Flooding no threat to homes that float

Floating ‘water-homes’, and a way to turn homebuyers into developers are just some of the exciting ideas that could help London’s housing shortage
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Ijburg, Amsterdam
The experimental floating village of Ijburg in Amsterdam

An experiment with floating homes conducted in the Netherlands could prove valuable to British developers looking for more building land — even in flood-prone areas.

Details of the project are currently being revealed — appropriately — in Venice at the Architecture Biennale, though Londoners will be able to lean more at a show being staged in the capital in the spring.

The Biennale is huge and usually shows very avant-garde architecture from around the world. But, this year’s director, London-based architect David Chipperfield, wanted 2012 to be a bit more down to earth.

Dutch architects de Rijke Marsh Morgan (dRMM) have been monitoring the performance of a new “floating village” in Ijburg, Amsterdam. Much of Holland is below sea level, so its engineers and architects are familiar with making housing that can deal with water. But even in the Netherlands, most houses don’t actually float. In Ijburg they do.

Each of its 70 large, light, modern private homes is pre-fabricated offsite, with a floating concrete foundation. Then they are literally sailed into position. The Ijburg project continues to be tested but has proved popular with children living there. They normally travel to school using their family’s boat but, in cold winters, they can skate from their front doors.

These are not houseboats, they are water-houses, and Holland has developed a special water-ownership policy for them, part of a new economy dubbed Aquanomics. As one owner, Enrico Pacenti, says proudly of his self-built family home: "For 50 years the water plot is mine, and no one can take it away."

There’s nothing like these 50-year leases in the UK. Our Housing Act gives security of tenure to people living legally on land (even in caravans) but, as one Chelsea houseboat resident Tom Bowens says: "houseboats don’t have the same security of tenure. That’s one of the main reasons why there aren’t more on the river."

In Ijberg, a group of families makes a legal collective together, then work directly with an architect, so there’s no developer. Derko-Jan Dollen, an architect in a self-built water-house, says, "the benefit is quality, not to mention that it’s cheaper. It’s becoming more and more popular."

So could it work here? Alex de Rijke of dRMM (and professor of architecture at the RCA) wants to try it in the Royal London Docks, which he says are a hugely underused resource. There are 250 acres in the Docks and de Rijke’s eyes gleam at the prospect of making homes there.

He isn’t alone. Mike Luddy, MD at the Royal Docks Management Authority, is very enthusiastic. "The dock occupies a huge area, approximately 4km long. So far there have been 82 masterplans and they all look at it from a land-based perspective, but no-one has looked at the water itself, and what an amazing asset we have.

"We could be developing a community of up to 1,500-2,000 homes. dRMM’s research in Holland has made us believe that this is actually commercially possible."

The British Council exhibition Venice Takeaway will be at the Royal Institute of British Architecture from 25 February 2013. Visit architecture.com for details.

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