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Built on water: Floating Houses

By Ambista

Architects from New York to Shanghai are increasingly being confronted with the same problem: Too little space for too many people. The challenge of developing new habitable spaces within the city is not easy. Many architects, contractors and urban planners are tackling this situation with floating architecture.

The architects of Waterstudio.NL not only design floating houses in the luxury segment in the IJburg district of Amsterdam but also in the rest of the world. © Koen Olthuis – Waterstudio.NL

New living space on the water

Whether it’s Asia, the US or Europe, living space is becoming an important resource in the major cities of the world. Most cities have little room to grow in the central urban area and increasing rents are symptomatic of this crisis. Metropolitan regions in the immediate vicinity of water are trying to develop new living spaces with floating houses in response to the housing shortage.

Floating houses take care of two problems at once: They meet the demand for living space in large cities and also serve as flood protection. Coastal cities in particular are extremely affected by climate change and the resulting rise in sea level. They are therefore looking for new strategies to cope with the water and turn the disadvantage into an advantage.

Floating houses in Amsterdam

It is no wonder that the Netherlands is considered a pioneer when it comes to floating houses. Around a quarter of the country lies below sea level. For the Dutch, water has long been an important element of urban planning. Amsterdam is a major European city known worldwide for the many houseboats that create additional living space in the canals.

However, not only do the residents of Amsterdam live on the water in the city centre but also in the eastern part of the city. The new IJburg district was created here on artificially raised sand islands. In the first construction phase, a total of 18,000 apartments with living space for 45,000 people were created. The Waterbuurt district in the western section of IJburg was also planned at the same time – the Floating Houses IJburg project by Amsterdam-based Marlies Rohmer Architects & Urbanists.

Lacking a firm subsoil, the neighbourhood functions primarily with bridges and jetties, which provide access to the residences. Gardens are not allowed, but living close to the water makes up for it. A lock ensures that the inland sea on which the houses float is separated from the IJMeer. This prevents the apartments from drifting out to sea. The project was completed in 2011 and included both social housing and condos.

Architecturally, however, IJburg is still a long way from being fully developed. To the east, the “Water District” continues to grow. By 2020, the Dutch architectural firm Waterstudio.NL wants to complete around 380 additional apartments, offices, floating gardens and a restaurant. Everything is possible for the architects – from a bungalow to a three-storey residential building.

Amphibious houses on the Thames

Other countries, such as Great Britain, are also discovering water as additional living space. This is how the amphibious houses near Marlow on the Thames in Buckinghamshire came to be. The homes were designed by Baca Architects in London. When the tide is low, the house rests on the ground like a conventional building and can also float in the event of flooding.

This is made possible by a kind of dry dock made of reinforced concrete, which serves as the base of the house. As the floodwaters fill the trough, the house is buoyed up to the surface of the water. An anchoring system keeps it in position and buoyancy is ensured by air chambers under the floor.

Living on the water: The future is now

In Hong Kong and Macau, people have been living on the water for a long time – in jungle settlements consisting of old sailboats that have fallen into disuse. In the US, water communities also have a long tradition. Seattle has one of the largest collections of floating houses in Portage Bay and Lake Union. And Germans are also finding life on the water more and more attractive.

In Hamburg, for example, additional moorings for houseboats and floating houses are being built. The idea of floating architecture is no longer a vision of the future, it is a reality. People learn to live with water and use it for urban development. And not only in Europe or Asia, but throughout the entire world.

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Thailand tests floating homes in region grappling with floods

By Alisa Tang
Thomson Reuters Foundation



In this picture provided by Site-Specific Co Ltd, the 2.8 million baht ($86,000) amphibious house, designed and built by the architecture firm Site-Specific Co Ltd for Thailand’s National Housing Authority (NHA) rises up 85cm after architects and NHA staff fill a manmade test hole underneath the house with water during a trial run in Ban Sang village of Ayutthaya province September 7, 2013. REUTERS/Site-Specific Co Ltd/Handout via Reuters

AYUTTHAYA, Thailand (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Nestled among hundreds of identical white and brown two-storey homes crammed in this neighborhood for factory workers is a house with a trick – one not immediately apparent from its green-painted drywall and grey shade panels.

Hidden under the house and its wraparound porch are steel pontoons filled with Styrofoam. These can lift the structure three meters off the ground if this area, two hours north of Bangkok, floods as it did in 2011 when two-thirds of the country was inundated, affecting a fifth of its 67 million people.

The 2.8 million baht ($86,000) amphibious house in Ban Sang village is one way architects, developers and governments around the world are brainstorming solutions as climate change brews storms, floods and rising sea levels that threaten communities in low-lying coastal cities.

“We can try to build walls to keep the water out, but that might not be a sustainable permanent solution,” said architect Chuta Sinthuphan of Site-Specific Co. Ltd, the firm that designed and built the house for Thailand’s National Housing Authority.

“It’s better not to fight nature, but to work with nature, and amphibious architecture is one answer,” said Chuta, who is organizing the first international conference on amphibious architecture in Bangkok in late August.

Asia is the region most affected by disasters, with 714,000 deaths from natural disasters between 2004 and 2013 – more than triple the previous decade – and economic losses topping $560 billion, according to the United Nations.

Some 2.1 billion people live in the region’s fast-growing cities and towns, and many of these urban areas are located in vulnerable low-lying coastal areas and river deltas, with the poorest and most marginalized communities often waterlogged year-round.

For Thailand, which endures annual floods during its monsoon season, the worsening flood risks became clear in 2011 as panicked Bangkok residents rushed to sandbag and build retaining walls to keep their homes from flooding.

Vast parts of the capital – which is normally protected from the seasonal floods – were hit, as were factories at enormous industrial estates in nearby provinces such as Ayutthaya. Damage and losses reached $50 billion, according to the World Bank.

And the situation is worsening. A 2013 World Bank-OECD study forecast average global flood losses multiplying from $6 billion per year in 2005 to $52 billion a year by 2050.


In Thailand, as across the region, more and more construction projects are returning to using traditional structures to deal with floods, such as stilts and buildings on barges or rafts.

Bangkok is now taking bids for the construction of a 300-bed hospital for the elderly that will be built four meters above the ground, supported by a structure set on flood-prone land near shrimp and sea-salt farms in the city’s southernmost district on the Gulf of Thailand, said Supachai Tantikom, an advisor to the governor.

For Thailand’s National Housing Authority (NHA) – a state enterprise that focuses on low-income housing – the 2011 floods reshaped the agency’s goals, and led to experiments in coping with more extreme weather.

The amphibious house, built over a manmade hole that can be flooded, was completed and tested in September 2013. The home rose 85 cm (2.8 feet) as the large dugout space under the house was filled with water.

In August, construction is set to begin on another flood-resistant project – a 3 million baht ($93,000) floating one-storey house on a lake near Bangkok’s main international airport.

“Right now we’re testing this in order to understand the parameters. Who knows? Maybe in the future there might be even more flooding… and we would need to have permanent housing like this,” said Thepa Chansiri, director of the NHA’s department of research and development.

The 100 square meter (1,000 square foot) floating house will be anchored to the lakeshore, complete with electricity and flexible-pipe plumbing.

Like the amphibious house, the floating house is an experiment for the NHA to understand what construction materials work best and how fast such housing could be built in the event of floods and displacement.


The projects in Thailand are a throwback to an era when Bangkok was known as the Venice of the East, with canals that crisscrossed the city serving as key transportation routes. At that time, most residents lived on water or land that was regularly inundated.

“One of the best projects I’ve seen to cope with climate-related disasters is Bangkok in 1850. The city was 90 percent on water – living on barges on water,” said Koen Olthuis, founder of Waterstudio, a Dutch architecture and urban planning firm.

“There was no flood risk, there was no damage. The water came, the houses moved up and down,” he said by telephone from the Netherlands.

Olthuis started Waterstudio in 2003 because he was frustrated that the Dutch were building on land in a flood-prone country surrounded by water, while people who lived in houseboats on the water in Amsterdam “never had to worry about flooding”.

His firm now trains people from around the world in techniques they can adapt for their countries. It balances high-end projects in Dubai and the Maldives with work in slums in countries such as Bangladesh, Uganda and Indonesia.

One common solution for vulnerable communities has been to relocate them to higher ground outside urban areas – but many people work in the city and do not want to move.

Olthuis says the solution is to expand cities onto the water.

Waterstudio has designed a shipping container that floats on a simple frame containing 15,000 plastic bottles. The structure can be used as a school, bakery or Internet cafe.

Waterstudio’s aim is to test these containers in Bangladesh slums, giving communities flood-safe floating public structures that would not take up land, interfere with municipal rules or threaten landowners who don’t want permanent new slums.

“Many cities worldwide have sold their land to developers… and now when we go to them, we say, ‘You don’t have land anymore, but you have water,’” Olthuis said. “If your community is affected by water, the safest place to be is on the water.”

Reporting by Alisa Tang, editing by Laurie Goering

Our Standards:The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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PBS Newshour: Finding ways to live with rising water

There is a saying that “God made the world, but the Dutch made Holland.” And for centuries, the Dutch have built different types of barriers to hold back rising water and allow for development.

But as sea levels continue to rise, instead of trying to fight the water, Dutch architects and urban planners are taking a new approach: finding ways to live with it.

The United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reported in 2007 that global sea levels rose an average of nearly 8 inches in the past 100 years and predicted that rate will accelerate in this century. Higher water makes for more severe storm surges, floods and land loss. With many of the world’s largest cities located on coastal estuaries, high and dry urban land will become an increasingly rare commodity.

Cue a renewed look at floating architecture.

“In the last decade, floating architecture changed from a fringe niche market into a realistic opportunity for expanding the urban fabric beyond the waterfront,” said Koen Olthuis, lead architect at Waterstudio.NL, an aqua-architectural firm in the Netherlands. For Olthuis, creating floating buildings goes beyond architecture and is about a new vision for city planning.

Rather than putting entire cities on water, most of the proposals today combine water-based buildings with land-based architecture protected against water using flotation fixtures, raised platforms or anchored structures. That kind of flexible, integrated approach is crucial for the future, said Olthuis.

“Instead of buildings that are not able to cope with the changing needs of a city, urban planners will start creating floating dynamic developments that can react to new and unforeseen changes.”

And there’s a range of designs out there, including a float-in movie theater in Thailand and a massive Sea Tree, which uses the model of oil storage towers found on open seas to provide habitat for animals.

One of the most ambitious projects under development is in the Maldives, where Waterstudio.NL was tasked by the Maldives government to design a network of floating islands, including the Greenstar hotel that will feature 800 rooms, a conference center and a golf course. The $500 million project is set for completion by 2015.

Other projects in the works include Baca Architects’ amphibious house destined for the Thames River in Great Britain. During dry times, the home would rest on a fixed foundation but could rise up to 8 feet if flooding occurred.

As the industry expands, Olthuis said the biggest challenge isn’t technology but changing the public’s perception of living on water. To help encourage the transition, designers often make the structures look and feel just like those on land.

“We want to diffuse the border between land and water,” said Olthuis. “That is the first step in the general acceptance of floating cities.”

On the NewsHour this week, we’ll be looking at the impact of rising sea levels on Louisiana’s coast as part of our Coping with Climate Change series.

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