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How floating architecture could help save cities from rising seas

By Kate Baggaley



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.

“It’s fundamentally for flood mitigation, but in our time of climate change where sea level is rising and weather events are becoming more severe, this is also an excellent adaptation strategy,” says Dr. Elizabeth English, an associate professor at the University of Waterloo School of Architecture in Ontario. “It takes whatever level of water is thrown at it in stride.”


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, says English, founder of Buoyant Foundation Project, a nonprofit based in Breaux Bridge, Louisiana and Cambridge, Ontario. “What I’m trying to do is to take existing communities and make them more resilient and give them an opportunity to continue to live in the place that they’re intimately connected to,” she says.

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,” says Illya Azaroff, director of design at New York-based +LAB Architect PLLC and an associate professor of architecture at the New York City College of Technology.


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. The homes look a bit like oversized floating houseboats.

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, says Waterstudio founder Koen Olthuis.

Olthius envisions cities with floating office buildings that can be detached and rearranged as needed. “It can be that you come back to a city after two or three years and some of your favorite buildings are in another location in that city,” he says, adding that buildings might be moved close together to conserve heat and separated when summer arrives.


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. “We will let the commercial project show that the construction can work and then work with the government to help the local community,” Jasper Mulder, vice president of Dutch Docklands, told Travel + Leisure.


The islands are also meant to offer a sheltered new habitat for marine life.

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.

“I don’t know if amphibious or floating architecture will go that far, but it is within the realm of possibility,” Azaroff says. “The overarching goal is to, one, keep people safe and, two, to allow the natural cycles to continue. Floating architecture allows you to do that in a really profound way that we didn’t have before.”

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Waterstudio makes a splash with floating architectural visions

By Rich Haridy
New Atlas

The spectacular Sea Tree concept is designed for flora and fauna where cities have no land left for animals or plants to thrive. The estimated cost is €1 million (US$1.18 million) and the entire structure is tethered to the sea bed by cables(Credit: Waterstudio)

For the last 13 years, Dutch Architect Koen Olthuis has been designing floating structures at his firm Waterstudio. His spectacular visions for reimagining urban environments has resulted in over 200 floating buildings around the world. Let’s dive in and take a look at some of the studio’s work.

Olthuis’ work ranges from hugely speculative concepts like his spectacular Sea Tree, to firmly pragmatic design solutions like the Floating City Apps, which are refitted shipping containers that float on beds of recycled plastic bottles.

One of the more extraordinary recent floating projects to get underway is a series of private artificial islands in the Maldives called Amillarah. These luxury floating islands are designed for the super rich and the first island is set to be built soon, with dozens to quickly follow.

But Waterstudio isn’t just interested in designing islands for the super rich. In fact, Olthuis’ main vision is to create floating developments as an architectural response to rising sea levels and increasing urban density. The City Apps project in particular is a compelling, and adaptive, solution to helping less-advantaged communities in flood prone areas. The first major delivery, including a classroom and a floating solar energy plant, will soon arrive in Dhaka, Bangladesh.


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What It Takes to Make a Brand New Island

By Erin Block
Photo Credits:Waterstudio

Koen Olthuis is convinced that nature always has a way of finding balance in our world: It is an equalizer and a force that can undo any disruption. The Earth is a healer and a blessing. No matter how abusive and destructive our species becomes, Mother Earth forgives and finds a way.

As the principal architect at Waterstudio.NL in the Netherlands, Olthuis constructed his vision around the collaboration of man and nature. For years, he tried to execute architecture that worked together with nature’s path instead of against it.

Now, he is among the first, along with developer Dutch Docklands, to create floating islands and homes in the Maldives that are meant for humans, but are also lifelines for the ocean and species below.

The Maldives, located in the Indian Ocean, are the lowest lying island chain and archipelago in the world — most of the country is only about three feet above sea level. It is the flattest country on Earth, and consists of 1,190 tiny islands built entirely on coral reefs. The coral reefs provide the majority of marine diversity and sustain the islands.

The islands are expected to be the first victims of climate change: The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) estimates that if we don’t take action on climate change in the next five to 10 years, sea level will rise by up to four feet by the end of the century.

A nation is on the brink of extinction, but Olthuis’s philosophy is a spark in an otherwise dark maze for the Maldivian people. It’s just the beginning and it’s taken Olthuis a lifetime to get here.

Amillarah, Floating Island, The Maldives

Courtesy of Dutch Docklands
In 2003 Olthuis, also known as the “Floating Dutchman,” was working on floating houseboats in the Netherlands. As an architecture and industrial design expert in Holland who spent his life studying the architecture of water, this was a natural progression for him. Holland has around 16,000 floating structures and, by all accounts, one of the most robust histories of floating homes. Soon, Olthuis began working on multiple boats as owners commissioned him to bolt a rigid, concrete foundation connecting the vessels to create larger and larger habitable spaces.

He spent his time learning building codes and taking in the nuances of underwater design. His designs became so glamorous and so large that he began getting attention from architecture experts and fanatics for a different type of project, man-made islands, more specifically floating islands.

Up until recently there was only one way to make an island: dredging the sea floor to create new land and coastlines. The Palm Islands, built in 2014, in the Persian Gulf off the coast of Dubai, United Arab Emirates are the most famed example of this.

The Palm Islands, though a spectacular feat of human innovation, pose significant environmental and logistical challenges. Only a few years after the Palm Islands were built, there were reports of erosion: The islands seemed to be sinking back into the water. What’s more, the maintenance of these islands could mean severe consequences for the surrounding ecosystem.

Private Watervilla, The Netherlands

Courtesy of Dutch Docklands
“Unfortunately this has dire consequences for neighboring coral reefs as it increases the turbidity of the water, buries entire habitats, and can lead to their direct, albeit incidental, removal,” said Dr. Andrew Bruckner, the director and lead scientist of Coral Reef CPR.

“The dredging also alters natural current and water circulation patterns and can cause unnecessary erosion in areas upcurrent or downcurrent from the construction site. Many islands repeat this dredging process annually as the monsoon switches direction.”

The idea of a floating island was new for Olthuis. Translating your work from houseboats to living, breathing worlds is not a step that happens overnight. The transition came in 2008: The Maldivian people elected President Mohammed Nasheed, who pledged to keep the Maldives from the threat of climate change, the rising sea levels from melting polar icecaps and a warming planet.

Nasheed had a strong message: His country is sinking. The population of almost 370,000 could either become climate change refugees, or they could be climate change innovators.

Pinpointing the moment houseboats became floating islands is hard for Olthuis to remember, but the idea of helping to continue a culture started something. He met with President Nasheed and a new era began. Building and maintaining islands that are sustainable and eco-friendly could preserve both the integrity and the livelihood of the Maldives.

Olthuis began to work out the logistics and created a prototype that could be assembled in Holland, taken apart, shipped to a new location and then reassembled.

Floating islands are reassembled in underwater lagoons. The foundations can be concrete, steel or composite, depending on size and location, and are anchored with a strong cable, so they can move about a meter in each direction as needed. Though there is movement, springs are used as a stabilization tool, so standing on the surface feels as cemented as any other natural land mass. There is a flat, smooth surface underneath with no curved edges, so marine life can thrive. Through extensive research and trails, Olthuis found that round and pyramid shapes promote the most growth.

Amillarah, Private Island, The Maldives

Courtesy of Dutch Docklands
For a long time, most underwater architects focused only on the ecosystem on the surface of the island or structure. It was about making the environment as lush and as beautiful as possible, but it wasn’t the whole picture.

It took Olthuis until 2011 to realize that it was not just about the beauty of the surface — it runs deeper. Following the World Architecture Festival in Barcelona, Spain, Olthuis received a question in the audience from a journalist. Olthuis had just finished describing a new project that consisted of floating buildings with green landscapes throughout. The journalist raised his hand and asked, “Can an architect only design for people?”

This question completely changed the course of Olthuis’ life. He rethought the role of an architect, considering the responsibility and obligation to enhance the surrounding environment. His company, Waterstudio.NL, now leads with the motto, “green is good, blue is better.”

“Now, for each location you try and find out as much as possible about the current ecosystem and what you could possibly need to enhance the marine life: How to locally clean the water and what shapes make the flow of water flow naturally underneath it,” said Olthuis.

It’s about making the islands work, but not just for humans. In the past, Olthuis worked with pontoon boats in Holland to find ways to get rid of the underwater ecosystem that could chip away at the hull of a boat, but now his whole world was upside down.

“Floating islands don’t move,” said Olthuis said. “You want as much algae and shells to grow underneath these islands. We talk a lot with these experts about how they can make algae make it grow on these hulls. It’s reverse thinking.”

In August 2016, Olthuis and developer Dutch Docklands received a license to test their first island in the Maldives. They have a 100-year lease in a section of the Indian Ocean just outside the Maldivian island chain to test their floating islands. The first will be assembled and built by October 2017.

By 2019, Dutch Docklands will have invested millions of dollars and intends to have first 50 islands intact. Within the next decade, the company expects to have a total of 100 small islands.

The project was originally planned for August 2017, but, as Olthuis puts it, new clients mean new expectation. “Our clients are even more green than we are,” said Olthuis. “Our clients want to be completely off the grid. It was a challenge to make the change and develop, but we’re back on track.”

Dutch Docklands only commissioned the building of private islands known as Amillarah, which are to be sold to individuals through Christie’s in New York City. But, the technology can and should extend to create sustainable and environmentally friendly bio-reserves and new land for a culture that is sinking.

“This is just the beginning,” said Jasper Mulder, vice president of Dutch Docklands. “We will let the commercial project show that the construction can work and then work with the government to help the local community.”

If Dutch Docklands moves forward with floating islands as a social project, it is just one example of how humans, the market for luxury and sustainable products and the environment can all come to together to create a remarkable new beginning. Man may be able to have what we want and need without abusing our environment.

“In general, environmental impacts associated with the floating islands are likely to be much less severe than that associated with the continued land reclamation and dredging,” Dr. Bruckner said. “The creators behind this idea have given the environment significant forethought by placing these islands in areas that are likely to have the lowest environmental impact possible.”

Though hope for a sustainable, environmentally friendly option for the Maldivian people is strong, we still don’t know what the long-term effects will be.

“They are proposing to place these within lagoonal areas away from coral reefs. This does minimize the shading of reef systems, however it is likely to have a significant impact to these shallow lagoonal areas that provide critical nursery areas,” Dr. Bruckner continued. He is also concerned about what Dutch Docklands is proposing to do with sewage produced, as these are located within the lagoon, and discharge of sewage into the lagoon will seriously impact surrounding habitats through increased nutrients, and subsequent algal blooms. Olthuis has no concerns about the leftover sewage, however: He plans to treat the sewage water and use it promote plant and brush growth. The remaining sewage will be removed from the island on a monthly basis.

Until the floating surface is created, we won’t know its true impact on the surrounding environment, but both Dr. Bruckner and Olthuis agree that working with and for nature could be the answer.

Back in 2007, when Olthuis was not involved in the fate of this island nation, before his mission became designing islands underwater and above, he was asked to create a lush landscape and environment for Villa New Water, a residential property in Naaldwijk, The Netherlands. As a new architect and planner he believed the secret to success was to plan and organize every detail of a project. It had to be perfect.

In the midst of New Water’s production, he to visited a local friend who kept an unruly yet beautiful garden. Somehow the garden managed to heal itself through its chaotic patterns. It looked breathtaking compared to the typical residential garden, and Olthuis realized perfection was not natural — and his best work would be one guided by nature’s decisions.

To this day, the garden’s layout and idiosyncrasies stays with Olthuis. He believes nature always find an equilibrium, in spite of the human race.

“That is the point of these floating islands,” Olthuis said. “We’ll build the canvas and nature will fill it out.”

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Oceans of opportunity

from Cladbook2017
Issue 3.2016
PhotoCredits: Waterstudio

Koen Olthuis has been touting the benefits of floating cities for years – and now people are starting to take notice

A number of high-profile projects have recently brought attention to Koen Olthuis’s approach to living on water. Those include the floating Citadel apartment block in the Netherlands and important large-scale leisure projects such as luxury private islands in Dubai, floating hotels and resorts in the Maldives and a snowflake-shaped hotel off Norway. The potential for floating architecture, Olthuis says, goes far beyond one-off developments: it’s an urban planning tool.
“For the past 15 years, I’ve been designing these floating structures,” says Olthuis, who established his design firm Waterstudio in 2003. “When I started, all the other architects thought I was crazy, but now this approach is starting to be adopted by developers. We’re also talking to governments around the world about how floating developments can upgrade and improve their cities.” The big picture in all this, according to Olthuis, is that extending cities beyond the waterfront and indeed further out to sea reduces the pressure on overpopulated urban areas – where 70 per cent of people will live by 2050 – and offers flexible solutions for problems thrown up by rising sea levels and climate change.

How do floating structures work at a city level?
Governments worldwide are looking at how floating developments can improve their cities. I propose a system of modular floating developments – floating urban components that add a particular function to the existing grid of a city. With this system, any question a city asks can be answered immediately. If a city needs parking, bring in floating parking. If it has green issues, bring in floating parks and Sea Trees [Waterstudio’s offshore green structures]. The system is responsive to the needs of dynamic urban communities.

Is floating architecture the way forward for urban living?
It’s project to product. You’ll be able to order buildings in, and sell or lease buildings you don’t want or need. We’ve only explored a fraction of the possibilities, but in the next 10 to 15 years, more and more architecture will start to explore the possibilities of floating developments and it will grow from something that’s a fringe architecture to something that’s mainstream. The stupid thing is that we live in dynamic communities and yet we build static structures. With rapidly changing social structures and technologies, we need flexible cities. I’m not saying we have to build floating cities, but that every city that is next to the water should have at least 5 per cent of its buildings on the water. That would create flexibility.
It’s not the only way, but it’s something that is inevitable. It’s about rethinking and finding solutions for major problems.

What other advantages are there?
We believe green is good but blue is better. Water provides many tools to make more durable and sustainable cities. You have water cooling for the buildings, you have flexibility, you have buildings that rise and fall with the water level, you don’t have to demolish a building that’s no longer needed because you can repurpose it or even sell it. People, developers and politicians are starting to see that this is something that brings in money and solves problems. It’s a feasible way to build better cities.

What do you mean by flexibility?
I don’t mean that you’ll be able to take your house and move to another city or another neighbourhood. I mean flexibility on a larger scale, where cities and urban planners are able to move a complete neighbourhood half a mile or bring in temporary floating functions – like stadiums – and use them for one or two years before they leave for another city. This large-scale flexibility makes sense. Take the Olympic Games. It’s so strange that every four years we build so many hotels and stadiums and only use them for a few weeks. Imagine if as a city you could just lease these floating functions from a developer. Cities who don’t have as much money as London or Rio or Beijing could also host these types of events because it would cost much less money.

Is it something you can foresee happening in the near future ?
Yes, maybe not with stadiums – because we can put them up easily – but with the hotel business, certainly. Qatar has the World Cup in 2022 and they need 35,000 hotel rooms for that event. But if they built 35,000 hotel rooms, within 10 years they’d be empty. So they’re thinking about using cruise ships. As the harbour facility is not big enough, they’re also thinking about the idea of fl oating harbours, or fl oating cruise terminals – something that can facilitate these cruise ships for a few weeks, and then a: er that you can bring the fl oating harbours to another location.

Can you tell us about Amillarah Private Islands?
Yes. With OQYANA Real Estate Company and developers Dutch Docklands, 33 private islands are being built as part of The World Islands project in Dubai. The islands are being sold by Christie’s International Real Estate, with a starting price of US$10m. It’s a really high-end project. The fl oating islands look like tropical islands covered in trees, but in fact they’re more like superyachts. They’re built in Holland and then moved to the location in Dubai and anchored there. They are self-su5cient with their own electricity and their own water. Within the next 10 years there’ll be more development around them, so we’re making it look like its own archipelago. If you fly over, it looks like a series of green islands. OQYANA has a masterplan around Amillarah that includes shops, hotels and all kinds of leisure architecture. This is just the first step of the development, but the beauty of this floating architecture is that it moves very fast. Once you’ve built the islands you can just tow them in and connect them to the boKom, either with cables or telescopic piles and they’re ready. Compare that to the manmade islands at The World. There’s still very liKle built there. It’s di5cult to get labour there, di5cult to build the right foundations and there’s no electricity or water, so developers don’t know how to build there without losing money.

Have any been sold?
Not yet. We’ll have an island there, like a show home, from December this year (2016). With the history of the property market in Dubai, it’s beKer to have the first islands  there so people can have a look and understand what it’s all about, especially at the prices people pay in this type of market. I should add that if I only ever build floating islands for the rich then I’m doing something wrong. The start of this story for me was to create a new tool for cities that are facing urbanisation, overpopulation and climate change – and also for cities that need to brand themselves to aKract inhabitants. As well as being able to answer these big, fast-changing urban problems, these floating structures bring a certain character and appeal to a city – a USP.

Why does your concept appeal to resort or hotel developers?
On water, leisure architecture, including resorts and hotels, has the possibility to change. You can adapt and create functions that are not only moveable but also transformative through time, for instance, through the seasons. With seasonal structures you can open up the buildings in the summer, make buildings more dense or more spread out. You can add functions or take them away. To me, it’s one big playing field and we’re trying to work out what it means for the future of leisure architecture and real estate, not just how these things will look, but the economic eUects too.

What kind of economic benefits might there be?
A project we started working on a few years ago was a floating hotel and conference centre for the Maldives – the Greenstar. As well as answering fast-changing urban problems, floating structures bring a certain character to a city – a USP The star-shaped hotel has five legs, each with 80 rooms inside, but instead of building five legs, we build six. One of these legs will stay in a harbour in India. In five or seven years time, when the hotel needs refurbishing, you bring the sixth leg to the hotel and connect it, sending the others one by one to be renovated. The hotel doesn’t need to shut down, and the work can be carried out where it’s easy and cost-eBective to get the materials and labour to do it.

What other projects are you working on?
We’re working in the Middle East, in Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Oman, exploring the potential of ecotourism. We’re looking at building satellite resorts for land-sited hotels, that float out at sea where there are coral reefs or mangroves. Floating resorts don’t leave any scars on the environment – they’re scarless developments, which can even have a positive eBect on the environment. For example, we work with marine engineers and environmentalists to help build floating structures that aKract underwater life. In places like Dubai, it’s so hot that it’s very
diLcult to create the right environment for fish and marine life, but the shade of these floating islands can provide a starting point for new marine ecosystems. We’re also working with master developer Dutch Docklands and the Maldivean government on the ongoing Five Lagoons Ocean Flower resort and residences. Finally, we’re looking at developing cities that face troubles with the environment, density and infrastructure – and seeing how water can be part of that solution.

What are the challenges?
Progress on Norway’s Krystall Hotel is slow because of laws that prevent building on the shoreline. Regulations and laws can be a hurdle, and may need to be changed to adapt to floating architecture. But, we are slowly moving to a marketplace where these floating developments are accepted. There’s a bright future for this technology.

Slum Schools
Waterstudio has been pioneering the concept of floating facilities that can be moored at waterside slum communities anywhere in the world. City Apps are floating developments based on a standard sea-freight container. City Apps can be established in water where there is scarcity of space and can be used to upgrade sanitation, housing and communication installations. The first City App, a floating school, is being built for a slum in Dhaka. “One billion people live in slums worldwide and half of them are close to the water. We can use City Apps to instantly improve the quality of life there,” says Olthuis. Because governments see these as temporary solutions, it’s much easier to get permission to do this than to build a facility on land.


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Are the Floating Houses of the Netherlands a Solution Against the Rising Seas?

Olga Mecking
Pacific Standard

Photocredits: Wojtek Gurak/Flickr

Houseboats have long been a common sight in the Netherlands. But a new community of floating homes may signal a solution for rising sea levels across the globe.

Floating homes in IJburg, Amsterdam.

(Photo: Wojtek Gurak/Flickr)

Not far from Amsterdam’s Central Station lies IJburg. Hidden in plain view, the city’s newest district is somewhat of an undiscovered secret. In fact, IJburg is known better to the people outside of the country rather than the ones who actually live in the Netherlands.

Moriam Hassan Balogun, who is originally from the United Kingdom, moved there in 2009 and now considers herself an “international local.” She loves IJburg’s family friendly atmosphere, the space, and the many cafes and possibilities for work and leisure. It also attracts many business owners and mostly people with liberal political views.

IJburg is built on four artificial islands that are connected to each other and the rest of the city via bridges. It has around 21,000 inhabitants, the first of whom moved there in early 2002. But the district still isn’t completely built. Though the goal was to finish building IJburg by 2012, that has not happened due to environmental concerns and slow uptake of houses. When finished, it will offer 18,000 homes for 45,000 people and create around 12,000 jobs.

Of late, the islands have been of particular interest to climate change researchers; in particular, the area of Waterbuurt West. There, 120 floating homesteads have been built to deal with Amsterdam’s housing shortage and to prevent the citizens of Amsterdam from moving further away, to Purmerend or Almere—a phenomenon known as urban sprawl. Living on water is not that surprising in a country that’s surrounded by it. All over the Netherlands, people live on barges or houseboats. But these new houses in IJburg are different because they are very visibly not boats. They are houses.

A Dutch saying goes, “God created the world but the Dutch created Holland.” The Netherlands has long been a pioneer in reclaiming land from water, spending centuries drying out the sea to build. That may have been a mistake, says Koen Olthuis, the founder of the Waterstudio in Rijswijk, an architectural bureau specifically devoted to designing buildings on water.

“The Dutch are crazy, that’s fun about the Dutch. We are here now in a part of Holland where we shouldn’t be. It’s man-made,” Olthuis says. A much better solution would be to simply build floating houses, or even whole floating neighborhoods instead.

The technology used to build houses on water is not really new. Whatever can be built on land can also be built on water. The only difference between a house on land and a floating house is that the houses on water have concrete “tubs” on the bottom, which are submerged by half a story and act as counter-weight. To prevent them from floating out to sea, they are anchored to the lakebed by mooring poles.

As sea levels are rising globally, many cities around the world are under threat from water. Some areas are projected to disappear completely in the next few decades. Therefore, designing houses to float may, in some instances, be safer than building on land and risking frequent floods. “In a country that’s threatened by water, I’d rather be in a floating house; when the water comes, [it] moves up with the flood and floats,” Olthuis says. He believes that water shouldn’t be considered an obstacle, but rather a new ingredient in the recipe for the city.

Floating houses are not only safer and cheaper, but more sustainable as well. Because such a house could more readily be adapted to existing needs by changing function, or even moving to a whole new location where it can serve as something else, the durability of the building is much improved. Olthuis compares this to a second-hand car: “By having floating buildings, you’re no longer fixed to one location. You can move within the city, or you can move to another city, and let them be used and used again.”

Houses built on land are very static, while on water it’s possible to add, take away, or easily change parts. And communities built on water can be constructed more densely, which would allow for more efficient energy use. Water allows houses (and even whole cities) more flexibility, and, for Olthuis, it’s this characteristic that makes it such a fascinating element.


He sees the use and incorporation of water as the next logical step in the evolution of cities. Cities are not unlike brands, and the ones with a lot of water would be the most flexible, and therefore the most desirable. This branding is already visible in many regions around the world: Think of Los Angeles as the city of movies, New York as the city for writers. Blue cities, or cities that can utilize the water, would also be the cities that would attract residents.

But Olthuis goes one step further. He imagines cities that can quickly change, depending, for example, on the season. In the summer, they could be open to allow the collection of sun energy, and in the winter they could huddle closer together for warmth and energy preservation. He also prefers to talk about functions, or modules, rather than actual buildings.

“In the next city, it’s no longer about what you have; it’s about what you can load. You’re going to load functions to your neighborhood on the water, and if you need new functions, you take them out and you reload them with other profiles,” he imagines. Cities of the future will share certain functions, like, for example, museums, stadiums, or other facilities. “It will be a completely new way of thinking about these [establishments].”

Incorporating water into the cities will also introduce more equality, says Olthuisk, referring to a principle known as “the democracy of water.” In fact, something similar is already happening not just in IJburg but in the whole of the Netherlands, where house owners and social housing recipients share neighborhoods. In IJburg itself, around 30 percent of the houses are earmarked for this very form of government assistance.

People of various nations, races, religions, and ethnicities live on the island. “There’s no group that’s more than the other,” Hassan Balogun says. However, the people who move to IJburg tend to be politically similar. “There’s quite a lot of liberal thinkers, very open-minded people here. I think that like seeks like,” she says. The residents of IJburg often vote for D66 and Groenlinks parties, both known for their liberal views and a focus on sustainability.

A floating home in IJburg, Amsterdam.

(Photo: Pierre/Flickr)

The inhabitants of IJburg don’t really have the need to leave the island unless they want to. There are plenty of options in that part of the city, including cafes, gyms, yoga studios, and parks. There are also 10 schools. The whole area has an atmosphere of newness, of opportunity.

And this opportunity—the concept of floating houses—could spread to other areas around the world. Due to very strict regulations in the Netherlands, Olthuis is often exporting his ideas abroad, including to China, the United Arab Emirates, India, and the Ukraine. He recognizes that American cities face the same threat towns in the Netherlands did: urban sprawl. “So we have to bring the cities back, make them more compact,” he says. “That’s what I hope that people in the States will learn.”

Floating houses are an idea American cities should consider not just to combat sprawl. Many major cities—like New York, Washington, or Miami—could soon find themselves under water. Olthuis does, however, caution against a Waterworld-like future.

He doesn’t believe in cities existing solely on water due to high costs of maintenance and constant energy consumption. He thinks the future lies in already existing cities that use naturally existing water to expand and improve. His hope is that, one day, 10 percent of the Netherlands could become a blue city. But it doesn’t have to stop there. “It’s not only about architecture, it’s not just about having fun in IJburg. It’s about rethinking how we, as communities, want to live in cities,”

The city may not be fully built yet, but, given its multi-faceted approach to sustainable urban design, IJburg could be seen as a first step in that direction. At the very least, it is an already existing example for how to successfully integrate water into our cities.

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Eerste waterwoning Stadswerven volgende maand bewoond

By Albert Sok
Photo Credit: Victor van Breukelen

Eerste waterwoning Stadswerven volgende maand bewoond
Dordtenaren Paul en Alice Rijfkogel moeten nog vier weken geduld hebben, maar dan kunnen ze eindelijk hun drijvende droomhuis in het water van de Wantij betrekken.

Sinds maandagavond ligt de eerste van vijf drijvende woningen te pronken in de rivier. Het afgelopen jaar werd de blikvanger gebouwd in Heerenveen, waarvandaan die zaterdag vertrok richting de Stadswerven. Woensdag en donderdag wordt de loopbrug vastgemaakt aan de waterwoning, waarna binnen de laatste puntjes op de i gezet kunnen worden. ,,We moeten alleen nog behangen en de vloer leggen’’, popelt Rijfkogel, nu nog woonachtig in Dubbeldam. De komende weken volgen nummer twee tot en met vier. Volgend jaar zomer meert ook de laatste van de vijf aan.

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Sea Tree

By Pierre-Mathieu Degruel
Photo Credits: Waterstudio

This prospective project created by the Waterstudio agency is designed to be located in harbours basins. This sea tree is a floating structure composed of superimposed immersed and emerged terraces. On each level a different ecosystem evolves and offers green habitats for animals rejected from citied (birds, bees, bats…). Under the sea’s surface, the tree recomposes an environment favourable to small marine creatures and, when the climate allows it, artificial coral reefs. A real modern day Noah’s Ark, this growth catalyser of fauns and flora is inaccessible to man. The cities of New York and Singapore are seriously considering installing some.

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