May 1, 2011
In the Netherlands, floating houses are going from quirky one-offs to a viable, pragmatic reality.
From the number 26 tram cutting through Amsterdam’s IJburg district, the new Waterbuurt West housing development doesn’t immediately draw the eye. A line of glass-encased houses erected on stilts extends along a dike at the eastern edge of the city. Behind the facades, however, a quiet revolution in Amsterdam’s housing stock is taking hold. In the water is a complex of 55 floating homes, the largest such concentration in the Netherlands and the first time that waterborne dwellings have been placed on the Dutch rental market.
In previous decades, floating homes serviced an eccentric niche market of buyers. They were the “initiatives of individual people—hippies and so on,” says Niek Kruisheer, of the Amsterdam architecture firm Attika, which is planning its own floating complex in IJBurg, near Waterbuurt West. Now, due to a conflux of national policy shifts, housing demand, and manufacturing advances, large-scale floating-home developments are suddenly becoming a viable reality.
For centuries, Holland has been dredging usable land out of the ocean. Amsterdam’s Central Station was erected on artificial islands in the harbor, and the city’s Schiphol Airport sits on a “polder”—a low-lying tract of land enclosed by dikes. But keeping the country’s 3,500 polders dry requires constant vigilance. And in response to rising river and sea levels, authorities are now reflooding some of them.
Given the country’s stifling density and scarce available land, the real-estate opportunities are huge. And upcoming waterborne projects will include homes for the public-housing market—a big indicator that they are ready for introduction to a broad clientele. (Consider that in Amsterdam alone, 200,000 homes are “socially controlled,” meaning that they are subsidized and regulated by the government.) “The water board wants a solution for the threat of water; the municipality wants more houses for the people,” says the architect Koen Olthuis, of the Risjwijk-based firm Waterstudio, which is developing a 1,200-unit floating-house project in the town of Naaldwijk, about 15 miles west of Rotterdam.
Manufacturing advances are also playing a part. Floating homes rest on hulls of concrete engineered to resist the wear of water and time. They are fastened to jetties anchored along dikes and shorelines. Only in the last decade have the infra-structure and workmanship reached a point where the buildings can be mass-produced, according to Mark van Ommen, a spokesman for the floating-homes manufacturer ABC Arkenbouw, whose seven-year-old factory in the village of Urk has contributed to the burst of new projects. In particular, Van Ommen says, the concrete recipe used for the hulls has improved dramatically in recent years, and it continues to be refined. One advance offered by other manufacturers is polystyrene-infused concrete, which can support multiple structures and can be built on location, instead of being transported from a factory. Both Attika and Waterstudio are using the material in their upcoming developments.
But even their advocates admit that waterborne dwellings have some disadvantages. Ton van Namen, the CEO of Monteflore, the firm that developed Waterbuurt West, thinks that floating homes will probably never make up more than a small share of housing stock in the Netherlands. (In the meantime, interest in nonresidential floating architecture is rising: in January a new three-story office and service center, designed by Attika for the public water utility Waternet, arrived in Amsterdam’s harbor. Employees travel back and forth to the office by boat.) The obstacles are rooted in logistics—the size of building parts that can be delivered via waterways, for instance, is limited by the size of the country’s locks—and lifestyle. Living on the water is not for everyone. “You have to deal with elements of nature,” Van Namen says. “When it is windy, it is windy—you really feel it.”