Buoyant Foundation’s Intriguing Architectural Innovation

This is the kind of story that displays the odd new reality of what can count for optimism–finding intriguing solutions for mankind’s self-inflicted catastrophes. From Anthropocene:


Amphibious Architecture

Float when it floods

By Emily Anthes


Amphibious structures are not static; they respond to floods like ships to a rising tide, floating on the water’s surface.

Last June, not long after a catastrophic thunderstorm swept through southern Ontario, bringing a month’s worth of rain in just a few hours, a group of 75 architects, engineers, and policymakers from 16 countries gathered in the city of Waterloo to discuss how humanity will cope with its waterlogged future. The timing of the conference was a fitting meteorological coincidence; in a world increasingly transformed by climate change, heavy rains and major floods are becoming more common, at least in some areas. In the summer of 2017 alone, Hurricane Harvey dumped more than 50 inches of rain over Texas; a monster monsoon season damaged more than 800,000 homes in India; and flash floods and mudslides claimed at least 500 lives in Sierra Leone. In the past two decades, the world’s ten worst floods have done more than a 165 billion dollars’ worth of damage and driven more than a billion people from their homes.

It was statistics like these that animated the experts who had assembled in Ontario for the International Conference on Amphibious Architecture, Design and Engineering, a three-day event organized by Elizabeth English, an associate professor at the University of Waterloo. Unlike traditional buildings, amphibious structures are not static; they respond to floods like ships to a rising tide, floating on the water’s surface. As one of English’s colleagues put it, “You can think of these buildings as little animals that have their feet wet and can then lift themselves up as needed.” Amphibiation may be an unconventional strategy, but it reflects a growing consensus that, at a time of climatic volatility, people can’t simply fight against water; they have to learn to live with it. “With amphibious construction, water becomes your friend,” English told me. “The water gets to do what the water wants to do. It’s not a confrontation with Mother Nature—it’s an acceptance of Mother Nature.

English began her career focused on an altogether different force of nature: wind. After earning degrees in architecture and engineering, she eventually landed at Louisiana State University’s Hurricane Center, where she studied the effects of wind loads on buildings and the aerodynamics of windborne debris. In August of 2005, Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, about 70 miles southeast of her home in Baton Rouge. The storm’s high-speed winds peeled roofs off buildings and flung debris through windows, but it was the flooding that really shocked English. “Katrina was much more a water event than a wind event,” she said. “I started looking at the implications of all the flood damage and the social disruption that it caused, and I became very, very angry about the cultural insensitivity of the solutions that were being proposed.”

In the aftermath of the storm, the federal government recommended that residents permanently elevate their houses, lifting them up onto raised foundations or stilts. But English worried that hoisting the city’s low-slung, shotgun-style houses into the air would ruin its sense of community, making it more difficult for residents to chat with neighbors and passersby. “People didn’t want to move up,” English said. “And it visually thoroughly destroyed the neighborhoods. There had to be a better way.”

She discovered that better way in another perpetually sodden locale—the Netherlands, where developers were building a cluster of amphibious homes in a flood-prone region along the Maas River. The houses sat on hollow concrete boxes attached to large steel pillars. During a flood, the boxes would function like the hull of a ship, providing buoyancy. As the waters rose, the buildings would rise, too, sliding up the pillars and floating on the water’s surface. When the waters receded, the houses would descend to their original positions.

It was an elegant solution, English thought, but not quite what she was looking for. Building a hollow foundation is a major construction project; English wanted to give New Orleanians an easy and inexpensive way to modify their existing homes. In 2006, she founded a nonprofit called the Buoyant Foundation Project and began working with a group of architecture and engineering students to devise a method for retrofitting local homes with amphibious foundations. A typical New Orleans shotgun house sits slightly above the ground, resting atop short piers; the researchers could, they thought, fasten a steel frame to the underside of a house and affix a set of foam buoyancy blocks. Then they could sink posts into the ground and attach them to the corners of the frame, allowing the house to rise up off the piers without floating down the street…

Read the whole story here.

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