Tracy Staedter

Jan 29th 2021

How Architectural Innovation Will Take Everyday Living Out to Sea


Melting ice sheets and warming oceans are forcing cities to deal with more frequent storm surges and flooding rains. One solution proposes building structures not on land but at sea, requiring architectural innovation to create permanently floating homes and other buildings along shores and on other waterways.

Leading the charge is the architectural firm Waterstudio, based in the Netherlands. “A hundred years ago the invention of the elevator allowed us to build vertically; now we need to understand water as an extra dimension for cities,” architect and industrial designer Koen Olthuis, Waterstudio’s founder, told the Financial Times.

Architectural research coming out of Waterstudio, as well as other design institutes, demonstrates that homes, neighborhoods and even entire countries can be built to rise on the tides. Because it can help mitigate the impacts of high waters and also provide commercial real estate magnates sustainable development opportunities, this kind of architectural innovation has the potential to be the next frontier in real estate.

Here are four floating concepts that architects are working on to deal with the threat of floods.

Homes Ahoy

Olthuis founded Waterstudio in 2005 out of frustration that the Dutch were building on land despite the fact that one-third of the coastal country is below sea level and prone to flooding, according to Reuters. Taking inspiration from the tens of thousands of houseboats common throughout the country, Olthuis began designing homes for the water. In a 2017 interview with Inhabitat, he said that the first 20 or so homes he built were modern houseboats. But after his firm patented a technology for a floating foundation made of foam and concrete that moved up and down on piles, he was able to build moored structures. They are now using it to construct, among other things, single- and multi-family homes in the Netherlands, including a series of floating villas in the city of Den Bosch, in the north of the country and in Dordrecht, near Rotterdam.

Buoyant Neighborhoods

Building a home is one thing, but planning an entire development that floats is entirely new. In Amsterdam, a neighborhood called Schoonschip consists of 46 houses and apartments and a community center built on 30 floating plots. It was conceived of by Dutch television producer Marjan de Blok in 2008, who was inspired by a self-sufficient, floating houseboat called geWoonboot, which is used as a meeting center. It runs on solar energy, uses an onboard purification system to deal with wastewater and uses solar boilers and heat exchangers to provide warmth.

De Blok worked with Waterstudio to develop well-insulated, highly efficient residences that were built between 2017 and 2019. As self-sufficient as geWoonboot, all 46 homes in Schoonschip are connected via one port to a communal smart grid, which allows homeowners to trade energy with each other. At the moment, gray water from washing machines and black water from toilets is flushed and processed by a separate source, but eventually the city’s utility company, Waternet, will include the neighborhood in a pilot project to deliver toilet water to a bio-refinery. There, it will be transformed into energy.

Suburbs at Sea

In tiny countries with little land to spare, some people are eyeing the ocean as a place to expand. Singapore, for instance, is the most densely populated city in the world with 5.9 million people living within 278 square miles. To accommodate its growth, it has for years imported sand to build out its coast. But that practice is falling under stricter regulations, forcing the government to reconsider alternatives.

Civil and environmental engineers from the National University of Singapore are investigating whether floating rafts could support growth. In a 2019 study, the researchers proposed a grid of more than 40 floats, each a little bigger than a baseball diamond, which would be connected to a wharf, reported Smithsonian Magazine. Concepts are in the early stages and would need to be tested first on a small scale before full-size prototypes were built.

Gil Wang, a naval engineer at the Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa, Israel, told Smithsonian Magazine that Israel is also investigating floating platforms as a way to expand Tel Aviv, located on the Mediterranean Sea. They can be a cheaper and more sustainable alternative to dredging sand, he said. His architectural research team is using computer modeling to test how floating platforms about the size of a hockey rink could support 10-story buildings. Connecting several platforms with hinge-like mechanisms and adding floating breakwaters to dampen waves could improve a structure’s stability, he said.

Floating Farms

If people can live on sea, why not animals? The Netherlands-based architectural office Goldsmith has built what they’re calling the world’s first floating dairy farm in Rotterdam. A triple- decker structure, the farm is essentially an open-air barn that houses 40 dairy cows. Animals eat on the top layer, which has large stalls, a rubber floor, a milk robot and an automatic belt feeder that delivers local brewers’ grains, bran, potato scrapings and grass to the hungry cow. A plank to the adjacent shore allows the cows to spread out and graze in the nearby field. The middle level supports a small factory for milk and yogurt production. All heavy structural and technical components are situated in the lower, submerged level of the building. Solar panels provide energy and a rainwater-capturing system on the roof collects and purifies water. The architects said the ability to put the farm on the water means it can be close to the city, shortening the transport of food production to consumers, which reduces pollution. Goldsmith is also considering future designs for a floating chicken farm and a floating vegetable greenhouse.

With available land area shrinking, oceans rising, hurricanes surging and 50% of the world’s population living on coasts, governments are under pressure to respond. Adapting to rising waters with innovative architecture that “goes with the flow” is one alternative solution. If such an endeavor can tap into technologies, such as solar and bioenergy, floating homes, neighborhoods and cities may become a sustainable solution to coastal impacts of climate change.

Are you interested in science and innovation? We are, too. Check out Northrop Grumman career opportunities to see how you can participate in this fascinating time of discovery.