Episode 12: Frontier Seas

Innovations on water

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Adam's Weekly Blog

Frontier seas

Frontier seas

There is a story told to children about the Little Dutch Boy who when...
There is a story told to children about the Little Dutch Boy who when passing a dike on his way to school noticed a slight leak as the sea trickled in through a small hole. Knowing that a small leak could soon turn into a big problem, the boy put his finger into the hole and so stemmed the flow of water.

It is a small story about a small action but it tells of a big problem and it emphasises Holland’s importance in the world of dealing with water and flooding. The Dutch are masters at living with water. Over hundreds of years they have drained, diked and dug their way out of the North Sea.

But they are now leading efforts not just to build barriers against the encroaching tide but teaching the world how to adapt to live with the world of rising sea levels.

Instead of just trying to keep the water out, they are learning both to live with water and live on water, and that is a real shift that could provide lessons for coastal cities right around the world.

The majority of the world is covered in water and over half the globe's population live in thin coastal strips. So the pressure is on to do something about this encroaching watery world. This is one of our greatest challenges. This time on Horizons we meet the people for whom water holds no fear, they are learning how to work with it and tame the tides.

A quarter of the Netherlands is below sea level, with the land protected by almost 2,400 kilometers (1,500 miles) of dikes. Without that protection, more than half of the country would suffer tidal flooding every day. One Amsterdam-based architect has come up with a design which needs no land at all, but just perhaps, an open mind. We are talking floating homes.

I met the architect Marlies Rohmer amongst the floating homes of Amsterdam which she designed.

A row of terrace floating homes are linked to a network of jetties, with movable bridges marked by four-storey houses on piles. Rohmer says the idea was to create ‘a pleasantly untidy character’. Owners can choose the orientation of their houses and the cladding in the facades. The jetties have been colonised with planters and benches and added to the ubiquitous Dutch bicycle you will often see a small dinghy tied to each house.

This amazing project is using the principle of displacement. The houses are built on concrete hulls and as long as a house does not weigh more than the water it displaces, it will float. All together the weight of each home is ninety tonnes. That allows a margin of fifteen tonnes for furniture and a lot of people in a party – anymore than that and the home will start to sink.

One peculiarity of living in these homes is that you have to distribute the furniture fairly evenly otherwise the home lists to one side and you end up walking uphill when you cross the sitting room. A grand piano in one resident’s home, caused exactly that problem and everything had to be moved.

The houses do look like houses rather than houseboats. They are securely fixed to steel piles which allow the homes to rise and fall both with the water level. There is a 60cm difference in the tides so the homes do rise and fall every day with the changing phases of the moon.

There are some legal differences about owning a floating home as the owners buy a perpetual lease on their patch of water and the lake-bed beneath although I am told that the law does not currently consider floating buildings to be real estate, and the houses are listed in the Register of Shipping.

People have been living in the development for around five years now and although they cost about ten percent more than their equivalent on land, the residents I spoke to believe they are really worth the extra money.

Now this concept might be using physics discovered by Archimedes well over two thousand years ago, but it has never been used on this scale and with this much ingenuity. If this community stands the test of time and tide, the concept could help solve our real estate problems in an ever more crowded world.
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