Floating architecture

Trying to embrace water in architecture instead of fighting it

11 SEPTEMBER 2016,
Water Pavilion - Daniel Valle Architects
Water Pavilion - Daniel Valle Architects

Over the last few years, the threat of sea level rise due to climate change and the shortage of land have led to an increasing interest in floating architecture. Through concept designs, prototypes and pilot projects, practitioners from all around the world are investigating new ways to embrace water in architecture instead of fighting it.

Some countries like Bangladesh and the Netherlands are not new to this concern. In fact, they are both identified as “delta region”, meaning that in both cases a huge part of their territories lies below the sea level, making both particularly vulnerable to flooding. Due to their natural condition, they have always attempted to preserve their land and – as it’s the case of the Dutch – to reclaim more areas through the construction of dykes.

However, worsening climate conditions, as recorded over the last decades, and alarming forecasts for the future, are calling for alternative measures to tackle the invasion of sea water and protect future generations. Unfortunately, Bangladesh can’t count on the same resources as its counterpart in Europe: it is the most populated delta in Asia, but also one of the poorest countries in the continent. To solve this problem, in 2015 the government of Bangladesh signed an agreement with the Netherlands and the World Bank Group to implement the Bangladesh Delta Plan 2100, a long-term set of measures to tackle water-related problems.

Hoping that this will bring substantial growth and benefits, it is worth mentioning some initiatives already in place. Among them the construction of floating schools. In Bangladesh, during the monsoon season, schools can either be disrupted by flooding or – in the best scenario – be inaccessible for months. To avoid any interruption that could cause early school dropout, some boats have been transformed into classrooms as proposed by the non-profit organization Shidhulai Swanirvar Sangstha. In fact, it has introduced solar-powered floating schools that work as both school bus and school houses at the same time. Each boat can host a classroom for 30 students. It usually collects students from riversides and bring them back at the end of the courses before moving on and collecting the next group. Also, the presence of solar panels on the roof allow the use of laptops, encouraging students to learn about technology. Furthermore, thanks to the electricity on the boat, students can recharge low-cost solar lanterns that they then bring back home and use to study in the evenings. Since its launch in 2002, this initiative has already helped almost 70.000 students, but we need to scale it up if we want to help the vast population of Bangladesh.

Recently, there has been a similar project that could work as a promoter for this kind of initiatives and push further implementations. In fact, the Makoko floating school designed by NLE architects has received the attention of the 15th International Architecture Exhibition in Venice. Until the end of November 2016, it is possible to visit a prototype of the school exposed at the Arsenal. Conceived to help the Makoko community in Nigeria, the first prototype built by the Dutch/Nigerian office used to stay off the coast of Lagos until last June when it was reported to have collapsed as a consequence of heavy rains. It is to be hoped that this unfortunate event will not hamper investments to implement this technology and obstruct research progresses on this field. The Bangladeshi case study needs to scale up and the Venice Biennial could help promoting it to a widespread audience.

Beside flooding, the development of floating architectures is also becoming an alternative to the “common way a living” and it could respond to the pressing problem of land shortage. Again, the Dutch are on the frontline of design research and pilot interventions. It is known that urbanization has increased the need for food and biofuels. Expanding cities on water could partly solve the problem of land shortage, leaving some room for palm oil plantation or corn production. At the same time, some argue that this expansion would further increase the request for food and energy, creating a vicious circle of land demanding.

While studies on the feasibility of large-scale interventions are still underway with several attempts that need to be improved – the 75 buildings in Waterbuurt (Amsterdam) is probably the most interesting one - small-scale projects for single family houses are easily to be conceived and therefore are more frequent. Several architectural practices have measured themselves against the limits of building on water. Quite often the results are impressive with luxurious single family homes being published on branch reviews, making everyone dream of a floating dwelling on the canals. Usually, these solutions provide the experience of living on a moored boat that has the resemblance of a modern home with all its comforts, but they also bring high costs and are thus limited to those who can afford it.

Last year, New London Architecture (NLA) – a think-tank operating in the field of architecture and urban planning of the UK capital - launched an international competition to solve London’s housing crisis. NLA together with the Major of London first selected a hundred ideas and then narrowed them down to ten winners whose proposals offered insights to potential solutions for the housing shortage. Among them a project for buoyant homes on River Thames by Baca Architects, showing once again the increasing interest on this topic.