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Dutch Architects Plan for a Floating Future

Interactive: Rising Temperatures, Disappearing Coastlines

Architects in Holland are showing the rest of the world a way of turning adversity into opportunity.

The inevitable rise in sea level that comes with climate change is going to make it increasingly difficult to control flooding in low-lying Holland. But instead of cursing their fate, architects are designing a new Holland that will float on water, and the Dutch government seems willing to try out the scheme. Holland has made other countries begin to question, too. Who says you have to live on dry land?

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With the exception of the major highways, it feels like you can't drive more than a mile or so in the Netherlands without running into water. It could be the sea; it could be a river; it could be a canal.

Floating Foundations

On a grey day in November, we head to a town called Maasbommel on the Maas River. We're going to see a lady who owns a floating house. Well, it's not really a floating house. It's a house that can float because it has a unique foundation.

We eventually find the driveway that takes us down to a cluster of cool-looking houses along the river. They have a nautical feel, with curved lines and colored wooden planking.

We're supposed to be visiting the house of Anne van der Molen, but we can't seem to find hers. So we start knocking on doors. We want to see the inside of one of these houses.

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Finally, we find someone who is home: Mariana Smits. She is a delightful, energetic woman. If I had to pick one adjective, I'd pick perky. She invites us in for a tour.

It has the look of a typical split-level house. A living room faces the river; stairs lead to a bedroom in back and to a master bedroom above the living room. "We are two of us, me and my husband," Smits says. "So it's big enough for us."

But then I make an odd tour request. I ask her if I can see her home's foundation. Luckily, she's happy to oblige. She leads us downstairs.

"This is underwater," she says when we get there. We are in an enclosed basement with a low ceiling, and the Maas River is all around us. I mean, you poke a hole, and you're going to have water come in.

You see, Smits' foundation actually sits on the river bottom. If the river level rises to flood stage, the house and the foundation float up with the water level. Flexible pipes keep the house connected to electrical and sewer lines.

The house hasn't floated yet, but the prediction is that with global warming, the river will flood about once every 12 years. This ability to cope with floodwater rather than be devastated is why Smits moved here.

"In the other village we have lived, there was always the water. I was very scared," Smits says. "Two times, we have evacuated to leave our old house. This was very scary for us. And we got the opportunity to buy this house. It's a safe place."

In fact, global warming, with the increased risk of flooding it brings, is causing some architects in Holland to change their philosophy.

Chris Zevenbergen is with Dura Vermeer, the company that designed and built Smits' house.

"The whole idea is, in our designs, we should always take into account what will happen when there's an extreme event," Zevenbergen says. In the past, the Dutch only built homes in places where dikes made flooding unlikely.

"The concept that in fact you build in an area where a flood may occur is completely new," Zevenbergen says.

New, and attracting attention. Go ahead and build houses in areas that might flood — just build them on floating foundations.

At his office in the Hague, Koen Olthuis drums his fingers on his desk while he is fielding calls from people all over the world interested in water architecture. Olthuis is bursting with energy. He's the co-founder of a firm called Waterstudio, a small office with a dozen or so youngish employees.

Olthuis' projects go beyond the idea of simply keeping the house and its contents dry.

"The next step: we not only make the house floating, but we make the complete garden floating," Olthuis says.

Why not? Why lose all those pretty Dutch tulips just because it floods? After all, Olthuis says, building floating foundations is a snap. Just fill a concrete box with some kind of plastic foam, flip it over, and you've got a stable platform that's ready to float. And the more of these platforms you join together, the more stable they are. So Olthuis doesn't plan to stop at single family homes.

"You see a floating foundation, with a garden on top of it, a swimming pool on top of it, and a house on top of it. And you can fix those floating gardens to each other, and make a floating village of it," he says.

A Return to a Nomadic Lifestyle

All of the projects that Olthuis is describing are still on the drawing board. But the Dutch government has set aside some money and space to try building some of these floating architectural concepts. And Olthuis is confident that people are ready for a new way of living.

"The momentum is just right. Because of the climate change, because of the Al Gore story, because of New Orleans, because of the financials of this moment, everybody is waiting for new innovations," Olthuis says.

And those innovations are coming. Zevenbergen's company has already built floating greenhouses and has designs for floating roads. It even has plans for houses that not only float, but also move.

"You can move them along the river, and go to a city which is close to the river, and park your home there in a special harbor which is constructed for this type of boat," Zevenbergen says. "That we call a nomadic way of living, that you can change the area where you live depending on the season or whatever."

If this sounds like turning the lowly houseboat of yesterday into tomorrow's design for living, well, basically it is.

But the point is, suddenly, climate change is no longer a dire threat, but an opportunity for innovation.

"There are infinite possibilities. That's the idea," Zevenbergen says. "Everything is in fact possible. Nothing is impossible. Sounds crazy, eh?"

Or not.

Produced by Rebecca Davis.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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