A collection of “amphibious” floating houses, with floating foundations to protect them against flooding, were built in the village of Maasbommel in the Netherlands, in areas that lie outside of flood protection infrastructure. This project shows how people in floodplains can better live with the water through housing that adapts to changing water levels.
The Netherlands, much like southern Louisiana, is located on a delta and experiences flooding from rivers and from ocean storms. The Dutch approach to flood control is touted as the international best practice. Most communities in the Netherlands are protected by dykes, levees, and floodgates. However several small rural villages are located outside of the flood protection infrastructure. Maasbommel, located along the Meuse River, is one of those communities. It is known mostly for water-based recreational activities and is home to a small permanent population.
River floods are the main threat faced by Maasbommel. In 2005, the Dutch government granted the construction firm Dura Vermeer 15 sites where their designers could use “adaptive building techniques” for flood protection. The result was a collection of “amphibious” floating houses.
Dura Vermeer’s design is an innovative approach that combines the best features of floating house boats and elevated buildings to create homes that can adapt to changes in water level. House boats can withstand changes in the water level, but cannot safely withstand storms with high winds or floods with fast moving water. They can break away from their dock and be tossed in the waves. Elevated homes, while safe from flooding and wind if constructed properly, can feel isolated from its neighbors and the surrounding environment due to their high decks and extensive stairs. The amphibious houses in Massbommel float like house boats sited on a floating concrete “hull.” However, they are also secured against strong winds and waves by permanent mooring posts driven deep into the ground, similar to those used to elevate homes. These posts guide the building to rise up and lower down, in place, according to changing river levels. In non-flood conditions, the houses rest on the river bank, allowing for convenient water access and creating a flat walkable space between homes. Unlike a house boat, the amphibious houses also have basements, decks, and small gardens all supported by their foundations. They feature flexible pipes for electrical, water, and sewer lines that will keep the home “on the grid” even in a flooding event.
Currently, this model of housing is more expensive than conventional housing. The amphibious buildings in Maasbommel cost approximately €250,000 to €300,000 (approximately $322,000 to $386,000 in US dollars) for a 120 square meter (roughly 1290 square foot) home. The higher cost is due in part to the flexible nature of the construction techniques and materials, creating feed lines for gas, electricity, drinking water and drainage which are able to adapt to the changes in height of the premises. On the other hand, costly current building methods, such as securing foundations, are unnecessary. If the floating construction model becomes more widely used, the price should drop dramatically as these materials and construction techniques become mainstream practices.
The engineers and architects at Dura Vermeer see these homes as a demonstration of how people in floodplains can better live with water through housing that adapts to changing water levels. This project has led to more large-scale adaptive designs such as the building of one of the first floating developments – a zero-footprint, solar-powered golf course in the Maldives.
The typical ways of protecting homes in the area outside flood protection and the needs of the community to build a strong network were at odds with each other. Static, elevated homes could provide protection from storms and reduce losses, but would create isolation and were not conducive to building relationships in the community. The need for a solution that could address both needs was addressed in this project.
- Houses adjust to changing water levels, but are secure enough to withstand strong currents and winds.
- Each building’s utilities rely on municipal services and infrastructure hook-ups, but reconsider traditional materials and techniques to allow for flexibility. Thereby, they decrease stress on the infrastructure of both the individual homes and the municipal systems.
The community in Maasbommel needed a new type of building construction to allow them to live, with limited risk to life and property, in the flood zones. However, they had a strong preference to live in residences that feel like living in a traditional home, rather than on a boat. Elevated homes would have disrupted the fabric, character, and use of neighborhoods.
- The self-rising houses avoid damage from flood waters, eliminating costly repairs after storm events.
- This design allows people to live along the water without relying on large, hydrologically and ecologically disruptive protective infrastructure for flood protection.
- The features of a neighborhood network, such as gardens and pedestrian connections between homes, are preserved during non-flood conditions.
The lack of funding investment in the private sector and lack of innovative building techniques and expertise within the government prevented either industry or government to address the projects needs on their own.
- A private/public partnership allowed the architects to test an innovative design with financial support through government grants. The homes have seen been sold to private citizens.
Changing environmental and development conditions, climate change impacts including sea level rise, increasing populations, and urbanization, can lead to increases in the flooding risks and water-levels in river communities. The Maasbommel houses can adapt to these changes, always adjusting with the changes in the river level. Although rising sea levels will likely lead to the abandonment of some coastal communities, this area of Maasbommel can, theoretically, continue to be habitable for generations to come due to the adaptive nature of these homes. While engineered to withstand fast-moving riverine flood waters, it is unclear if these homes would be able to survive the extreme conditions of tropical storms and hurricanes. Other flood-prone communities might want to consider public-private partnerships to encourage creative, adaptive designs for their local conditions, such as the one between the Dutch government and Dura Vermeer which led to the creation of the amphibious houses.