Floating architecture isn't the future. It's already here

Architects are designing a future in which we live with water and on it, due to rising sea levels.

Floating architecture isn't the future. It's already here

Editor's note: Design for Impact, a series of articles, highlights architectural solutions for communities affected by climate change and natural disasters.


We must accept the reality of climate change, even as we work to combat it. The sea level has been increasing at an accelerating rate. It is estimated that the US coasts will see a rise between 10 and 12 inches by 2050. UN Secretary General has warned that whole communities and countries may disappear in the next decades. This is particularly true for the approximately 900,000,000 people who live in low-lying coast zones.

Many of these communities are vulnerable and have experienced flooding that was devastating. Instead of trying to keep water out by building seawalls or elevating houses on stilts some architects have designed a future where we will live with and on water.

The media has been captivated by proposals for entire "climate-resilient" floating cities, including an ambitious ocean settlement (in South Korea) and one that could house 20,000 Maldivians. Existing projects from Rotterdam to Lagos show how life could look on the water -- and in ways which can be scaled up.

The 'Water Cities Rotterdam' exhibition, at the Nieuwe Instituut in the Dutch city, features the work by NLE, a practice of architecture led by Kunle Adeeyemi, which has researched and tested floating architecture all over the world. The museum's ponds are home to a series of floating pavilions that evolved from the critically acclaimed Makoko Floating School Project, developed by the Amsterdam and Lagos-based firm.

Makoko, a district in central Lagos, Nigeria, is home to thousands of people who live in wooden structures on stilts built in the lagoon. Adeyemi, inspired by the settlement in 2012, built a school to serve its residents.

The architect, via video call, reflected on the massive floods that struck Lagos in 2011. "Entire streets were submerged in water and I realized cities will flood but the people in Makoko had already adapted." It was an epiphany.

The wooden triangular A frame school, accessible by boat and featuring sheltered classrooms as well as a shared play area for dozens children, was designed to be easily accessible. The structure did not stand on stilts but floated on plastic barrels. The school collapsed several years later. NLE claimed that it was intended to be temporary and blamed the deterioration on a lack in maintenance.

Adeyemi's firm, based on the lessons learned from his project and ongoing research - much of which is featured in his book'African Water Cities ’ - developed the Makoko Floating System. This group of sustainable wood structures can be assembled and disassembled quickly wherever and whenever needed. The system has a modular design, more efficient steel connections and is designed to meet European building code requirements.

The MFS is made up of prefabricated flat-pack pieces that can be assembled by a five-person team in just two weeks without the use of heavy equipment or cranes. Adeyemi stated that the goal was to provide a solution for everyone, so no one is left behind.

The system comes in small, medium, and large versions. Adeyemi says the MFS is suitable for many purposes, including housing and education. It can also be applied worldwide. He built the system in several countries, including Italy and China, to test its performance in different water and climate conditions.

The concept of a floating "music hub" took root semi-permanently in Mindelo in 2021. This port city is located in Cape Verde, off the coast West Africa. The cultural center is spread across three triangular wooden and steel pavilions. It includes a floating recording studio, bar, canteen, and performance space.

Learn to live with the water

Rotterdam, the Dutch city most susceptible to rising water levels, is perhaps a fitting place for Adeyemi MFS. The sight of floating buildings is not new in Rotterdam, where 90% of the city lies below sea level. Many design firms are tackling the watery future in the city.

Nassauhaven is a project completed by Public Domain Architects in this year. It features 17 floating houses created by the local firm. The winning design was chosen by the city to create a floating architecture project pilot that could ensure Rotterdam’s future.

Pieter Figdor, CEO of PDA, said over a video call that 'we are a delta-city and the water levels are changing'. He says that the interest in floating structures is increasing. In recent years, both a floating office and floating farm opened in the city.

Nassauhaven has been promoted as the first floating residential area in the city. The project, which has its houses arranged neatly in a row, is called a "floating street." The wooden houses are attached to concrete pontoons by poles and walkways that connect to the harbor. The wooden homes rise and fall with the tides while still remaining stable and comfortable. These buildings are designed to be energy-neutral, and include sustainability features like solar panels, biofuel heating, and onsite wastewater treatment.

Figdor believes that building on water is one of the last options for new housing in Rotterdam. He believes that building on water is more resilient than just constructing barriers in order to keep the water away from land-based buildings. He said that 'on the water you are the most safe place to adapt to climate change'.

PDA has more floating projects in Bangladesh and Rotterdam. The firm hopes to also expand the Nassauhaven Pilot: 'Now, we would like to create a floating quarter of about 100 homes' Figdor stated. Adeyemi's firm is working on similar plans for an MFS neighborhood, already home to floating communities in Amsterdam.

Adeyemi feels that there is not enough research on how to build and live in water. Water makes up 70 percent of the Earth's land surface. In light of the rising sea level, the work at the Nieuwe Instituut and the new book by the architect aims to fill this gap.

He said that in the near future human civilization would be more dependent on water. Why fight the water when you could learn to live with?