Dutch Architects Plan for a Floating Future

An "amphibious house" in Maasbommel, an area near the Maas River. i i

An "amphibious house" in Maasbommel, an area near the Maas River. The house has a foundation that allows it to float when the river floods. Dura Vermeer hide caption

itoggle caption Dura Vermeer
An "amphibious house" in Maasbommel, an area near the Maas River.

An "amphibious house" in Maasbommel, an area near the Maas River. The house has a foundation that allows it to float when the river floods.

Dura Vermeer
A pole that steadies the Maasbommel houses when they float.

Poles help steady the houses as the structures rise with the river. Dura Vermeer hide caption

itoggle caption Dura Vermeer

Why Climate Change Brings Flooding

  

A warming atmosphere also means a warming ocean. As water heats up, it expands and triggers a sea level rise around the world. By 2080, a U.N. panel predicts this will have devastating consequences for millions of people around the world — rich and poor alike.

  

Read that story.

The Maasbommel floating amphibious  houses. i i

The Maasbommel houses are a new innovation, built within the past decade. Dura Vermeer hide caption

itoggle caption Dura Vermeer
The Maasbommel floating amphibious  houses.

The Maasbommel houses are a new innovation, built within the past decade.

Dura Vermeer
An illustration of a proposed apartment complex designed by Waterstudio. i i

An illustration of a proposed apartment complex designed by Waterstudio. Waterstudio hide caption

itoggle caption Waterstudio
An illustration of a proposed apartment complex designed by Waterstudio.

An illustration of a proposed apartment complex designed by Waterstudio.

Waterstudio

Architects in Holland are showing the rest of the world a way of turning adversity into opportunity.

The inevitable rise in sea level that comes with climate change is going to make it increasingly difficult to control flooding in low-lying Holland. But instead of cursing their fate, architects are designing a new Holland that will float on water, and the Dutch government seems willing to try out the scheme. Holland has made other countries begin to question, too. Who says you have to live on dry land?

With the exception of the major highways, it feels like you can't drive more than a mile or so in the Netherlands without running into water. It could be the sea; it could be a river; it could be a canal.

Floating Foundations

On a grey day in November, we head to a town called Maasbommel on the Maas River. We're going to see a lady who owns a floating house. Well, it's not really a floating house. It's a house that can float because it has a unique foundation.

We eventually find the driveway that takes us down to a cluster of cool-looking houses along the river. They have a nautical feel, with curved lines and colored wooden planking.

We're supposed to be visiting the house of Anne van der Molen, but we can't seem to find hers. So we start knocking on doors. We want to see the inside of one of these houses.

Finally, we find someone who is home: Mariana Smits. She is a delightful, energetic woman. If I had to pick one adjective, I'd pick perky. She invites us in for a tour.

It has the look of a typical split-level house. A living room faces the river; stairs lead to a bedroom in back and to a master bedroom above the living room. "We are two of us, me and my husband," Smits says. "So it's big enough for us."

But then I make an odd tour request. I ask her if I can see her home's foundation. Luckily, she's happy to oblige. She leads us downstairs.

"This is underwater," she says when we get there. We are in an enclosed basement with a low ceiling, and the Maas River is all around us. I mean, you poke a hole, and you're going to have water come in.

You see, Smits' foundation actually sits on the river bottom. If the river level rises to flood stage, the house and the foundation float up with the water level. Flexible pipes keep the house connected to electrical and sewer lines.

The house hasn't floated yet, but the prediction is that with global warming, the river will flood about once every 12 years. This ability to cope with floodwater rather than be devastated is why Smits moved here.

"In the other village we have lived, there was always the water. I was very scared," Smits says. "Two times, we have evacuated to leave our old house. This was very scary for us. And we got the opportunity to buy this house. It's a safe place."

In fact, global warming, with the increased risk of flooding it brings, is causing some architects in Holland to change their philosophy.

Chris Zevenbergen is with Dura Vermeer, the company that designed and built Smits' house.

"The whole idea is, in our designs, we should always take into account what will happen when there's an extreme event," Zevenbergen says. In the past, the Dutch only built homes in places where dikes made flooding unlikely.

"The concept that in fact you build in an area where a flood may occur is completely new," Zevenbergen says.

New, and attracting attention. Go ahead and build houses in areas that might flood — just build them on floating foundations.

At his office in the Hague, Koen Olthuis drums his fingers on his desk while he is fielding calls from people all over the world interested in water architecture. Olthuis is bursting with energy. He's the co-founder of a firm called Waterstudio, a small office with a dozen or so youngish employees.

Olthuis' projects go beyond the idea of simply keeping the house and its contents dry.

"The next step: we not only make the house floating, but we make the complete garden floating," Olthuis says.

Why not? Why lose all those pretty Dutch tulips just because it floods? After all, Olthuis says, building floating foundations is a snap. Just fill a concrete box with some kind of plastic foam, flip it over, and you've got a stable platform that's ready to float. And the more of these platforms you join together, the more stable they are. So Olthuis doesn't plan to stop at single family homes.

"You see a floating foundation, with a garden on top of it, a swimming pool on top of it, and a house on top of it. And you can fix those floating gardens to each other, and make a floating village of it," he says.

A Return to a Nomadic Lifestyle

All of the projects that Olthuis is describing are still on the drawing board. But the Dutch government has set aside some money and space to try building some of these floating architectural concepts. And Olthuis is confident that people are ready for a new way of living.

"The momentum is just right. Because of the climate change, because of the Al Gore story, because of New Orleans, because of the financials of this moment, everybody is waiting for new innovations," Olthuis says.

And those innovations are coming. Zevenbergen's company has already built floating greenhouses and has designs for floating roads. It even has plans for houses that not only float, but also move.

"You can move them along the river, and go to a city which is close to the river, and park your home there in a special harbor which is constructed for this type of boat," Zevenbergen says. "That we call a nomadic way of living, that you can change the area where you live depending on the season or whatever."

If this sounds like turning the lowly houseboat of yesterday into tomorrow's design for living, well, basically it is.

But the point is, suddenly, climate change is no longer a dire threat, but an opportunity for innovation.

"There are infinite possibilities. That's the idea," Zevenbergen says. "Everything is in fact possible. Nothing is impossible. Sounds crazy, eh?"

Or not.

Produced by Rebecca Davis.

With Climate Change Comes Floods

Bangladeshi women make their way through flood water at Dhakuria in Sirajgonj district.

Bangladeshi women make their way through flood water at Dhakuria in Sirajgonj district on Sept. 10, 2007. AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption AFP/Getty Images
Chart showing main contributors to rising sea levels. i i

The global average sea level rose at a rate of 1.8 millimeters per year between 1961 and 2003. That rate increased starting in 1993, with the sea level rising about 3.1 millimeters per year. The major contributors to the rising ocean is the expansion of water as the ocean absorbs heat from the atmosphere, and melt water from glaciers and ice caps. Lindsay Mangum, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Lindsay Mangum, NPR
Chart showing main contributors to rising sea levels.

The global average sea level rose at a rate of 1.8 millimeters per year between 1961 and 2003. That rate increased starting in 1993, with the sea level rising about 3.1 millimeters per year. The major contributors to the rising ocean is the expansion of water as the ocean absorbs heat from the atmosphere, and melt water from glaciers and ice caps.

Lindsay Mangum, NPR
Chart showing increase in global ocean temperature since 1900.

Computer models taking into account fossil fuel use match the actual observed increase in global ocean temperatures. Computer models that ignored fossil fuel emissions do not match the more than half-degree increase seen in global sea temperatures. Lindsay Mangum, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Lindsay Mangum, NPR

Climate change is disturbing the delicate balancing act that people have with water. Water is critical to life — for drinking and irrigation, and as a source of food, transportation and recreation. But too much water — or water that comes at an unexpected time, or in unexpected places — can be a big problem.

As global temperatures rise, many places are threatened by flooding. A recent study looking at who is at risk shows many coastal cities could be hit hard, particularly heavily populated cities in Asia. But in terms of economic loss, the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development found that the top 10 cities at risk are all in three industrialized countries: the United States, Japan and the Netherlands.

Warming water can cause rises in sea levels and strong storms, with the potential to impact people around the globe.

Rising Sea Levels

As global temperatures rise, oceans get warmer. And when water heats up, it expands and sea levels rise.

The United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports that from 1993 to 2003, global sea level rose about 3 millimeters each year, and approximately half of that increase is attributed to the ocean expanding as it warms.

About one-quarter of this rise is attributed to melting glaciers and ice caps. Melting from the Greenland ice sheet and the Antarctic ice sheet combined is estimated to account for about 14 percent of observed sea level rise. If the Greenland ice sheet melted entirely, sea level would rise 20 feet around the world. But such a catastrophic melt isn't projected for thousands of years, if it happens at all. Currently there is no scientific consensus on how much of these giant ice sheets will melt, or when that might happen.

"Scientists do not understand the ice process enough for accurate predictions of Greenland and Antarctica," says Carol Auer, an oceanographer with the National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration.

It is also not known exactly how much warmer the planet will get.

"We can change this around, at least to a degree," Auer says. "It's not a disaster yet."

A sea level rise of just a few millimeters a year may seem insignificant, but Auer says that on flat land, it adds up. She says that a half-inch of vertical sea level rise translates to about three feet of land lost on a sandy open coast, due to long-term erosion. And even a slightly higher sea level can cause more dramatic tides in deltas and estuaries.

Bigger Storm Surges

Rising sea levels also make coastal areas more vulnerable to storm surges and, in turn, to flooding.

"Basically the story is because sea level rises have made everything a little higher, when a storm hits that makes for more vulnerability," Auer says. The higher sea level gives a storm surge a boost to reach further inland.

Auer points to two hurricanes of similar strength that hit the Chesapeake Bay area. The first hit in 1933. The second was Hurricane Isabel, which pummeled the East Coast in 2003.

"Isabel was far more damaging because there had been about a 20-centimeter rise in sea level," Auer says.

More Rain

The IPCC also predicts that warming tropical seas — hurricanes feed off of warm water — will likely make these storms more powerful, dumping more torrential rains on coastal areas.

A warming planet also means snowy regions become rainy. People who live near rivers could see more flash floods: Melting snow slowly trickles into rivers, but rain can dump large amounts of water all at once.

In some places, like California, where rain and snowfall patterns are already unpredictable, there are elaborate systems of dams and reservoirs to keep a steady supply of water available — and to handle flood control. As snow and rain patterns shift even more, it becomes increasingly difficult to know when to keep the reservoirs full to maintain ecosystems, recreational areas, hydropower and water supply — and when to allow them to empty and make space for flood control.

"The problem is that you have a constant tension between flood control reserve and the desire to keep (the reservoirs) full," says Jeffrey Mount, a geologist who studies flooding at the University of California at Davis. "Climate change exacerbates that pressure."

Low-Lying Areas Most at Risk

Densely populated, low-lying areas, such as large river deltas and small islands, are at the greatest risk from flooding. Many of these areas are found in Asia, such as the Ganges River Delta, the Mekong River Delta and islands in the South Pacific.

The Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development, an international organization with 30 member countries, including the United States, recently released a report listing 10 cities that face the highest risk from flooding right now: Mumbai, Guangzhou, Shanghai, Miami, Ho Chi Minh City, Calcutta, greater New York City, Osaka-Kibe, Alexandria and New Orleans.

In its own estimates, the IPCC predicts that by 2080, millions more people will experience flooding every year due to sea level rise. If global temperature rises by about 1 degree Fahrenheit in the next century, scientists estimate the sea level will rise seven to 15 inches. IPCC's worst-case scenario, which is about a 7 degree Fahrenheit rise in temperature, shows a global sea level gain of 10 to 23 inches.

Poor communities will have a hard time adapting to increased flooding: They don't have the resources to build protection for their cities or to help people move. These communities also tend to rely heavily on local water and food supplies. Water may become contaminated by a major storm, and a rising sea level can contaminate wells. Salinity from rising sea levels also can cause serious problems for farmers.

The wealthy, too, will experience the impacts of greater flooding. "Everyone is building close to the water, building in vulnerable areas," NOAA's Auer says.

She says it is important to protect wetlands and coastal habitats that are threatened by overbuilding, because these wetlands serve as natural barriers to storm surges.

When walls are built between homes and beaches or wetlands, to protect development, they actually put the homes in more danger in the long run, Auer contends. The walls block wetlands and beaches from expanding inland, so with a wall on one side and encroaching water on the other, in the end, the wetlands disappear. Homes are then left vulnerable, right at the edge of the water, she says.

"Flooding wouldn't need to be a problem if people moved further back from the water," Auer says. Climate change, she says, is just "another nail in the coffin to preexisting problems."

Both Auer and Mount say that in the United States, people need to think carefully about where they are building, and about which areas could become flood zones in the future. They also agree that there probably won't be any major change until insurers take climate change into account and refuse to insure high-risk areas.

If that happens, "people won't build really low because it is a hassle," Auer says. "If someone wants to build really low, let the buyer beware."

Mount adds that flooding is natural and is important for ecosystems.

"Flooding is only a problem when there are people in the way," he says. And lack of planning for a changing climate makes that much more likely to be the case.

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