Sunday, October 02, 2005

Floating houses in the Netherlands

Yet another interesting article in Germany's Der Spiegel magazine: "The Dutch," it seems, "are gearing up for climate change with amphibious houses. If rivers rise above their banks, the houses simply rise upwards as well."

"Hurricane Katrina and her lesser cousin Hurricane Rita have sparked interest in the low lying Netherlands. Hordes of hydraulic engineers from Louisiana or Texas are making the pilgrimage to the North Sea coastline to look at the fortifications. The inland river dykes are also considered exemplary models." After all, much of the Netherlands, and in particular its populous coastal regions, lies below sea level, protected by a series of dykes, much like New Orleans and other areas along the Gulf Coast. And that's precisely the problem:

Climatologists predict that precipitation in The Netherlands could increase as much as 25 percent. At the same time, because of the small kingdom's dense population, there is increasing pressure to build in areas prone to flooding. Already, though, the country defies the laws of physics simply by existing: More than a quarter of its land lies below sea level. And, year by year, the land is sinking a little bit lower. The Dutch protect themselves from going under through a network of canals and pumps. It is not only the sea which threatens the mighty barrage on the coast. On the other side lies the Rhine River, which branches out and forms a wide-reaching delta with the Maas. To prevent such huge swaths of land from flooding in summer and winter storms, the Dutch are designating more and more land along their rivers as flood zones. Within the next few decades, the area will compose close to 500,000 hectares -- or about twice the size of the German state of Saarland.

For this reason, the Dutch are experimenting with amphibious houses that can float to accommodate rising flood waters:

The key to making this idea a reality is a patented technique whereby the foundation of the construction can be transformed into a float. A foam core is encased in concrete, with steel cables securing it against the pull of potential currents. Individual pontoons, whether for residential blocks or chicken coops, can be joined to one another like Lego blocks. As a result, a maritime settlement is born.

Not many of these houses have been built (there are some along the river Maas), but entire communities of amphibious houses are being planned, the first near Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport. It's an interesting idea that may turn out to be quite practical, especially where population density is high and living in low-lying areas is a necessity. I'm not sure if it's the right solution for New Orleans, or if Gulf Coast residents will someday live in floating houses (which could still be destroyed by hurricanes), but other parts of the world -- notably poor, high-density ones -- could surely benefit from some of the visionary work being done in the Netherlands.

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