Sink or Swim

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By Paul Gains / Published by Dwell
An emerging technology poses an intriguing solution to rising tides: homes that float only when it floods.

In the last 20 years alone, more than two billion people have been affected by catastrophic flooding, while damages have run into the hundreds of billions of dollars. As global warming continues and sea levels rise, scientists fear the situation will only get worse. 

Dr. Elizabeth English, an associate professor at the University of Waterloo School of Architecture in Ontario, believes the solution is an engineering technology called amphibious housing.

"It allows the house to look and function like an ordinary house," English explains, "but be able to float straight up temporarily, sit on top of the water, and come straight back down to exactly where it started from, any time there is flooding." She adds that in some versions, including her own, "the whole system works passively, so you don’t even have to be there." 

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The basics of English’s design are quite simple. A house is briefly elevated so that buoyant flotation devices made of expanded polystyrene, recyclable oil drums, or similar materials can be connected to a structural subframe beneath it. Vertical guidance posts with up-and-down sliding mechanisms are secured to the ground and fitted to the new frame to prevent lateral movement due to wind and flowing water. Then, when flooding occurs, the house rises like a floating dock.

Retrofitting houses this way is part of what sets English’s solution, which has been independently demonstrated in Raccourci Old River, Louisiana, apart from other ideas being applied with some success. But while the effectiveness of amphibious housing has also been explored in places like Great Britain, Bangladesh, and Taiwan, it has been slow to catch on in the United States. That’s partially due to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which favors permanently elevated homes in flood zones. An inquiry to FEMA yielded the following response: "A technology that relies on mechanical processes to provide flood protection is not equivalent to the same level of safe protection provided by permanent elevation."

Nevertheless, English and her colleagues around the world are marching onward with growing optimism. Twenty months ago, the first International Conference on Amphibious Architecture, Design and Engineering (ICAADE) was held in Bangkok, Thailand, with 57 delegates from 17 countries attending. However, English and two companions were the only ones from North or South America.

"My goal is to develop this technology so it’s available to the poorest of the poor in the most vulnerable, underserved parts of the world." Dr. Elizabeth English 

English holds a PhD in Architecture from the University of Pennsylvania and an MS in Civil Engineering from MIT. The turning point in her career occurred while she was conducting research at the Louisiana State University Hurricane Center and witnessed the destruction of Hurricane Katrina. "I was shocked by the solutions that were being imposed on the people in New Orleans. It was elevate, elevate, elevate," she recalls. "I thought that was totally inappropriate, both for the historical character of the neighborhoods and for the lifestyle of the people."

Since then she has launched a nonprofit called the Buoyant Foundation Project (BFP), which focuses on bringing amphibious housing to those most in need. At a cost of between $10 and $40 per square foot, houses can be retrofitted with the technology, with utilities accessible via umbilical connections.

In February she flew to Vietnam to meet officials and planners there. "The Mekong Delta is rich in agriculture," English says. "It depends on floods to replenish lands, but floods are getting so bad it’s harder for people to live there. What do they do, live somewhere else? It’s quite a conundrum."


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The foundation also has been working with various groups of indigenous peoples whose ancestral lands are threatened by rising sea levels, like the First Nations communities in northern Ontario and central Manitoba and the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw tribe, a band of the United Houma Nation in Louisiana. Other BFP projects are being planned for Nicaragua and Jamaica. "For the time being," English says, "we’re only suggesting the technology for low-velocity, non-wave circumstances."

The University of Waterloo is hosting the second ICAADE conference, which English will co-chair, June 25–28. About 200 delegates are expected to attend.

While flooding will always be a threat, English and her colleagues around the world believe this technology can help mitigate future disasters. And interest is mounting: In March, the Global Resilience Partnership awarded the University of Waterloo, where English works, $250,000 to pilot low-cost amphibious housing.

 

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