from shared values. This is directly the most important of the five "commandments" central to everything Nice Developers does: Shared Values, Inclusiveness, For the Neighborhood, Innovation in Timber Construction and Biodiversity.

Shared Values | having conversations and finding common ground

A project should always start with shared values; everything that comes after that is a derivative of them, Robert believes. "That's how we look to the future, by always seeking connection on shared values. Those shared values become more and more important when you're working with densification. Especially when you live so close together, it's important to find common ground. I think the fun of what we do is that we give something beautiful and good back to the city, something that is needed and that many people find beautiful to look at." That is precisely where urbanites find each other, in beauty and necessity. "With us, social motives play a big role in what we do, that was also the case with SAWA. We look for parties and residents who think the same way, with whom we share the same values. Although that is sometimes a struggle now - in the 'old' world it is mainly about making as much profit as possible - the way of thinking about this is shifting. Soon we won't know any better, then everyone will recognize and share those values."

Inclusivity | making and keeping housing accessible to all

Making and keeping housing accessible to all target groups - including those essential to a city, such as police officers, nurses and teachers - is an important goal for Nice Developers. Mark: "Inclusiveness is a much-heard term, but of course not for nothing, as it is still too often lacking. For people with lower and middle incomes it is difficult to find affordable housing in Rotterdam. So it is all the more important to take everyone into account. That became our starting point, and with SAWA we are putting our money where our mouth is. Almost half of the 109 homes are rental properties in the middle segment." Robert: "So in SAWA we will soon see people from all walks of life, not just the white over-60s with lots of money. In SAWA you have to recognize the city."

Want to meet Mark and Robert in person? Come visit Nice Place sometime. Mail for a no-obligation appointment.

For the neighborhood | knowing where you live, work and do business

Embedded in the claim "your friendly neighborhood developer" is the importance of the neighborhood. Mark: "We are residents ourselves and look at what we do with those eyes. We are both fathers moreover, our children are growing up in this city. Also for them - and all the other children and young people - we ask ourselves what kind of city we want to leave behind for them and all future generations." With Nice Developers, Robert and Mark are themselves actively building the city in which they want their children to grow up and grow old themselves. In order to be a good city for people, more attention must also be paid to people in project and urban development, the duo believes. Robert: "The game is too often played by professionals with a distance to the neighborhoods in question, structurally ignoring the people who live and live there." It is precisely this part, talking to neighborhood residents, that Robert and Mark enjoy. It gives them insight into how residents use their neighborhoods and ideas on how to use small interventions to make people's daily lives a little more fun and easier. To illustrate, Robert mentions the little playground he and his wife built in his own neighborhood years ago. Every day he saw children playing there, including his own offspring. It was only natural that SAWA would have a place to meet. The vegetable garden on the roof of the residential building will be in direct connection with the existing Garden on the Pier. Robert: "We want to improve neighborhoods from the bottom up. SAWA is an outgrowth of that, just like our office pub Nice Place. They have to become beacons for the neighborhood, where we collect ideas and experiences from the neighborhood. From local residents we hear things that we couldn't come up with ourselves." Robert says, chuckling, that the idea for SAWA came about while talking to the neighborhood. "We are mega transparent. As soon as we have an idea, we pitch it."

Innovation in Wood Construction | the natural step forward

Building in wood seems so logical: it's faster, reduces CO2-emissions and is more easily reusable than concrete. Yet the step to timber construction in the Netherlands does not appear to be obvious. Robert: "Timber construction has so many advantages and it is also much more fun than building in concrete. It is a natural product, it lives!" Mark: "We have to reuse more and more, also in construction. If you crush concrete, you have concrete pellets with a limited possibility of reuse." Wood also has a lot of value in the future, and Nice Developers wants to demonstrate that there is enough knowledge to take the next step. Robert: "We can make a positive contribution to the climate crisis with this. You would think that wood construction would be encouraged, but nothing could be further from the truth. The construction world lags behind in the area of sustainability, but to get ahead, someone has to want it and think it's important." Still, they don't call themselves idealists. "We are realists who want to show what can be done. We want to challenge the status quo, think along to a long-term vision and thereby contribute to a better future."

Biodiversity | the bee is not a sideshow

Within that long-term vision, the gentlemen see an important role for "the new guard. After all, that is where they hear the demand for what they want to offer: the meeting point of shared values. Robert: "Biodiversity is so important. If the bee becomes extinct, we won't have any food left. Many people don't seem to realize that. Young people are much more conscious of it. The construction of SAWA would have been easier and cheaper if we had left out the vegetable garden and the kilometer of planters, but for us it was essential. They are the elements that make the building literally and figuratively green. At a time when water retention and heat stress reduction are more important than ever, you are obliged to think about greening. It's death or glory as far as we're concerned, because it can be done! This is what residential buildings in cities around the world will soon have to look like."

Five commandments for progress and growth

With SAWA as their first, challenging project, Nice Developers is choosing the path of most resistance as well as progress. Robert almost affectionately calls it a bipolar project, but fair is fair: they don't want it any other way than this. The urge to innovate makes Robert and Mark consciously seek out the edges of what is possible, because that is where the challenge and opportunity for progress and growth lie. That is where the added value lies, for people and the environment. That is where stacked ambition transforms into the sum of its parts with a result packed with values, which they prefer to share with others.

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