Today’s Solutions: March 27, 2023

It’s no secret—climate change is already upon us, and we have no choice but to adapt to it if we want to survive. While some regions of the world combat increasingly dangerous wildfires or droughts, other places, like the Netherlands, must learn to live with worsening floods while dealing with a housing shortage.

Investing in floating communities is just one of the ingenious ways that the Dutch are coping with rising sea levels and floods, and their success has inspired other flood-prone nations like French Polynesia and the Maldives.

We’ve written once before about the floating community of Schoonschip, in Amsterdam, which is comprised of floating houses that are brilliantly designed to slide up and down their steel foundation pillars as the water also rises and descends in harsh weather.

“We feel safer in a storm because we are floating,” explains Dutch television producer and Schoonschip resident Siti Boelen. “I think it’s kind of strange that building on the water is not a priority worldwide.”

Floating neighborhoods don’t just offer safe shelter for the residents, but their presence along coastlines can also offer communities vulnerable to the rising swell of the ocean defense against floods. Plus, floating homes that don’t require land can be a potential solution to housing shortages, a growing problem for the densely populated country of the Netherlands. As the popularity of floating homes rises, officials are beginning to update zoning laws to make the construction of floating homes more accessible.

“The municipality wants to expand the concept of floating because it is multifunctional use of space for housing, and because the sustainable way is the way forward,” states Nienke van Renssen, an Amsterdam city councilor from the GreenLeft party.

Successful floating communities like Schoonschip that have been established over the past decade have set a model for larger-scale Dutch-led housing projects in neighboring countries like Britain and France, but also nations great distances away in the Indian Ocean and in the Baltic Sea to help these nations cope with the existential threat of sea-level rise.

How are floating homes constructed?

A floating home can be erected on any shoreline and can adapt to changing sea levels and rain-induced floods because they float atop the water’s surface. Floating homes should not be confused with houseboats which aren’t stationary but can be easily unmoored to sail off to a new location. Instead, floating homes are fixed to the shore by the steel poles that they rest on.

These homes are usually connected to the local sewer system and power grid and resemble homes constructed on land. The only thing is that they don’t have a basement but rather a concrete hull that acts as a counterweight and allows them to remain stable in the water. In the Netherlands, the homes are normally three-story townhomes that have been prefabricated with conventional materials such as timber, steel, and glass.

Koen Olthuis, the founder of Waterstudio, a Dutch architectural firm that focuses exclusively on floating buildings, explains that floating homes are relatively low-tech, which gives them a huge advantage as a potential solution for growing climate change concerns. His designs are stabilized by poles that are dug about 65 meters into the ground and are equipped with shock-absorbent materials that reduce the feeling of movement from waves.

“We now have the tech, the possibility to build on water,” explains Olthuis, adding that he and his colleagues “don’t see ourselves as architects, but as city doctors, and we see water as a medicine.”

Instead of seeing water as an obstacle and a hindrance, Olthuis believes that they’re “creating blue cities, seeing water as a tool.”

That said, floating homes still have to face unique challenges like severe wind and rainstorms, which can make the buildings rock. One of Schoonschip’s residents, Siti Boelen, revealed that she would avoid going up to her third-floor kitchen when the weather was stormy because she could feel the movement the most up there. “You feel it in your stomach,” she says, but also added that she’s since gotten used to the sensation.

Floating buildings also require more infrastructure and are more difficult to connect to the electricity grid and sewer system, but even with all these factors to consider, floating developments would still potentially save countless lives and billions of dollars in damage when and if deadly floods hit, like the ones that took place in Germany and Belgium last summer.

If you’re more interested in buoyant buildings, check out this article we wrote about the world’s largest floating office, also situated in the Netherlands.

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