Floating architecture is not the future. It’s already here

By Francesca Peri, CNN

Editor’s note: Design for Impact is a series that highlights architectural solutions for communities displaced by the climate crisis, natural disasters, and other humanitarian emergencies.

(CNN) – As we seek to address the climate crisis, there are realities about our changing climate that we actually need to live with. Sea levels have been rising at an accelerating pace, with estimates suggesting that US coastlines will see 10 to 12 inches of rise by 2050. Entire communities and nations could disappear in the coming decades as a result, the United Nations Secretary-General has warned; The risk is particularly acute for the 900 million or so people who live in low-lying coastal areas.

Many of these already vulnerable communities have suffered devastating floods. But instead of building sea walls to try to keep water out, or raising homes on stilts, some architects are designing a future we live in. with Water – and it.

Proposals for entire “climate-proof” floating cities (including an ambitious ocean settlement in South Korea and one large enough to house 20,000 people in the Maldives) have made headlines. But current projects, from Lagos to Rotterdam, are showing what life on the water might look like — and in ways that can be scaled up.

A new exhibition at the Dutch city’s Nieuwe Institute, “Water Cities Rotterdam,” showcases the work of NLÉ, an architectural practice led by Konle Adeyemi that has been researching and testing floating architecture around the world. A series of floating pavilions, originating from the critically acclaimed Makoko Floating School project in Amsterdam and Lagos, are housed in the museum’s ponds.

Makoko is a central area in Lagos, Nigeria, where thousands of people live in informal wooden structures built on stilts in the lake. Inspired by the settlement, Adeyemi constructed a school for its residents in 2012.

Over a video call, the architect reflected on a massive flood that hit Lagos in 2011: “Entire streets were covered in water, and I knew the cities would be flooded, but the people of Makoko were already coping. It was like an epiphany.”

Accessible by boat, the triangle A-frame wooden schoolhouse has sheltered classrooms and communal play space for dozens of children. Instead of standing on stilts, the structure was perched on a base of plastic barrels. (The school collapsed after a few years, although NLÉ makes it clear that it was always intended to be temporary, while claiming that a lack of maintenance and collegiate management led to its decline).

Learning from this project and from ongoing research—much of which appears in his new book, African Water Cities—Adeyemi’s practice has gone on to develop the Makoko Floating System (MFS), a set of sustainable timber structures that can be quickly assembled and disassembled wherever and whenever needed. . The system is modular, with more efficient steel connections, and is highly designed to meet European building codes.

MFS consists of flat, prefabricated parts that can be built by a five-person team in two weeks, without heavy equipment or cranes. “Our goal is to find a comprehensive solution that leaves no one behind at this stage of climate adaptation, and to make sure, as the world evolves, that we are able to bring in the most vulnerable communities,” Adeyemi said.

The system offers small, medium and large versions of the triangular A-shape structure. Adeyemi believes that MFS can be used for a variety of purposes, from housing to education, and is “a solution that can be applied globally.” He has built the system in different countries – including Italy, Belgium and China – in order to test it in various weather and water conditions.

In 2021, the concept has taken root semi-permanently in Mindelo, a coastal city in Cape Verde off the coast of West Africa, in the form of a floating ‘music centre’. Spread across three triangular pavilions of wood and steel, the cultural center houses a performance space, bar, canteen and recording studio floating in the sea and connected to the beach by a walkway.

Learn to live with water

It might be apt to replicate Adeyemi’s MFS show now in Rotterdam: Rotterdam is the city most vulnerable to high water in the Netherlands. With 90% of the city below sea level, the scene of floating architecture is nothing new. Examples of the many design firms grappling with an aquatic future can be found all over town.

One of the projects completed this year, called Nassauhaven, features 17 houseboats built by local firm Public Domain Architects (PDA). The design won a competition held by the city government to develop a floating architectural pilot project that could help secure Rotterdam’s future.

“We are a Delta city and the water levels are changing,” PDA CEO Peter Vijdor said during a video call. He notes that interest in floating buildings is growing – in the past few years, a floating office complex and a floating farm have also opened in the city.

Nassauhaven has been promoted as the city’s first floating housing estate. With its houses arranged in a neat row, the development is referred to as ‘The Floating Street’. The log houses sit on concrete pontoons connected by poles to the harbor floor – and by walkways on the ground. It rises and falls gently with the daily tides, while remaining stable and comfortable for residents. The buildings are designed to be energy neutral, with sustainability features such as solar panels, biomass heating, and on-site sewage purification.

Wijdor sees building on the water as one of the few options left when it comes to new housing in Rotterdam. It is also believed to be more flexible than simply creating levees to keep water off buildings on the ground. “On the water,” he said, “you’re in the safest place to adapt to the climate.”

PDA is working on more floating projects, in Bangladesh as well as others in Rotterdam. The company also hopes to expand the Nassauhaven pilot program: “Now we’d like to build a small floating quarter of 100 or so homes,” Vigdor said. Adeyemi has similar plans for the MFS neighborhood of Amsterdam, which is already home to floating home communities, as his company is expanding its system of floating structures to include multi-storey “water skimmers”.

Adeyemi believes that, until now, there has not been enough research into how to build and live on water, which makes up 70% of the Earth’s surface. The work presented at the Nieuwe Instituut, and in the new Architect’s book, aims to begin to fill this gap in light of rising sea levels.

“In the near future, human civilization will live more on water,” he said. “Why fight water when you can learn to live with it?”

CNN Wire
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