skip to Main Content
Architecture, urban planning and research in, on and next to water
+31 70 39 44 234

Waterstudio at BBC


Are floating homes the next frontier for urban design?

Architecture that works with water, rising with floods and sitting upon unused city space, may be the future of urban planning, say these innovative designers.
Buildings and communities that can float on water may be the next step in the evolution of cities, according to some avant-garde housing designers.

Many of the world’s largest cities sit next to, or are built around, large bodies of water. In the light of unprecedented population growth, climate change, flooding and rising sea levels, are floating homes the next frontier in urban living?

Watch the video to see two leading architecture firms describe their innovative concepts for life on water.

Click here to see the video

Can floating homes solve the urban housing crunch?

By Ken Wysocky

ON THE SURFACE, Michele Affronte and Marianne Gerrits have little in common. Affronte is a real estate agent who lives in Sausalito, California. Gerrits resides almost half-way around the world in Amsterdam.

Yet one common element ties them together. They both are urban pioneers of sorts — early adopters, if you will — of a lifestyle that could well be the wave of the future in city dwelling: Living the life aquatic aboard floating homes.

As land and housing prices in heavily populated urban areas continue to rise astronomically and housing availability becomes tighter than a first-gear hairpin curve, the floating home seems like a logical and plausible alternative for urban planners and developers. The bottom line: They aren’t making land any more, as American writer and sage Mark Twain astutely observed more than a century ago.

Other factors portend this sea change in urban living, such as rising ocean levels as a result of climate change and burgeoning populations that will strain existing land resources in urban areas. While few predict a Waterworld-ish doomsday scenario, it is interesting to note that about 44% of the world’s population lives within 150 kilometres (93 miles) of an ocean and most of the world’s megacities (2.5 million inhabitants or more) lie in coastal areas, according to the United Nations.

Moreover, the UN reports that 54% of the world’s population lives in urban areas – and that figure is expected to increase to 66% by 2050. In short, there’s a perfect storm of factors brewing that soon may force mankind to dip its collective toe into the deep end, so to speak, of offshore living.

Some cities and countries are already diving in. From Vancouver to Dubai and from Indonesia to the Netherlands, thousands of people have embraced offshore housing.

Take Affronte, for instance, who’s lived atop the waves in an eclectic community of some 480 houseboats on Richardson Bay since 1991. Her 1,800-square-foot floating home has three bedrooms, two full bathrooms, a living room, a kitchen, a dining room and a rooftop deck, plus municipal water and sewer connections.

“I planned on remodeling my houseboat, then flipping it and moving back onto land,” she explains. “But I loved it so much that I stayed. Now I’ll never leave.”

Two of the nearly 500 houseboats on Richardson Bay in Sausalito, California.

Gerrits also enjoys the aquatic lifestyle. She notes that her 800-square-foot houseboat (the second one she’s lived on), which floats on an Amsterdam canal, provides a unique perspective on the world. “You see so many different things on the water,” she says. “It’s as if a whole new world opens up to you.”

But in the dyke-protected Netherlands, aquatic living is rapidly becoming a necessity, not an idyllic lifestyle choice. For starters, about one-third of the country is under water — and threatened by rising sea levels. Moreover, the Dutch government estimates that 500,000 new homes will be needed in the next two decades to meet demand, but there’s not enough urban land to sustain that growth.

As such, it’s no wonder that the Netherlands has become a Ground Zero of sorts for floating housing. While exact numbers aren’t available, experts estimate that thousands of floating homes already exist in the Netherlands, ranging from charming converted barges to the nouveau-urban-style floating community in the IJburg district of Amsterdam, designed by Marlies Rohmer Architects and Planners.

Modern floating homes in Amsterdam’s IJburg neighborhood, a trio of artificial islands created to help mitigate the city’s housing shortage.

“Safety, (limited) space and flexibility are the three main drivers pushing us toward the water,” says Koen Olthuis, the founder and owner of Waterstudio.NL, an aquatic architectural firm based in Rijswijk in the Netherlands. A water-living visionary, Olthuis is a leading proponent of amphibious housing. In 2007, he ranked 122nd on Time magazine’s list of the world’s most influential people and in 2011, the French magazine Terra Eco selected him as one of 100 “green” people that will change the world. (He’s also written a book entitled Float! Building on Water to Combat Urban Congestion and Climate Change.)

“It’s already safer to live on water if you live where flooding is common,” he explains. “And most big cities are already densely populated and the square-metre (housing) prices are rising rapidly… and water is not as expensive as land.

“Moreover, cities are too static — every urban component we build has to stay there for 50 or 70 years,” he continues. “And as cities change, the only alternative is to demolish these things. But floating buildings can be moved and adapted…it’s all about reinventing our cities so they function better.”

Floating buildings can be moved and adapted…it’s all about reinventing our cities so they function better.

Nicolas Le Guen, the founder of Aquashell, a France-based architectural firm that specializes in designing floating buildings, concurs. “Floating homes are becoming more popular because they’re the best solution (to many problems),” he notes. “And after we build floating homes, we notice that our customers then want to build other kinds of floating projects, such as floating fitness rooms or floating restaurants, because they solve problems like rising prices and limited space in the center of towns.”

The projects built by or on the books at Waterstudio.NL are mind-blowing in nature compared to Sausalito’s shabby-chic, hippie-ish houseboat community. From a floating mosque in Dubai and a buoyant hotel off the coast of Norway to a water-based resort in the Maldives and an on-water health centerin China, Olthuis is clearly intent on pushing the flotation envelope.

Other forward thinkers around the globe are following suit. A Google search for “floating homes” generates more than one million hits and reveals conceptual, see-worthy aquatic gems like this audacious-but-spare ocean-going yachthouse from Wally Design in Monaco, suitable for Arabian oil sheiks; a rakish, minimalistic-yet-chic abode for millionaire Wall Street quants, designed by Le 2 Workshop in Poland; a bobber-inspired dwelling for the open seas from Orhan Cileli in Detroit, Michigan; and a futuristic home that imitates a jellyfish, designed by Giancarlo Zema Design Group in Rome. Or for a real walk on the wild side, how about this floating “ecopolis,” imagined by Paris-based Vincent Callebaut Architectures?

Sleeping with the fishes

Dubai’s chic Floating Seahorse villas offer deep-blue views.

SEASIDE HOMES IN DUBAI are among the world’s priciest. A typical beachfront townhouse on the tony Palm Jumeirah artificial archipelago can run £2m or more and plots on a sprinkling of man-made islands called The World can command 10 times that sum. Enter the Floating Seahorse, a three-storey seaborne townhome with all the luxury touches a well-heeled Emiratis would expect — plus one amazing trick. The one- or two-bedroom houseboat’s glassed-in subaqueous bottom floor offers panoramic views into the Persian Gulf’s depths. Kleindinest Group, the real estate firm behind the Seahorse (examples of which are presently listed for between £1.3m and £2.3m), calls it “the world’s first underwater villa with a view to the world’s largest national aquarium.” Because what’s more luxurious than going snorkeling without having to get out of bed? —Bryan Lufkin

More practical examples of floating homes also abound for the 99 percenters, like this sleek, IKEA-ish home from +31 Architects in Amsterdam; a sensually contoured, wave-mimicking abode, designed by Robert Harvey Oshatz Architect in Portland, Oregon; a modern-yet-rustic dwelling from Christopher Simmonds Architect in Ottawa, Ontario; and this stylish stunnerfrom Vandeventer + Carlander Architects in Seattle, Washington.

Some designers are surprised it took so long for this flood of innovative designs to emerge. Some 10 to 15 years ago, the Dutch seemed poised for a houseboat boom, but a host of obstacles thwarted growth, says Jonathan Baker, a native of Santa Barbara, California, who now lives in Copenhagen and works as an in-house architect for the United States embassy there. He should know; Baker used to work for Waterliving, a now-defunct architecture firm that specialized in floating homes before it went under, doomed by a promising market that never materialized.

Should a floating home be considered a ship that needed to be registered like a boat? What about building codes? Building materials? And obtaining insurance and bank loans?

“Should a floating home be considered a ship that needed to be registered like a boat?” he asks rhetorically, ticking off a list of complications that mired progress. “What about building codes? Building materials? And obtaining insurance and bank loans? We had very contemporary and experimental ideas…but there were no precedents. Governments had a hard time getting their heads around how these homes would be taxed and who owns the water they’re on.”

Yvonne de Korte, an urban geographer who co-wrote a book in 2008 about floating homes called Mooring Site Amsterdam: Living On Water, agrees with Baker’s assessment. “When we wrote the book [with co-author Maarten Kloos], there was an energy surrounding floating homes – you could feel it with builders and architects and students,” recalls de Korte. “But not much was realized.”

Olthuis sees all that changing now, noting that floating homes now receive more support than flak from municipalities. “Insurance, licensing, regulations – they all take time to figure out,” he says. “But in the last several years, things have pushed over a kind of invisible line and things are moving much faster.

“The DNA of these houses is changing, too,” he points out. “They’re slowly becoming more like land-based houses. The quality is getting better, we can build them larger, they require less maintenance, offer better stability and prices are dropping to point that they almost cost the same as homes on land. They’re becoming more interesting to municipalities, because they’re treating them as real estate, which generates property taxes.”

Technological advances are making floating home more viable, too, Olthuis says. Unlike many early houseboats that were built on old barges, new floaters now sit atop concrete “tubs” that offer more stability through a lower center of gravity. And they’re increasingly being built with composite materials that are lighter and stronger than traditional materials. Moreover, it’s becoming more common to build a home on land, then use a crane to place it on the “foundation,” he adds.

“There’s also a trend toward ‘plug-and-play’ houses,” Olthuis adds. “Say you have a basic house with three bedrooms. But when your kids move out, you take off a (modular) room off and put on something different – essentially order a new room for your house. It can change with you as time passes and new needs emerge.”

A former barge converted to houseboat duty along a canal in Amsterdam.

Are floating homes less expensive that land-based homes? It all depends. In Marin County, where floating-home-resident Affronte lives, the average home on land goes for about $800,000. An average two-bedroom, two-bathroom floating home? About $600,000 – but that doesn’t include a one-time payment of about $200,000 for berthing rights, plus property taxes and monthly association fees. The residents also pay higher interest rates for mortgages because lenders worry about the homes’ mobility, which gives unscrupulous owners the means to take off for points unknown.

But the floating homes more than hold their value, Affronte points out, noting that an average unit six years ago sold for around $375,000. “Demand always exceeds supply,” she says. Adds Baker: “Anything that overlooks water is more expensive…but the actual structures generally aren’t any more expensive than traditional homes.”

Cost issues aside, Olthuis envisions a buoyant future for water living as urban congestion increases and climate change brings on stronger rains and more flooding. He foresees a day when “floating gardens” of solar cells provide electric power for sustainable, offshore houses. Baker says floating sewage-treatment plants and fresh-water plants aren’t outside the realm of possibility. “Then they can develop enclaves in places without standard water and sewer infrastructure,” he says.

In addition, Olthuis contends that the floating-home lifestyle will be a boon to cities, which will vie with other water-oriented metropolises to attract residents. “Cities will need to brand themselves and make themselves more interesting, and water living will be just the thing to attract young, high-net-worth individuals…and floating communities will only increase the functionality and flexibility of cities.

“And if those young people don’t like one city, they can move their (floating) home to another city…they’ll change jobs and take their houses with them,” he concludes.

Overall, the appeal and logic of living on water is easy to fathom. “I can’t see any downside,” Baker offers. But it remains to be seen if this sea change in residential living runs aground or floats peoples’ boats.

Mailboxes for some of Sausalito’s houseboat residents.

Click here for the source website

Click here to view the article in pdf

Long for a sea change? Buy a house boat

By Alina Dizik



When Soren Terkelsen moved to a houseboat with his wife and two young children seven years ago, he wasn’t prepared for a front-row seat of Copenhagen’s winter storms.

“All of a sudden the ship turns into a steel thing that you cannot control,” said the 44-year-old. “We were completely new to this and had a lot of surprises.”

For Terkelsen, taking care of the M/S Arno, a 50-year-old boat that was refurbished into a family home, wasn’t immediately intuitive. In fact, there was much to learn about the new lifestyle.

The boat requires a new coat of paint with the rust scraped off every few years, the septic tank needs to be emptied regularly and there are mooring restrictions that dictate where he can keep the vessel.

Still, living close to the city without the chaos, while enjoying the serenity unique to waterside living—like watching geese and other water birds fly past — is hugely rewarding, he said.

“I really love it,” said Terkelsen, who recently started Copenhagen Boats, a boat-rental business.

For those who’ve long dreamed of living on the water, owning a houseboat is within reach. Many refurbished boats are on the market in waterfront cities including Seattle, San Francisco, Amsterdam, Stockholm and Copenhagen. And, new luxury communities are in various stages of development in Dubai, the Maldives and Miami. Houseboat prices can run from $200,000 into the millions, depending on the location and the level of luxury.

Architects say homes that float on the water can rise and fall with the tides, keeping buyers safe from flooding and rising water levels due to climate change. “It’s a unique lifestyle,” said Rick Miner, a Seattle-based real estate broker who specializes in floating homes and has lived in one for 23 years.

How to find it

After 25 years spent working in the hospitality industry in Vancouver, Canada, Ben de Vries knew he wanted to return to Holland and live in one of Amsterdam’s famous houseboats. But finding a boat wasn’t easy.

In cities like Amsterdam, licensed boats docked within city limits can be difficult to find because there are so few lots along the city’s waterways. After a long search, de Vries bought an old boat in 2001 for €120,000 ($92,850), which didn’t quite fit his idea of a dream houseboat because it was cramped and in need of an upgrade.

But, the old boat was well worth the price, he said, as the purchase included the valuable docking space license, or ligplaats, which in Amsterdam is sold together with the boat. Places to moor the boat in this Dutch city are fixed and cannot be changed to a different location, similar to purchased land. De Vries eventually purchased a new boat for €110,000 ($85,115) to put in the same space.

The hassle was worth it. While some houseboat communities on the city’s most popular canals can be loud, De Vries says he lives in a quieter part of the city and enjoys the diversity of his houseboat community. “They are usually interesting people that live on houseboats,” he said.

He also loves being close to nature. “I see big fish swimming around,” he said. “You’re more exposed to the elements.”

Due to limited docking space, competition for house boats is fierce in most markets, according to Koen Olthuis, founder of Waterstudio, an architecture firm in Deft, Holland that specializes on over-water projects.

Miner says that only six or seven boat properties per year are available for sale in Seattle and range from $700,000 to $1 million. By comparison, in Amsterdam, with an estimated 2,500 houseboats, there are more properties for sale and small older boats can sell for €200,000 ($154,750).

Finding a houseboat on your own can be difficult, so it is advisable to find a real-estate agent that specialises in houseboat sales. In the Maldives, for instance, Christie’s is selling 185 new floating villas, which start at $1 million and are in the first phase of completion, said Olthuis, who helped create the project.

Fees and maintenance

If you’re thinking of taking the plunge, there are some financial considerations to take into account.

The newest floating homes are built on a hollow concrete barge that can be towed to other locations but can’t be moved independently. But, because many floating homes and houseboats aren’t equipped with the engines, mechanics or navigation systems of boats, upkeep costs can be lower than a fully functioning water vessel of a similar size.

Monthly upkeep of your houseboat can cost from $200 to $600 for mooring fees and maintenance. Most owners pay monthly homeowner dues that cover water, sewer and dock maintenance. Those who own their docking spot, don’t pay a monthly mooring fee.

Houseboat owners are required to pay personal property taxes similar to home ownership on land. And, many houseboat communities also provide parking for homeowners as part of the monthly dues. But, in some areas, the saltwater can eat away at the floating home and require expensive upkeep well into the thousands of dollars, so budgeting for longer term, one-off or occasional expenses is also a good idea. When getting a mortgage, insurance in a must and is only slightly higher than homeowners insurance on land, mostly due to more possible weather damage. In the US, houseboat insurance averages about $1,500 annually.

Life on the water

If you think a houseboat will provide solitude, think again. Floating homes have their own neighbourhoods and provide a sense of community with other owners because they are rarely moved from one place to the next.

People “don’t realize how similar it is to normal housing,” said Olthuis, whose firm focuses entirely on overwater properties. “People still think it’s something futuristic.”

However, some of the comforts of home differ and require some adjustment. For one, bringing groceries or items back to the boat is often an acquired skill because you need to walk along a jetty. Odd jobs around your houseboat will also be different to those on land. A septic tank filled with used water needs to be properly emptied and cables that attach the boat to land must be checked frequently to prevent a boat coming loose during high winds.

Decorating is also a unique consideration. Some regular furniture can be an odd fit into the houseboat’s curved rooms, says Terkelsen, which means furnishing it could be more interesting — but more expensive  — than a house on land. Some companies including the US-based Bradd and Hall specialize in furniture in marine settings.

How to finance it

Financing a home on the water is different than purchasing a home on land.

In the US, smaller banks located near houseboat communities such as those in the Northwest will help buyers get a mortgage, but most homes are bought for cash, said Miner. With a mortgage, most boat purchases require a 20% down payment, he said. Such mortgages require special inspections that can cost up to $800 and involve a dive survey of the outside part of the home, which is a cost covered by the buyer and should be factored into closing costs.

In Amsterdam, to close on sale, boats need to be examined in a shipyard outside of the water. Not all banks around the world offer houseboat mortgages. Instead, buyers may need to take out a secured loan, which is similar to a mortgage and gives more favourable terms because the borrower pledges collateral for the loan.

An added return

With so many curious travellers, one perk to owning a houseboat is that they are easy to rent out.

This year, Terkelsen and his family moved back on land to start renting out their Copenhagen houseboat online. Bookings are already filled for the next three months, providing a healthy income stream.

Renting out a room on his Amsterdam boat also helps De Vries offset the extra expense of living on the water, while allowing him to share his love of the water with travellers. Guests enjoy the novelty of booking a room at Ben’s Boat and Breakfastand being only 10 minutes away from the center of town, said De Vries who rents one of his bedroom suites for €95 ($123) per night.

“It’s a rewarding business,” he said.


Click here to read the pdf

Click here for the website

BBC News: Flood-proof homes the Dutch way

BBC News featured Koen Olthuis and Waterstudio’s Watervilla IJburg

As thousands in the UK continue to deal with the misery of flooding, the Netherlands is pioneering the field of flood-proof homes.

Projects include floating homes, which rise and fall with the water levels, and amphibious homes that sit on dry land but float is water encroaches.

While the amphibious houses cost about 20% more than conventional buildings, the Dutch have learned the investment is still cheaper than that of cleaning up afterwards.

Click here for the website

Back To Top