MELISSA BLOCK, host:
In New Orleans tomorrow, there will be a public unveiling of a new home in the Lower Ninth Ward: a house designed to float. The Lower Ninth Ward was largely wiped away by floodwaters after Hurricane Katrina. The float house is the brainchild of Morphosis Architects and its founder, Thom Mayne. He's the winner of what's often called architecture's Nobel Prize, the Pritzker. And he joins us from New York. Welcome to the program.
Mr. THOM MAYNE (Founder, Morphosis Architects): My pleasure.
BLOCK: And this, Thom, I guess would be a pretty tempting idea. You're right by the Industrial Canal there in New Orleans, why not figure out a house that could float? How does it work?
Mr. MAYNE: It's amazingly simple. What we did is we rethought the idea of a house in terms of the potential conditions of the flooding that took place in Katrina. And what we did is two things: One, we gave it a chassis, borrowing from an automobile or a boat, maybe. And this is a building that has a chassis and it's three feet deep, 15 feet wide, 55 feet long and it gets on a truck. It could be shipped.
And it's made out of polystyrene foam and it's covered with glass-reinforced concrete. And what does that do? It produces a raft. It floats. And it's thought about as a seatbelt. I mean, hopefully it never gets used. But when it gets used, it's important.
BLOCK: Well, the idea is, though, that this would not float away. So what actually anchors this to the ground and keeps it from just getting inundated?
Mr. MAYNE: There are two vertical guideposts which are anchored into the ground that keeps it moving purely vertically to the feat of 12 feet. So it doesn't drift. The floating thing wouldn't work. It has to be stable and within the property. And these vertical guideposts keep it in control.
BLOCK: You know, I guess ideally you would want to test this house and make sure it does what you think it's going to do. I can't imagine you're able to do that though.
Mr. MAYNE: Indeed. No, we had - we worked with two structural engineers at developing this prototype. And they did extensive computer simulations. And we modeled this house for hurricane flooding conditions that were parallel to the requirements that followed Katrina. It went through exhaustive structural simulations that mimicked the conditions that would take place in a hurricane.
BLOCK: Now, your house is being built for the Make It Right Foundation in New Orleans, and I've seen some of their other houses in the Lower Ninth Ward. And they're just built way up off the ground. Why didn't you want to do that?
Mr. MAYNE: Well, it was a really interesting problem. How do you keep the sense of community and the continuity of the neighborhood - at the same time deal with this very extreme condition of a flooding? And what we decided was that, well, the vertical solution seemed to us one way to solve it, but we thought we had a more interesting way that we could keep the house on the ground. It has a front porch. It's basically a meter off the ground, so, it's a traditional situation.
It's a huge amount of the population, a large amount of the population are elderly or people that maybe wouldn't want to use stairs going up 14 feet, 12 feet, whatever it is. Essentially, you have to look at all of the components of the house and how it works in an integrated sense.
BLOCK: If there were to be a flood and this house were to start to float, to rise up, what would happen to electrical connections, gas, anything like that?
Mr. MAYNE: There's a break-off for that and the same with electricity. And the house has battery power in emergency that allows three days. It's been pretty thoroughly thought about in terms of its - both its everyday sustainability and its emergency condition.
BLOCK: Well, Thom Mayne, thanks for talking to us about the float house.
Mr. MAYNE: My pleasure.
BLOCK: That's architect Thom Mayne, founder of Morphosis Architects and creator of the new float house designed for a future home owner in New Orleans' Lower Ninth Ward. And you can see a picture of the house at npr.org.
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