Amphibious Architecture

April 10, 2018

In The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy’s house was carried off by a tornado. In real life, depending on where you live, your house is probably more likely to get swept away by water than by wind, but there’s a possibility that, like Dorothy’s, it might just stay in one piece.

Some countries—especially low-lying, flood-prone ones like the Netherlands—have long been studying ways to hold back the sea, and predictions of sea level rise are accelerating those efforts. Holding the water back, as with a seawall, is not necessarily the only option, though; another strategy is to construct buildings so that as the water rises, so do they. Variously called floating buildings or amphibious architecture, the structures might be conventional looking and sit on solid ground—until it floods, when their buoyant foundations will lift them up. Others are designed to float all the time, like massive houseboats. As this article describes, some architects and planners are already building a floating complex with hundreds of apartments, and others envision floatable and portable architecture that can be moved around the metropolis—or at least to new locations near the shore—at will.

It sounds like an expensive proposition, and it can be. But as this profile of a house in Port Maria, Jamaica, shows, it’s also possible to do it affordably. “By applying a buoyant foundation system using buoyancy blocks composed of expanded polystyrene, and using half-length telephone poles or locally harvested decay-resistant tree species for the vertical guidance posts, members of these low-income communities can retrofit their existing homes with amphibious foundations at minimal cost, protecting themselves and their possessions from flood damage,” according to a description of the project on the Buoyant Foundation’s website. “When compared to the potential cost of relocating and repairing flood damage, buoyant foundation retrofits are a low-cost, low-environmental impact solution.”

As Infrastructure Week approaches (it’s May 14–21 this year), one of the discussions we’ll be focusing on here at Forester Media is how to make infrastructure more resilient, better able to withstand storms, flooding, and other environmental damage. As long as so much of our infrastructure—from roads, airports, and railways to dams and levees to the systems that deliver water and power—need repair and upgrading, we might as well make it better able to withstand whatever comes. In some cases, that might mean starting at home, literally.

About the Author

Janice Kaspersen

Janice Kaspersen is the former editor of Erosion Control and Stormwater magazines.