It’s time to get serious about flood-resistant and amphibious houses

One year after Superstorm Sandy slammed the East Coast, where are we with the types of innovations that are required to withstand superstorms of the future? While there may not be a massive super-dam or super-shield that cities can build to keep Mother Nature at bay, it’s also become distressingly clear that we cannot rebuild things the way they were and hope for the best.

Perhaps the largest and most comprehensive plans for an innovative, post-Sandy future are being made by New York City. In June, Mayor Bloomberg unveiled a 430-page whopper of a report that detailed the steps he’d like New York to take to prevent another Sandy. It included a number of forward-looking concepts for “hardening” the city against future storms and making waterfront communities more resilient – everything from wetlands and a tidal barrier on the backside of Coney Island to deployable flood walls around Manhattan.

What really stood out in the report was a radical plan not just to protect the coastline, but to reclaim parts of New York Harbor with a vast new development in lower Manhattan. Instead of hunkering down behind sand dunes or sea walls, the inhabitants of lower Manhattan would stare right out at the sea. Seaport City would include a multi-purpose levee along lower Manhattan’s eastern edge and the creation of new “resilient” buildings specifically designed to withstand a wide range of climate risks. New York wants to take back the sea, and have people live there.

And that seems like the direction we’re headed in around the world – a fundamentally new reappraisal of how we co-exist with the sea. The Netherlands, which is seen as “the world’s premier lab for how to tame rivers and seas,” is at the forefront of building “amphibious houses,” which are designed to adapt and respond to rising sea levels. As architect Haiko Cornelissen points out, during times of flooding, each amphibious house is “able to float on the water, held in place by guides, and continues to function thanks to flexible utilities. The amphibious house is more a new type of construction than a new type of house.” If you’d like, you can even make them solar-powered, and live completely off the grid. Or, consider the cool concepts from WaterStudio.NL for waterfront living: floating villas, floating hotels, floating mosques, heck, even floating golf courses.

And, it’s not just the Dutch who are coming up with creative ideas for new living arrangements in the post-Sandy area. As part of design competitions hosted in the months after Superstorm Sandy hit, there have been numerous concepts for innovative housing that would respond to a Superstorm. Inhabitat recently featured six smart, flood-resistant homes. One of the neatest ideas is something the designer is calling Shut Up the House – it’s a beachfront home that converts into a tiny, folded wooden box until the storm passes over. And Rebuild by Design just unveiled 10 new innovative concepts for protecting waterfront communities.


People hold hands during a remembrance ceremony along the beachfront damaged by Sandy. (Shannon Stapleton/Reuters)

Of course, all this super-innovation also comes with a super-price tag. That radical waterfront defense system proposed by New York City? That’ll be $20 billion, please. Other features being proposed by innovators would cost as much as $6 billion each if you prefer a la carte pricing. Once you start throwing around numbers like that, it’s easy to see why “water defense” or “climate innovation” (or whatever you want to call it) has the potential to be such a serious growth industry in the years ahead. Imagine winning the government contract that enables you to redesign entire communities of cities with millions of people.

At some point, cities have to do a cost-benefit analysis. A storm of the epic size of Sandy would likely cost another $30 billion if it hit New York City again. From that perspective, investing $20 billion to save $30 billion is a logical choice. Without making these types of investments in the protection of our cities, we’ll be like the little Dutch boy who tried to plug a hole in the dike with his fingers. Much better to seal the doors in your amphibious house and ride out the storm at sea.

Dominic Basulto is a futurist and blogger based in New York City.
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Matt McFarland | October 31, 2013