Floating houses are going legit. The closest thing we’ve had to a floating house is the houseboat, which has usually been considered the province of bohemians and eccentrics like my dad’s friend who airbrushed murals on vans and Camaro hoods (his specialty was Elvis, and wizards who looked suspiciously like Elvis), stayed high 24/7, and didn’t mind living in a bobbing crackerbox that smelled like generator fumes and river scum. But thanks to European advances in technology, you can now live in a floating townhome with all the amenities and utilities of a land-house, but that costs a fraction of the price.
When London held a competition to solve its housing crisis, the winner, from London-based Baca Architects, was a floating split-level house. Anchored to a floating foundation, the open plan home features floor-to-ceiling windows, a roof patio, and skylights – and costs less than two hundred grand. (Think about how much of a house’s price is for the land it sits on.) Designed to float on the Thames River, Baca’s floating house could add more than 7,500 units of affordable housing to one of the most expensive cities in the world. The implications for the District, and its miles of unused riverfront “bluespace,” are clear.
The technology behind floating homes is relatively new. Traditional floating houses, like the ones seen in Vietnam, were built on platforms of logs. The problem is, that as this wood became waterlogged over the years, it lost some of its buoyancy, and the house either had to be abandoned or buoyed with the addition of air-filled barrels. The new technology uses layers of expanded styrofoam sealed inside a concrete block, for everlasting buoyancy.
This new technology can also be used to construct homes that don’t technically float, but are flood-ready. In Amsterdam, where most of the country is below sea level, they’ve started to build flood-ready homes in high-risk areas using these floating slabs. The homes, which are waterproofed and anchored to land, sit on slabs that are designed to rise with the water level. When there’s a flood, the house will bob to the surface, and when the waters recede, it will settle back onto the bottom.
But individual homes are just the beginning. In London, they’re building an entire floating village, inspired by similar communities in the Netherlands. Planned for London’s abandoned Docklands, the village will be made up of fifty floating homes that will be built off-site and shipped in, oriented around floating shops, offices, restaurants, and walkways, all of them built on floating concrete foundations. Once they clean the Anacostia, there are sites for at least a dozen of these floating villages in DC, though affordability should be a primary consideration – in London, some are already criticizing the luxe floating village as a “yuppie ghetto.” In Amsterdam, they’ve undertaken a similar project; a floating village called IJBurg, built on a series of artificial islands and floating platforms, that houses over 45,000 people, providing a mix of affordable and luxury housing.
Of course, the technology is new, and not yet perfected. In some cases, tethering the floating foundations to land, or the river bottom, can impact water quality. (In the Anacostia, for example, where the sediment is so toxic that it gives fish cancer, this would be a huge problem.) And there have been catastrophic failures. In Lagos, Nigeria, a floating school that won many architecture awards collapsed in a storm, leaving nothing behind except wood scraps and a few floating barrels. It should be noted, though that the floating school was built on a foundation of lashed-together barrels, and not the new styrofoam-and-concrete technology. And let’s be honest; in this era of rising home prices, who wouldn’t accept a few risks in return for buying a beautiful modern townhome for twenty cents on the dollar?