Kinderdijk - From Marshlands to World Heritage

Large areas of the Netherlands lies below sea level - Kinderdijk is one such area. This unique natural area is home to over 742 years of Dutch water management history, having been transformed from marshlands into a world heritage site.
WE VISITED THE NEW VISITOR CENTRE AT THE Kinderdijk World Heritage site, recently opened by Princess Beatrix, Patron of the Dutch Mill Society. Of the 132 entries, the winning design came from the Hague-based architect firm M& DB. They consciously decided to design a modern, simple visitor centre to make it an easily distinguishable, contemporary addition to the traditional old mills. The use of glass walls creates transparency and allows visitors to feel a connection with the outside surroundings.

Small village - Great destination
The Kinderdijk World Heritage site is a gem of nature and culture in the polder landscape of the Netherlands. Only 600 people live in the village of Kinderdijk, but an estimated 700,000 visitors or more come each year for the Kinderdijk World Heritage site. Visitors include many international travellers, mainly from America and Asia who are brought in on cruise ships and coach trips, but it is a popular day trip destination and locals from the area often come to take a walk or to cycle around. An estimated 700,000 people visit the village each year; paying visitors can enjoy a boat cruise, visiting the mills, a guided tour or a film. No record is kept of visitors who choose to simply take a walk or cycle, enjoying the village without shelling out. Not only has the area been a registered World Heritage Site since 1997, but the Dutch government has also designated it as a protected “Natura 2000” nature reserve because it is home to unique species of birds such as the purple heron and black tern.

Water, willpower and wheels
All of the towns and villages in the Alblasserwaard polder are connected by water. A thousand years ago, the Alblasserwaard was a huge bog. The first people to live here permanently built their houses on the dunes so they could stay above water level in the event of a flood. The land was arable, attracting more and more people to the area who wanted to base their livelihoods around the trading towns in the Western Netherlands which were becoming wealthier at the time. Dykes were erected to keep the river water at bay. This meant rain and groundwater had free reign. In the thirteenth century, Count Floris V ordered the creation of the Water Authorities.
Floris V brought the inhabitants of the region together in these organisations to collectively manage the water. A network of ditches and canals drained the water from the polder to its lowest point - the Kinderdijk. Here, four sluices were built to let the water flow into the river Lek at low tide. The area was flooded in the Saint Elizabeth flood of 1421, and thousands of people drowned. It was a catastrophe, and the subsistence was an issue too, needing more and more power to discharge water from the polders to the river. The solution? The mills.

A system of mills and pumps has been installed over the centuries. The series of mills water passes through is made up of 3 polder mills and 16 mills known as bosom mills. Bosom mills are called this way in the Netherlands because a 'boezem' is a type of storage basin or a temporary reservoir. In deep polders like Kinderdijk, the water has to be raised in stages. The maximum lift is approximately 1.5 metres per mill wheel. The lowest mill draws the water to the basin, and the highest mill discharges the water into the river. Following the invention of the steam engine, two steam pumps began to be used in 1869. The first electric-powered pump was used in 1924. During the Second World War, the Germans seized all of the diesel, highlighting again how crucial the mills were when the polders were milled entirely using wind power.

Nowadays, two pumps pump water to the basins located on higher land, where the river flows into the Lek. The G.N. Kok mill can move even more water than 24 mills can handle together. Mortars are controlled by computers at J.U. Smitgemaal, based on water levels and current wind and weather forecasts. At Kinderdijk, 19 of the 20 mills can still be found today. They are on standby and can be deployed when needed. The oldest mill, Blokweer Museum Mill, dates from 1630 and is over a century older than the other mills. Of the 19 mills, 14 are inhabited - some by the same family for many generations. Two museum mills are open to visitors, with a third scheduled to be opened soon.

Lighting emphasises the simplicity
Glamox worked on the lighting plan for A&B Electrotechniek. Though the plan might look boring on paper, in reality it’s obvious how the lighting emphasises the simplicity of the site and enhances its transparency.
Different versions of the D70 downlight have been used in the reception, shop, hospitality area, corridors, and toilets, while i40 luminaires have been installed in the technical areas and i60 luminaires in the kitchen. E80 emergency lights have been installed around the emergency exits.

Theo Vijfvinkel, project leader at A&B Elektrotechniek, is enthusiastic: “We were asked by P van Leeuwen, the construction company, to come up with a proposal. It was a really special project for me - I was born and grew up around here, and when I was a child I went swimming around the Mills. A connection like this makes a project even better and more appealing - luckily, it was able to fit in around the other projects I had scheduled. The team was under pressure as the visitor centre had to be open in time for the summer season, but everyone involved pulled together and everything went smoothly. Glamox was an incredibly easy partner to work with - flexible, proactive, and with good delivery timeframes. When I look at what we’ve managed to achieve, I feel satisfied.”

Pride and Unity
A number of local sponsors came together to help create the visitor centre. An amazing 220 people volunteered to work alongside 60 employees at SWEK, the Stichting Werelderfgoed Kinderdijk, a foundation working to conserve, manage and maintain the mills and promote learning about them. The enthusiastic volunteers all worked in shifts as hosts, millers, skippers, guides, or shop staff and helped to maintain the environment. 

In UNESCO’s words
UNESCO said: “the network of nineteen windmills in Kinderdijk-Elshout shows the incredible contribution the Dutch people have made to technology that keeps water under control. Work on water infrastructure began in the Middle Ages, when it was needed to drain agricultural land and villages, and continues to this day. The area has everything you’d expect to see standing alongside this technology - dykes, reservoirs, pump stations, administrative buildings, and the 19 beautifully preserved windmills.”