Living on Water

February 27, 2011 • Cities, Theme • Views: 1861

by Luke Hawbaker:

Most homeowners living near water dread the prospect of flooding. If the rain pours and water levels rise, they are forced to steel themselves against inevitable damage or even evacuate. But some residents living on the Meuse river in the Netherlands have little to worry about. Their houses float.

In 1993 and 1995, huge river floods marked a new chapter in the centuries-old Dutch battle to ward off water. The 1995 floods alone displaced 200,000 people. According to Pier Vellinga, an initiator of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and one of the Netherlands’ foremost experts on the impacts of climate change, these floods had “a major effect on the vulnerability awareness of the Netherlands population and the government.”

The floating homes on the Meuse River in Maasbommel, Netherlands are designed to rise with the river as it floods. (Courtesy Peter Minemma)

With these disasters fresh in their minds, the Dutch government, private companies, and individual homeowners set about reimagining man’s relationship with the water. Koen Olthuis, a leading architect of floating structures, was one of those individuals. His solution? “A new approach in which the best defense is offense. Not fighting the water, but living with it.”

The floating homes along the Meuse were born out of this paradigm shift. In 2005, the Dutch government opened up 15 locations to what Peter Minnema, project manager for Dura Vermeer Business Development BV, called “adapted building techniques.” In doing so, they spurred Dura Vermeer’s most famous creations: the 36 amphibious and 14 floating houses of the town of Maasbommel.

The homes were intentionally built in areas where water levels are frequently high, outside of the town’s protective ring of dikes. They can handle it. Otherwise unassuming, the homes sit neatly ordered in a row, their identical shapes and curving roofs differing only in their varying shades of pastel blue, green, and yellow. However, the foundations of the homes—70-ton concrete “hulls”—set them apart from normal houses. When the water rises, they rise too. And they can withstand a rise in the water level of 5.5 meters, roughly 18 feet.

The residents of Maasbommel’s most unique homes provide a glimpse of what future river floods might look like. Now instead of panicking, moving possessions, or evacuating, the owners of these homes simply ride out the flood. When the water rises, two large mooring posts guide the home as it floats up from its spot on the riverbank. When the water recedes, the house nestles back down onto the bank.

“[Homeowners] enjoy their dynamic environment greatly and feel really connected to the water in the Meuse river. It feels really dutch in a way,” said Minnema. He also noted that the rest of the world has paid attention: “from 2007 on, these homes have been continually visited by national and international press, administrators, and managers.”

This cultural embrace of floating structures is something that olthuis commented on as well. “This is a huge step in the Dutch mentality,” he said, “not keeping everything dry, living on instead of under water.” The approach should benefit a country where two-thirds of the land lies below sea level. His architecture firm, Waterstudio.Nl, has devised a plan called “The New Water” to develop 1,200 houses, half of which will be floating. “We will let water back into a realm that had been conquered from the water a few hundred years ago,” he said. It is a remarkable change in mindset.

More projects like this, said Olthuis, “would make the complete Dutch system more flexible and less defensive. We live in an artificial country which is totally dependent on technical solutions. It is up to the new generation of engineers and architects to use technical systems that are less vulnerable, less expensive and less defensive.” Floating developments will help make those new approaches a reality.

The homes at Maasbommel and his company’s planned project are just the beginning of what olthuis and others imagine. “A real floating city is now being designed for the Maldives, a country that is likely to be one of the first victims of rising sea levels,” he said. “By bringing in new technologies and development solutions, as well as floating agricultural and solar fields, they will become climate change innovators instead of climate refugees.” As the world prepares to meet the challenges of climate change, the homes at Maasbommel provide a concrete example of success for those around the globe who have no intention of becoming climate refugees.

Luke Hawbaker ’13 is a History major in Ezra Stiles College. Contact him at luke.hawbaker@yale.edu.

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