From New York to Shanghai, coastal cities around the world are at risk from rising sea levels and unpredictable storm surges. But rather than simply building higher seawalls to hold back floodwaters, many builders and urban planners are turning to floating and amphibious architecture — and finding ways to adapt buildings to this new reality. Some new buildings, including a number of homes in Amsterdam, are designed to float permanently on shorelines and waterways. Others feature special foundations that let them rest on solid ground or float on water when necessary. Projects range from simple retrofits for individual homes in flood zones to the construction of entire floating neighborhoods — and possibly even floating cities.
A New Kind of Flood Readiness
From ground level, amphibious houses look like ordinary buildings. The key difference lies with their foundations, which function as a sort of raft when the water starts to rise. In some cases, existing homes can be retrofitted with amphibious foundations to give people in flood-prone areas a less costly alternative to moving or putting their homes on stilts. There are also new constructions built with amphibious foundations, such as a home designed by Baca Architects on an island in the River Thames in Marlow, England. When waters are low, the house rests on the ground like a conventional building; during floods, it floats on water that flows into a bathtub-shaped outer foundation.
Amphibious architecture isn’t about to displace conventionally designed buildings. But experts say it could become the norm in parts of Virginia, Louisiana, Alaska, and Florida, and other areas that are vulnerable to rising seas. For some communities this might be a saving grace.
Other architects are taking things a step further and building on the water itself. The Netherlands is a hotspot for such floating construction. Waterstudio, a Rijswijk-based architecture firm, recently designed nine floating homes for the town of Zeewolde. Waterstudio has also designed a number of floating homes for Amsterdam’s IJBurg neighborhood. Soon these will be joined by a floating housing complex designed by the Dutch firm Barcode Architects and the Danish firm Bjarke Ingels Group. When construction is completed in 2020, the complex will have 380 apartments as well as floating gardens and a restaurant.
Floating buildings and neighborhoods are not a new idea, of course. Vietnam and Peru, among other countries, have had floating communities for centuries. But floating architecture could allow cities around the world to grow and evolve in new ways.
Floating architecture can do more than prevent flood damage. By allowing the construction of buildings over water, it can give cities additional room to grow. Waterstudio is collaborating with developer Dutch Docklands on a planned community in the Maldives that will include 185 floating villas. The flower-shaped development will have restaurants, shops, and swimming pools.
The firms are also collaborating in the Maldives to build private artificial islands that will be anchored to the seafloor. The idea is to provide new places to live for residents of the low-lying islands, which are at risk of being swallowed up by rising seas.
There are also plans for entire floating cities. The Seasteading Institute, a San Francisco-based nonprofit, hopes to attract 200 to 300 residents for a floating village scheduled for completion in the waters off Tahiti by 2020. Homes and other buildings in the community will be constructed atop a dozen or so floating platforms connected by walkways. Eventually, the institute hopes to create communities built from hundreds of platforms with millions of residents.
For Further Reading:
Resources for further research into Floating Architecture include:
• “Floating Architecture”, Dezzen webpage: https://www.dezeen.com/tag/floating-architecture/
• “Floating Architecture: Finding Ways to Live with Rising Water”: https://www.pbs.org/newshour/science/preparing-for-a-life-on-water-with-floating-architecture