Skip to content
Architecture, urban planning and research in, on and next to water
+31 70 39 44 234

Are These Dutch Floating Homes a Solution for Rising Seas?

By Olga Mecking


Houseboats have long been a common sight near Amsterdam, but a new community may signal a premise that could work elsewhere, too.

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 farther 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.

“In a country that’s threatened by water, I’d rather be in a floating house.”
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. (Margriet Faber/AP)
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.

This story originally appeared as “Are the Floating Houses of the Netherlands A Solution Against the Rising Seas” on Pacific Standard, an editorial partner site. Subscribe to the magazine in print and follow Pacific Standard on Twitter to support journalism in the public interest.

Click here to view the article in pdf

Click here to view the article at the source website

City Apps fight the rising seas

Discovery Channel Magazine, 2013

City Apps fight the rising seas

As sea levels rise and populations expand in poorer waterside communities, a series of floating structures that provide spaces for food and energy production, shelter and
sanitation may help improve the lives of people living in wet slums.
Known as City Apps, Koen Olthius and his team from the Netherlandsbased Waterstudio who designed it, recently won the prestigious Architecture and Sea Level Rise Award
2012 from the Jacques Rougerie Foundation, for these flexible and adaptable structures (pictured). The technology, which includes floating PV cell farms, vegetable gardens and
other useful structures, was originally designed for wealthy waterside dwellers. It will now be used for communities in need, with the prize money from the award going towards
implementing the first City App in the Korail Wet Slum in Dhaka, Bangladesh.

Click here for the full article

Click here for the website

Architects’ Answer to Rising Seas: Floating Homes, abc NEWS

abc NEWS, AP Associated press, Denis D.Gray, Apr 2012

BANGKOK (AP) — A floating mosque and golf course for the submerging Maldives islands. Amphibious homes in the Netherlands lifted to safety as waters surge beneath them. A hospital perched on 400 stilts to protect patients from Thailand’s devastating floods and the encroaching sea.

Around the world, architects and city planners are exploring ways mankind and water may be able to coexist as oceans rise and other phenomenon induced by climate change, including extreme, erratic floods, threaten land-rooted living.

With the Dutch at the helm, projects in the cutting-edge field of aqua-architecture are already in place, including a maritime housing estate, floating prison and greenhouses in the Netherlands. An increasing number are coming on stream, and while earlier blueprints appeared to be the stuff of science fiction, advocates say leaps of imagination are still needed given the magnitude of the danger.

“The focus on floating solutions has grown enormously. It has shifted from freak architecture to more sustainable, flexible alternatives,” says Dutch architect Koen Olthuis, citing growing support by governments and interest among private investors in Asia and Russia.

“We will have to live with a more watery environment. There is no choice,” says Danai Thaitakoo, a Thai landscape architect whose own Bangkok house was swamped last year as the country suffered its worst floods of modern times.

The Thai capital is also among the mega coastal cities projected by the end of this century to lie totally or partially under water as global warming boosts sea levels, according to the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Others include Tokyo, London, Jakarta, Sydney and Shanghai — an apocalyptic prospect of mass migrations and economic crises.

While in earlier decades architects and planners, particularly Japanese and Americans, dreamed of entire marine cities housing millions, most today are proposing a mix of defending communities with barriers and building on water using floating platforms, raised or amphibious structures and solutions still being devised.

“Climate change will require a radical shift within design practice from the solid-state view of landscape urbanism to the more dynamic, liquid-state view of waterscape urbanism,” says Danai, who is involved in several projects based on this principle. “Instead of embodying permanence, solidity and longevity, liquid perception will emphasize change, adaptation.”

In a study for low-lying New York, Olthuis says he envisioned Manhattan ringed by a sea wall with outlying boroughs allowing water to enter and adapting. The world’s Londons and Bangkoks, he says, may become “hydro-cities,” their historic hearts and concentrated core development waterproofed and other areas “going with the flow.”

The Netherlands, a third of which lies below sea level, has been managing water since the Middle Ages and is thus a pioneer in the field. It has exported its expertise to Indonesia, China, Thailand, Dubai and the Republic of the Maldives, an Indian Ocean archipelago that with a maximum elevation of about 2 meters (8 feet) is the world’s lowest country. The sea-battered city of New Orleans has also sought advice from Olthuis’s Waterstudio.

In the Maldives, Waterstudio has designed a network of floating islands, the first to be put in place next year, to accommodate hotels, a convention center, yacht club and villas. The “islands,” secured by steel cables, are made up of pontoons with a foam core encased in concrete that can be joined together like Lego blocks. An 18-hole golf course will also be set on such platforms, each with two to three holes, connected by underwater tunnels. The $500 million project, paid for by the Maldivian government and private investors, is slated for completion in 2015.

A floating mosque, originally destined for Dubai before an economic downturn hit, is also part of the master plan, Olthuis said in an interview.

Following the principles of “water will always find its way” and “collaborating with nature,” the Dutch have reversed some of their earlier strategy of tightly defending their land with dikes by allowing the sea to penetrate some areas on which housing has been constructed.

One pioneering effort was the placement of amphibious and floating homes on the River Maas in 2005. All survived major 2011 floods that forced the evacuation of villages along rain-swollen rivers.

Construction recently began on the Olthuis-designed New Water estate, 600 homes and a luxury apartment complex on land purposely inundated. Interest in water-based living and work space has accelerated over the past decade, he says, and Waterstudio’s drawing boards are stacked with plans for local and international projects.

Typical amphibious houses, like the two-story ones on the Maas, consist of a structure that slides into a steel framework over a hollow foundation which, like the hull of a ship, buoys up the building when water enters.

The Maas houses sell from $310,000, about 25 percent more than equivalent homes, in part due to the cost of connecting them to utilities and drainage. But Olthuis says such linkages are simple and present no inconvenience to owners.

“Just proven technology of plug-and-play systems. All tested and used for years in Holland,” he says.

“The only time you will see a difference between a floating house and the traditional one is during floods — when your house rises above the water and your neighbor’s stays put,” Olthuis says.

Along similar lines will be Britain’s first amphibious house, recently granted planning permission along the banks of the Thames River in Buckinghamshire. The 225-square-meter (2,421-square-foot) home will be able to rise to 2.5 meters (8.2 feet) in the event of flooding.

Thai architect Chutayaves Sinthuphan, who will be unveiling a pilot amphibious house for the Thai government in September, says interest in such projects has grown since last year’s floods, which killed more than 600 people and affected more than a fifth of the country’s 64 million people.

“We have had proposals out for some time, but nobody paid much attention to them until the floods came,” he says.

His Site-Specific Company has already built such houses for private clients, using modern techniques and materials but like other architects in Asia looking to a past when communities adapted well to annual monsoon season inundations.

They point to a riverside village in the southern province of Surat Thani, where everyone lived on homes atop bamboo rafts until all but three families moved on land. Those three homes were the only ones that survived last year’s floods.

In the mid-19th century, almost all of Bangkok lived on houses built atop stilts or rafts. Since then, most canals have been paved over and the stilt houses replaced by a concrete urbanscape that holds back water instead of allowing it to flow through.

Architect Prisdha Jumsai has borrowed from traditional methods to design Thailand’s first hospital for the aged. Work has begun on the 300-bed hospital over a permanently flooded area near Bangkok that is also subject to tides from the nearby Gulf of Thailand. Concrete stilts will raise its first floor about 4 meters (13 feet) above average water levels.

“We hope this will influence people not to just fill in land but to build on water. I think it will open up new ideas for Thais who can look to traditional architecture and make it more up-to-date in design,” Prisdha says.

But this still appears to be a minority view.

“Most Thais look to Western, land-based models and most architects still don’t talk about environmental concerns. They talk about how a house will look and make you feel good,” says Danai. “But this will have to change. It’s about survival.”

Associated Press writer Mike Corder in The Hague contributed to this story.

Click here for the website

Dutch learn to live with, instead of fight, rising seas

Reuters, Ben Berkowitz

AMSTERDAM (Reuters) – The watermark column inside Amsterdam’s city hall is more than just a tourist attraction, it’s a reminder that the Dutch capital like much of the rest of the Netherlands is well below sea level.

Some 70 percent of the country’s economic output is generated below sea level, protected by a complex-system of ancient dikes and modern cement barriers that hold back water from the sea and the multitude of rivers that weave through the country.

Now, with scientists’ predicting that sea levels will rise by about one meter (3.3 feet) this century, the Dutch are reversing centuries of tradition to create natural flood plains for rivers as well as rebuild mangrove swamps as buffers against the sea.

“We’ve been adapting for 1,000 years. That’s nothing new. It’s just that climate change is going faster than it was before,” said Lennart Silvis, the operational manager of the public-private Netherlands Water Partnership.

Instead of raising dikes, the Dutch want to reclaim land and build public recreation areas that can absorb storm surges.

Rather than dredging sand to maintain beaches, they are looking at dumping piles of sand offshore to create “sand engines” shifted by the tides. Marshes may be renewed to break the power of incoming waves.

There is even a campaign called “Room for the River” which would weaken levees to recreate natural flood plains along rivers, including the Rhine and its tributaries which flooded in 1995 following heavy rainfall that almost led to a calamity.

While the dikes can be shored up, as happened in 1995 preventing the country from being submerged in 6 meters (20 feet) of water, the dikes could collapse if the sand and clay that form the barriers absorb too much water over time.

Hence the need for a longer-term solution given the possibility the Netherlands may face sustained pressure from its rivers throughout this century as glaciers in Switzerland melt, raising the water level of the Rhine.

River discharge in the country is expected to rise 12.5 percent in the coming years. This is on top of rising levels already seen in the past 10 to 12 years.

Those who work to promote such ideas say natural water buffers are a smarter move than building higher flood walls that may not stand the test of time as sea and river levels rise.

“100 billion (euros) spent on safety alone under uncertain conditions is maybe not the wisest investment,” said Raimond Hafkenscheid, director of the Co-operative Program on Water and Climate (CPWC) in The Hague.


Perhaps no country on Earth lives with rising seas in the way the Netherlands does. If the nationwide network of pumping stations failed, within a week the entire country would be covered in 1 meter (3 feet) of water.

From the age of four, virtually all children in the Netherlands start five years of swimming classes. Achieving the final “diploma” requires a test that includes treading water for half a minute, navigating an obstacle and then swimming 100 meters (328 feet) while fully dressed in heavy winter clothing.

It may sound extreme, but for Dutch families that remember the great flood of 1953, which killed over 1,800 people, wiped two villages off the map and required one of the post-war era’s largest international relief efforts, it is a small price to pay for peace of mind.

That flood, the source of the high watermark at Amsterdam city hall, drove water levels 4.5 meters (15 feet) above normal.

“A city can’t be prepared for all the change that will come but it can be flexible,” said Koen Olthuis, one of the principals of Waterstudio, a Rijswijk-based architecture firm that has designed floating structures around the world.

Fresh off a commission designing a floating mosque in Dubai, Oltenhuis is working on Het Nieuwe Water, a 2.5-kilometre wide project near the Hague that would include a series of floating apartments designed to rise and fall with the water level.

Such ideas are not new, there are already floating houses in the Dutch town of Maasbommel, to say nothing of Amsterdam’s houseboats. But they point toward the trend of living with the water, rather than trying to keep it out.


The ultimate goal of the varied efforts across the country is to keep people dry while at the same time react more quickly to the threat of flooding.

The problem, some say, is that the Dutch are so confident about their existing flood systems that they don’t respond with any particular urgency when danger threatens.

“We would like to be two times faster and two times better in our decision making,” said Piet Dircke, a program manager at engineering firm Arcadis and the chairman of the Flood Control 2015 initiative.

At the IJkdijk near Groningen in the far north of the country, the group is testing a range of sensors from differet companies embedded within dikes to see if any demonstrate potential in predicting when and how a dike will fail.

But even before water hits the dikes, there are those who think it would be better to block its path in the first place.

Enter the Wadden Works, a concept for a campground alongside small lakes that would sit in front of the Afsluitdijk, a causeway built in the late 1920s and early 1930s to close off a salt water inlet of the North Sea called the Zuiderzee.

Developed by engineering and consultancy firm DHV, the Works would create a major new recreation area in the north of the country while also acting as a natural breakwater for one of the most important dikes in the world.

Almost anyone involved in water in the Netherlands will tell you without hesitation that preparation is essential as water will encroach from rising seas and river flooding due to climate change.

“We are more accepting now of the concept that nature will come, the water will rise,” said Martin Karelse, a hydraulic engineer by training who serves as a program manager for DHV.

A government commission recommended last year that the Netherlands spend an extra 1 billion euros a year over 100 years to improve its flood control. With the Dutch economy hurting from the global slowdown, few expect the mid-September budget to allocate anything close to that.

While the existing flood defenses are generally held to be adequate, the uncertainties around climate change leave those closest to the water — literally and figuratively — on edge.

“Not everything in the Netherlands is as set in place and organized as people think,” the CPWC’s Hafkenscheid said.

Click here to read the article

Click here for the webiste

Back To Top