exterior of floating office building in evening,

Is This Floating Headquarters a Model for Waterfront Workplaces?

A three-story boat in Rotterdam is the largest floating office worldwide. Fully self-sufficient, it may be a blueprint for building in flood-prone cities.

The Global Center on Adaptation (GCA) is an a non-profit organization that advises countries, cities and institutions on how to implement long-term strategies for the foreseeable consequences of climate change like sea level rise, heat waves, stronger storms, and heavy rainfall. When it was considering a European headquarters, instead of moving into a traditional office building, the GCA decided instead to make its new headquarters a clear and bold statement on climate adaptation itself. What the organization ended up with is the world’s largest floating office, with three wooden stories comfortably bobbing in the calm waters of the Rijnhaven in Rotterdam. As a major port in the Netherlands, much of which lies below sea level, the city of Rotterdam is ground zero for GCA’s to demonstrate its mission, and deploy the technology that makes its floating workplace possible.

The design comes from Rotterdam-based architects Powerhouse Company. They selected a wooden structure, not only because the material is lightweight enough to float, but also to reduce carbon dioxide emissions and to take advantage of the material’s inherent recyclability.

The foundation of 15 floating concrete pontoons provides the buoyant structure with a base strong enough to also carry the weight of 38,770 square-feet of office space with extra-large panoramic windows on all sides.

In addition to its seaborne profile, the architects’ design includes a menu of climate-ready features. The large cantilever of the gable roof helps shade the windows, reducing solar heat gain, and sheltering the wood structure in case of heavy rain.

exterior image showing illuminated interior of floating office building
The floating office building occupies a slip in Rotterdam’s harbor. extensive outdoor space takes advantage of the waterfront setting. COURTESY SEBASTIAN VAN DAMME

Glue-laminated beams form the office’s skeleton, while ceilings and walls are made of cross-laminated timber. The north side of the roof is planted, and the south side features 8,800 square feet of PV panels. Nanne de Ru, director and founder of Powerhouse Company, points out that designing a floating building brings new challenges: For instance, the size of the building was defined by the largest pontoons that could be navigated through a nearby drawbridge. Meanwhile, since it is constantly floating, workers couldn’t use a carpenter’s level while assembling the prefab wooden elements. “You have to use angles instead—and rely on your eyes, and that of the workers.” Since the green roof side is heavier—“especially when it rains; it really gets soaked”—the pontoons carry counterweights on the southern side.

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The interior of the barge is rich in amenities for employees of the NGO and architecture firm that occupy it. COURTESY MARK SEELEN PHOTOGRAPHY
overhead view of roof, half planted and half photo voltaic
The southern pitch of the building’s roof is clad in solar panels, while the nothern side is planted. The extra weight of the greenroof necessitated counterweights on the southern side of the building to avoid tipping. COURTESY MARK SEELEN PHOTOGRAPHY

But all obstacles could not reduce the ambitions of the architects, engineers, and their client. The concrete pontoons are additionally equipped with water pipes that use the harbor water to cool the interior in the summer and warm it in winter. In sum, the building is a plus-energy house that delivers more energy than it uses in its yearly average—or at least this is the prognosis. It is a building and also an experiment, so we have to wait to see how it performs. For now, it certainly is a good sign that the architects have also moved in with their office. Obviously, they believe in their design, and that it doesn’t turn turtle in the first heavy storm that certainly is to come.

So is building more floating buildings a solution for the future of the Netherlands and other coastal regions? “I can imagine that it surely is a part of it,” says de Ru. “Especially in cities like Rotterdam, where many of the ex-industrial port basins are empty. We could make many more floating buildings.”

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