Uncharted Waters: Architects Experiment with Floating Houses
Architects are experimenting with floating home designs that combine the perks of waterfront living with a flexibility that land-based properties cannot afford.
A rectangular villa floats on the banks of Amsterdam’s Amstel River, the glow of its windows sending rippling columns of light across the canal. Designed by +31Architects, the home rests on a hollow concrete box and a solid pontoon spanning two levels, a lower portion that is submerged in the river, and an upper story that is level with the water’s surface featuring a wall of floor-to-ceiling glass. The glass panels slide open to a floating terrace that is moored alongside the villa, the water so close you can reach out your hand and touch it. “The almost absence of a physical barrier between the living area and the terrace invites people to take a refreshing dive into the river Amstel,” says architect Jorrit Houwert, who founded +31Architects along with Jasper Suasso de Lima de Prado.
In the Netherlands, 50 percent of the population lives below sea level, and the Dutch have spent centuries constructing dikes, pumps, and drainage systems to keep the encroaching North Sea at bay. Floating houses have provided an alternate solution––as far back as the 17th century, barges were repurposed as homes. But in recent years, floating structures have grown in popularity, particularly in the face of extreme weather. The obvious advantage is that they move vertically with fluctuations in water levels caused by tides, heavy rainfall, or other flooding. They are also easily relocated.
But beyond the pragmatic reasons, floating homes are also appealing to prospective residents because they afford an intimate proximity to water and a feeling of openness, with light and views that are more akin to a boat than a house. A “normal” house requires a large margin with the water level to prevent flooding. With a floating home, openings in the façade can safely be placed just 35 centimeters above the water level.
“We are seeing a trend worldwide, where high-net-worth individuals are looking not only for a penthouse but that private island feeling,” says Koen Olthuis, founder of Amsterdam based Waterstudio. His firm has designed a number of floating homes in the Netherlands, and in recent years began exporting the concept internationally.
In the Maldives, where natural islands are small, scarce, and vulnerable to tides and rising water levels, resort developers are progressively turning to floating architecture. Waterstudio is currently working on a series of water villas for The 5 Lagoons, a masterplanned resort in North Male atoll that is a joint venture from Dutch Docklands International and the Maldives Government.
Included in the project is The Ocean Flower, 185 floating water villas arranged in the shape of a Maldivian flower. The villas have three bedrooms and three en suite bathrooms over two levels and come with private plunge pools. Prices start around $2.5 million. Waterstudio is also designing the Amillarah, a part of the master plan that will feature 43 floating private islands, arranged in an archipelago configuration. Each will have a private beach, pool, greenery, and a jetty to moor yachts.
“The concept suits [the Maldives] perfectly,” says Singapore-based architect Dymitr Malcew. He designed a luxurious floating-home concept for a French developer in 2012 and has since received inquiries from resort developers and private investors around the world, including the Maldives.
Malcew’s house concept features two bedrooms, two bathrooms, a living room, a kitchen, and a generous terrace. The interiors are finished with wood, while full-height glass windows provide optimal daylight and views. The house is built on a floating platform that can be easily moved. Electricity is supplied via solar panels or a network if it is docked at a marina. It is also has a water purification system. “I was inspired by the automotive and luxury yacht markets rather than a typical architectural approach,” Malcew explains.
Floating architecture is also proliferating in the Middle East. Waterstudio has designed floating taxis and floating mosques. And in December of last year, Kleindienst Group launched The Floating Seahorse, a collection of floating villas off the coast of Dubai. The structures are essentially designed like unpowered boats and have three levels: a submerged master bedroom and bathroom designed to offer views of the surrounding marine life; a main level with a kitchen, dining area, and deck; and an upper level that has an informal bed, kitchenette, and glass-bottomed Jacuzzi. Developers sold around 60 units when the first models went on sale. The remaining Seahorses are priced from $2.8 million.
In the United States, floating homes are most common on the West Coast, particularly in Seattle, where Lake Washington, Lake Union, and The Locks offer sheltered water edge conditions ideal for floating structures. Homes here are moored to docks that are shared with other homeowners, much like living in a cul-de-sac, save for the expansive water views. “There is a long history of floating homes in Seattle; it’s built into the fabric of the city,” says architect Eric Cobb, who has designed floating homes in the Seattle area.
Cobb says that his firm’s experience building prefab and spec homes translated well to the task of designing water homes, which are typically built off-site. This allows for increased precision in a carefully controlled environment with no wind and no rain, but can prove challenging when it comes time to transport the completed structure. A recently completed home was prefabricated at a shipyard in Port Townsend, Washington, and traveled by tugboat to its final destination on Seattle’s Lake Union.
Standing inside the completed home was an incredible feeling, Cobb says. “When you are on the first floor, you are maybe a foot off the water level, and it feels like you are on a boat. It’s an amazing experience to have a sliding glass door off your bedroom and the water right there.”
Designs Northwest Architects, another Seattlebased firm, recently built a float home on one of Lake Union’s last unoccupied slips and used the area’s marina warehouses as an architectural reference. The large, box-like structures that dominate the Seattle waterfront in this case provided an ideal form for a modern lifestyle. “The lower floor was kept open by keeping all solid structure on the exterior walls. The upper level is a personal retreat, private from the adjacent homes through the use of small punch windows with large expansive views out toward the water,” says Houwert.
Floating homes in Seattle have become increasingly regulated, however, because of their impact on the shoreline. “They are big, they create massive shaded areas, and it impacts ecosystems,” says Eric Cobb. Municipal regulations now prevent the development of new floating home slips, although the resale market is thriving.
For Koen Olthuis at Waterstudio, such municipal regulations reflect an “old-fashioned way of thinking” that stands in the way of allowing floating homes to proliferate into the mainstream market and create what he believes is a more sustainable housing model. “The experience we have in Holland makes us experts in how large and small foundations can be.” Amsterdam’s +31Architects agree: “When needed, the floating system can be moved elsewhere at short notice without leaving any scar to the environment. Instead a new house can be placed into the old situation, which makes it the most sustainable and durable way to build.”
While luxury developers have funded much of the recent innovations to floating homes, a new wave of demand is now coming from land-strapped and flood-prone cities from Asia to Eastern Europe. U.K. firms have also proposed similar typologies as a means to deal with flood-stricken areas of the nation and as a solution to London’s housing shortage. Baca Architects recently developed a buoyant home for a New London Architecture (NLA) competition to address the capital’s housing crisis. The project aims to install prefabricated floating housing on disused space along the 50 miles of rivers and canals in Greater London, as well as the 150 hectares of additional “bluefield” space in its docklands, marinas, and basins.
The demand for floating homes is clear, says Koen Olthuis. Now, it’s a matter of negotiating with municipalities and insurance companies and educating them on the life span of water homes, which are long, and maintenance costs, which are low.
Some countries are more open to the idea than others. Waterstudio has spent the past two years working on a project in Aventura, Florida, but have encountered considerable resistance from the local community. “If I have an empty space of land, you understand that I can build there, but if I have a piece of water, everyone complains,” Olthuis says. “In the U.S., people have a stronger feeling of rights and of privacy compared to other parts of Europe or Asia. These homes can benefit the whole community.”
Considering Hurricane Katrina’s devastating effects on low-lying communities in New Orleans, floating-home concepts are probably worth another look. But even if there isn’t a dramatic rise in sea levels, Olthuis notes, Waterstudio remains committed to building on water. “We are concerned with urbanization, with the price of land, the need for land,” he says. “Water gives us three things: space, safety, and flexibility, and a very short response time to changes we cannot foresee.”
This story appeared in the Spring 2016 issue of Haute Residence