Climate Change: Holland Gets Ready to Float

Architects in Holland are turning adversity into opportunity. They are designing a new Holland, one that could actually float.

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ALISON STEWART, host:

Okay. There is one more Most. I don't want to forget the mother ship.

One of the most e-mailed stories at npr.org right now is a story from science correspondent Joe Palca, a part of NPR's Climate Connection series along with National Geographic.

Now, this caught our eye because we remember, we actually talked to Joe while he was overseas reporting on the story. We had him on the show last November. He gave us a preview. The story ultimately ended at being about the inevitable rise in sea level and how it's going to make it tough for some low-lying countries to control flooding, countries like Holland.

Architects there are designing a new Holland, one that could actually float on the rising sea. The Dutch government seems willing to try the scheme, and other countries seem to be interested as well.

Here's NPR's Joe Palca.

JOE PALCA: 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.

(Soundbite of GPS device)

Unidentified Woman: In 400 meters, turn left.

PALCA: It could be the sea. It could be a river.

(Soundbite of GPS device)

PALCA: It could be a canal. But getting from here to there means making a lot of turns.

(Soundbite of GPS device)

Unidentified Woman: Prepare to turn right.

PALCA: On this great day last November, my producer Rebecca Davis and I are going to a town called Maasbracht(ph) on the Maas River.

(Soundbite of bell ringing)

PALCA: We're going to see a lady who owns a floating house.

REBECCA DAVIS: It's probably a floating house?

PALCA: I guess that's misnomer. It's a house that if the water level…

(Soundbite of GPS device)

Unidentified Woman #1: When possible they can authorize a U-turn.

PALCA: I thought she want me to turn here.

Anyway, as I was saying, it's not really a floating house, it's a house that can float because it has a unique foundation. So we turn around and eventually find the driveway that takes us down to a cluster of these cool-looking houses along the river. They have nautical feel with curved lines and colored wooden planking.

We're looking for number 2-31, the house of Anna Vandermolin(ph). But we can't find it. So we start knocking on doors. We want to see the inside of one these houses. Finally, we find someone who is home.

Ms. MARIANA SMITTS: My name is Mariana Smitts(ph).

PALCA: That's S-M-I-T-T-S?

Ms. SMITTS: T-S. Yes.

PALCA: Ms. Smitts is a delightful, energetic woman. If I had to pick one adjective, I'd pick perky.

Ms. SMITTS: Look, the water. We like the water. We have a boat.

PALCA: She invites us in for a tour.

Ms. SMITTS: So the house is very big inside.

PALCA: It has the look of a typical split-level house, a living room faces the river, stairs lead to a bedroom and back and to a master bedroom above the living room.

Ms. SMITTS: We are two of us, me and my husband. So it's big enough for us.

PALCA: I would like to see the foundation, is that okay?

Ms. SMITTS: Yes, there is no problem.

PALCA: Okay.

Ms. SMITTS: Come.

(Soundbite of footsteps)

Ms. SMITTS: Watch the hat. I'm not so tall, so for me, it's no problem. This is underwater.

PALCA: This is underwater.

Ms. SMITTS: This is underwater.

PALCA: Ah.

Ms. SMITTS: The temperature is always cool here.

PALCA: Ah.

Ms. SMITTS: And…

PALCA: Good for storing your wine.

Ms. SMITTS: You have seen my wine.

PALCA: Well, I saw some wine as we came down the stairs.

Ms. SMITTS: Yeah, we are making our own wine, yes.

PESCA: (Unintelligible).

Ms. SMITTS: Yeah.

PALCA: So this actually - so we're in enclosed basement with a low ceiling.

Ms. SMITTS: Yeah.

PALCA: And really the Maas…

Ms. SMITTS: Yeah.

PALCA: …is around us.

Ms. SMITTS: Yes.

PALCA: I mean, you poke a hole in the wall and…

Ms. SMITTS: Yeah.

PALCA: …you're going to have water come in…

Ms. SMITTS: No. There's now water coming.

PALCA: Okay. That's why we're drilling a hole so that…

Ms. SMITTS: Yeah, yeah. That's correct. Yes. Yeah.

PALCA: You see, Mariana SMITTS' foundation actually sits in the river. 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 by it is why SMITTS moved here.

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

PALCA: In fact, global warming, and 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 built Mariana SMITTS' house.

Mr. CHRIS ZEVENBERGEN (Director, Dura Vermeer; Architect): So the whole idea is that, in our designs, we should always take into account what will happen when there's an extreme event.

PALCA: In the past, the Dutch only build homes in places where dikes made flooding unlikely.

Mr. ZEVENBERGEN: The concept that, in fact, you build in an area where a flood may occur is completely new.

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

Mr. KOEN OLTHUIS (Founder, Waterstudio): (Unintelligible).

PALCA: 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, from people interested in water architecture. Olthuis is bursting with energy. He's the co-founder of a firm called Waterstudio. It's 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. He starts sketching on a pad.

Mr. OLTHUIS: The next step is that we not only make the house floating, but we make the complete garden floating.

PALCA: Why not, he says. 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. Olthuis doesn't plan to stop at single family homes.

Mr. OLTHUIS: 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 gardens - floating gardens to each other, and make a floating village of it.

PALCA: All of the projects Olthuis has been 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.

Mr. OLTHUIS: 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, and everybody is waiting for new innovations.

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

Mr. ZEVENBERGEN: 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. So that we call a nomadic way of living, that you can change the area where you live depending on the season or whatever.

PALCA: If this sounds a bit 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.

Mr. ZEVENBERGEN: There are infinite possibilities. That's the idea. Everything is, in fact, possible. Nothing is impossible. Sounds crazy, eh?

PALCA: Or not.

STEWART: That was NPR's Joe Palca reporting.

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