Dutch design lets homes float on the floodwaters
'God created the earth," says an old Dutch saying. "but the Dutch created the Netherlands." Indeed, precious few nations share the distinction of having forged much of their land from the sea.Skip to next paragraph
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After hurricane Katrina flooded the Gulf Coast, many US hydrologists, architects, and city planners looked to "the low countries" for water-wise guidance. But instead of continuing their prohibitively high-cost war against the sea, some Dutch architects are designing ways to live on, instead of fighting against, the rising tide.
Amphibious housing - structures built on land that rise and fall with the water level - is one of several innovative ideas.
"We have to redefine construction to make it more dynamic and less static," says architect Koen Olthuis in a phone interview from Waterstudio.NL, an amphibious housing design firm in the Dutch city of Rijswijk. "We call this the 'resilient sector.' If a house is resilient, it means there won't be any damage or loss of value from flooding."
The Netherlands topography resembles that of New Orleans, only on a far grander scale: Some 26 percent of the country lies below sea level. Much of its land has actually been reclaimed from lakes, bays, and rivers, and is protected by an aging, complex system of dikes (similar to New Orleans levees) and water pumps (think of the famous Dutch windmills).
But after nearly a millennium of digging, pumping, and filling, the Netherlands is still extremely vulnerable to harsh weather and now, to global climate change. As sea levels rise, some experts say it's high time to make peace with the sea once and for all.
Residents are already moving into the first development of "amphibious" and floating houses on the banks of the Meuse River in Maasbommel, about 100 miles southeast of Amsterdam. When it is completed in January or February, the development (built by Dutch construction company Dura Vermeer and designed by architect Ger Kengen) will include 15 floating and 34 amphibious homes.
Whereas classic construction techniques in the Netherlands rely on underground concrete pilings to support structures in the spongy soil, an amphibious house comes with foam built into a hollow concrete basement.
When the water rises or falls, the houses float to up to 18 feet above ground by sliding along two mooring poles at the front and rear of the buildings. With the help of flexible PVC piping, the plumbing, electrical, and natural gas connections can go along for the ride.
The floating houses - similar to houseboats - manage rising and falling water levels in much the same way, but are built to float year-round, no matter what the weather.
"There will be a lot of turbulence," says Dick van Gooswilligen, Dura Vermeer's spokesman. "But on the other hand, the house is connected to the two mooring poles which would keep the house stable. So you would feel the waves, but it wouldn't be extreme."
While flooding is a perennial issue, the Netherlands rarely finds itself in the path of truly rough weather.
The new amphibious and floating houses are not built to withstand hurricanes or typhoons, but Mr. Olthuis's designs present nearly the same structural challenges as their land-lubbing relatives: Both need extra fortifications to withstand high winds.
Wetter winters and drier summers will make for unpredictable water levels in large parts of the Netherlands. Some 1.2 million acres of dry land will need to be reallocated as flooding zones in the next 50 years, according to government calculations. The Dutch Ministry of Water Management and Traffic has designated 15 areas where Mr. van Gooswilligen expects to someday see homes, businesses, and even agriculture bobbing placidly on the waves.