Is it jet lag? Do I need my glasses cleaned? Was it that draft beer? As we meander the streets and sidewalks along the Amsterdam canals, it becomes obvious that several of the Amsterdam buildings are not quite aligned with their neighbours. I’m getting a sinking feeling something is amiss.
Amsterdam Buildings on Firm Ground – Not!
Now the first thing to understand is Amsterdam was built on a swamp. Probably not much choice in such a flat, low-lying country. After all, Netherlands means “lower countries” referring to the elevation and flat topography of this European country.
With no solid bedrock to rely on for a strong natural foundation, the builders of an old Amsterdam home, pounded wood pilings deep into the spongy ground to support the Amsterdam houses and businesses.
Long wooden posts were needed to penetrate the soft peat ground to reach the first relatively solid sand layer at 11 metres (36 feet) below.
Amsterdam Sinking – It’s Settled Then
Obviously some buildings did not settle uniformly over hundreds of years. There are a few reasons why many of these old Amsterdam buildings lean.
Even with the wood post supports reaching the sand layer at 11 metres (36 feet) depth, this may not be strong, or deep enough, to support the structures over the centuries. Modern Amsterdam houses are supported by concrete posts, penetrating 18 metres (59 feet), to hit a second sand level.
Long ago, size and quality variations of the wood posts may have resulted in disproportionate support of a canal house or business. Thinner posts may sink faster, causing uneven settling and a tilted building.
With water levels in Amsterdam being raised and lowered, as regulated by the flood control systems, the wood posts are susceptible to rotting as they are periodically exposed to air. This of course could cause or increase uneven settling of Amsterdam houses and buildings.
Buildings of Amsterdam – Check First, Lean Later
Every home gets renovations on occasion. For Amsterdam architecture, renovations can be a complex issue. As these Amsterdam historic buildings help to support each other, changes to the structure or load distribution of one, can affect all.
So not only the Amsterdam home being renovated, but the neighbouring structures as well. As the song lyrics go, “Lean on me when you’re not strong.” Although I’m not sure the reference was meant for a sinking building in Amsterdam.
Homeowners cannot easily check the condition of their wood post foundations, as expensive digging would be required. Amsterdam has been extremely efficient at recording all foundation inspections over time, so current owners of a canal house in Amsterdam, can check with the city records for any previous inspections.
For buyers, this would be a critically important step to take! Rolling a marble across the floor might help as well.
Leaning Houses Amsterdam – They Did What On Purpose?
In addition to seeing many side leaning buildings, one also notices some of Amsterdam famous buildings leaning forward as well. This forward lean may be intentional, believe it or not.
Virtually all houses in Amsterdam were built on a forward leaning basis until the start of the 19th century. Then Napoleon ordered all new homes to be built vertically. You would think Napoleon had more pressing issues to worry about.
Amsterdam homes were historically built this way for multiple reasons. First of all minimizing street level space while having larger upper floors, preventing rainwater from leaking into lower floors, allowing easier hoisting of furniture to upper floors, and enhancing the look of the home with more facade showing. You know, a type of status symbol.
So perhaps a couple more draft beers are all that’s required to straighten these Amsterdam buildings. Just saying.
Have you seen any tilted buildings in your travels?