Buoyant buildings: better than boats?

With hurricane season at its peak, we explore how floating homes might help us adapt to bigger storms and rising seas.

The Dutch have a head start when it comes to dealing with water. The extreme weather events and rising sea level that scientists predict this century will affect millions around the globe—most of the world’s largest cities are along the coasts. But that problem has long been acute in the low-lying Netherlands, where two-thirds of the population live in flood-prone areas. Over the centuries, the Dutch have honed technologies—dikes, canals, and pumps—that keep their streets and houses dry.

Now, a new generation of Dutch engineers and architects is modeling another method. Rather than fight to keep water out, they say, why not live on it? The basic idea is not new—hundreds of free spirits live on traditional houseboats in quirky communities like Sausalito, California, and Key West, Florida. But in the Netherlands over the past few years, novel technologies have allowed developers to build roughly a thousand (and counting) stable, flat-bottomed, multi-story homes connected to land-based utilities yet designed to rise and fall with the tides and even floods. House boats, these ain’t.

And this is just the start. The Dutch are thinking bigger, and they’re exporting their floating-home vision worldwide, betting that the rest of us coastal clingers could use it. Some projects exist already, others are on the drawing board or coming soon. Let’s take a look at a few, from the workaday to the fantastical, and from overseas to right here in the States.

Photo by Roos Aldershoff, courtesy of Marlies Rohmer Architects and Urbanists


A “normal house” on water

The first of its kind, Waterbuurt (above and top) is a planned neighborhood of about 100 (eventually 165) floating houses in Amsterdam’s IJmeer Lake, part of a freshwater reservoir dammed off from the North Sea in the 1930s. Waterbuurt broke ground—er, water—in 2009, and was largely complete by 2014. Connected by jetties, the structures are three-story, 2,960-square-foot houses built of wood, aluminum, and glass.

floating_building-illustration2

Source: DigitalCommons@CalPoly (colorized for clarity)

And the foundations? Floating concrete tubs. Each house is designed to weigh 110 tons and displace 110 tons of water, which—as Archimedes could tell you—causes it to float. (The bottom floor is half submerged.) To prevent rocking in the waves, the house is fastened to two mooring posts—on diagonally opposite corners of the house—driven 20 feet into the lake bed. The posts are telescoping, allowing the house to rise and fall with the water level. Flexible pipes deliver electricity and plumbing.

Because any crack in the foundation tub could cause the house to sink, there can’t be any joints; builders pour the entire basement in one shot—much like the parking garage of the Jade Signature condo complex in Florida. In a facility 30 miles away from the IJmeer Lake site, crews use special buckets that pour 200 gallons per minute to finish all four walls and the floor in a single shift.

Just four months elapse before the entire house is built; then it’s towed by tugboat—30 miles through canals and locks—to the plot. The transportation is a major reason the houses cost about 10 percent more than an average home in Amsterdam, though they’re still aimed at the city’s middle class. The houses were designed by architect Marlies Rohmer, for developer Ontwikkelingscombinatie Waterbuurt West.

Once secured to its mooring posts, the structure is formally considered an immovable home, not a house boat. (Although owners have the option of naming their waterborne homes as sea captains do. One couple calls theirs La Scalota Grigia—Italian for “The Grey Box.”)

With high ceilings and straight angles, a house in Waterbuurt “feels like a normal house,” wrote a New York Times reporter who toured one. But some residents say they do feel their home swaying when the wind kicks up.

One other drawback, or at least challenge: Residents have to decide before the house is even built where they’re going to place furniture, because that will affect its balance. The walls are built to varying thickness, depending on the layout submitted. What if you inherit a beloved aunt’s piano after you move in? Or have another child and need to buy a bunkbed? To compensate, homeowners can install balance tanks on the exterior or Styrofoam in the cellar, or carefully move furniture around or even deploy sand bags. A bit of a hassle, but perhaps with an eye on rising sea levels, that’s a risk Amsterdammers are willing to take.

Citadel crop.png

Rendering courtesy of architect Koen Olthuis, Waterstudio.NL, and developer Dutch Docklands

Continue Reading ›

A ray of sunshine: Solar power makes strides in Florida

Construction is underway on the nation’s first solar-powered town, in a state just beginning to realize its potential.

For a state that gets 230 days of sunshine a year, Florida has long been in the Dark Ages when it comes to solar power. The state ranks as low as 17th in terms of solar energy output, despite ranking third in solar potential. But the outlook for that most obvious of renewable energies seems to be getting, well, sunnier by the day.

This week, Florida’s citizens voted by a sky-wide margin (73 percent to 27 percent) to approve a constitutional amendment that will provide significant tax breaks for commercial property owners who install solar panels. It will also allow leasing of solar energy: Going forward, landlords can sell solar power directly to tenants. Expect to see shiny panels sprout on the rooftops of apartment complexes and big-box stores from Pensacola to Miami.

But one Florida developer is going further than that, aiming to change the home-by-home, building-by-building paradigm. Syd Kitson, the chairman and CEO of Kitson & Partners (and a former Green Bay Packer) is building an entire town that will draw most of its energy from the sun.

Breaking ground last fall, Babcock Ranch sits on 17,000 acres in rural Charlotte County, outside Fort Myers. By 2041, this ambitious planned community will house up to 50,000 residents who can stay cool, reheat chicken, Skype with relatives, and even head to the hardware store with the help of the world’s largest photovoltaic power plant. In Kitson’s vision (see rendering above), this sustainable town’s example might inspire large-scale changes in the way Americans live and work.

A series of hamlets, villages and neighborhoods, Babcock Ranch will have its own schools and a downtown district—already under construction—featuring six million square feet of retail, commercial, civic, and office space. Designed on a smart grid to optimize energy efficiency and lower utility costs, the town will make use of current and emerging technologies such as electric vehicles and solar-powered charging stations. And a system of shared, driverless vehicles will move people and goods throughout town.

Slated for completion next year, Phase 1 of construction includes 1,100 homes as well as the downtown district, which will feature a state-of-the-art wellness center, a market café, lakeside restaurant, and educational facilities, all connected by a system of walking trails.

20160422 FPL Babcock Ranch 0707.jpg

Members of the media toured the solar plant at Babcock Ranch on Earth Day in April. (Photo courtesy Babcock Ranch)

The entire development will be powered by the 74.5-megawatt-capacity FPL Babcock Solar Energy Center, being built in conjunction with Florida Power & Light on an adjacent 450-acre site. Excess power collected during the sunniest days will be pumped back into the electrical grid, to be stored for use on overcast days.

During nighttime hours, at least in the short term, the town’s power will be supplied by natural gas. Although natural gas is not a renewable resource, it emits 50 percent less carbon dioxide when burned than coal. Moreover, the new homeowners will also have the option to purchase rooftop solar panels—a process that, presumably, will become even easier thanks to the amendment passed this week.

From an environmental standpoint, these are all encouraging developments, showing that solar’s role is on the rise, and perhaps a more sustainable energy mix is just on the horizon.

This post was a collaboration between Suffolk Construction’s Insurance Coordinator Lindsay Davis and Content Writer Patrick Kennedy. If you have questions, Lindsay can be reached at ldavis@suffolk.com and Patrick can be reached at pkennedy@suffolk.com or connect with him on LinkedIn here and follow him on Twitter at @PK_Build_Smart.

Watch: High-tech timber erected at UMass

_SWA3578_13132

High-tech wood panels known as cross-laminated timber (CLT) are replacing concrete slabs on the UMass Design Building. Featuring three to nine layers of lumber glued together, CLTs are like plywood on steroids. (Courtesy ReTHINKWood)

In October we wrote about a revolutionary project using “mass timber” at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Now that it is actually being erected, the Suffolk Construction team managing the project invited us to the job site to interview the folks responsible for this first-of-its-kind structure.

Arriving on a perfectly sunny day, it was hard to miss the building rising from the campus. Massive large timber columns, beams and panels form a structural frame that is strikingly solid and beautiful. The “high-tech wood” is light, sustainable and aesthetically pleasing. It’s not your typical composite material. You can actually see the grains in the columns that will ultimately be left exposed inside the 86,000-square-foot UMass Design Building.

Don’t forget to reread our original post to learn more about this innovative building and the wood construction movement …

Continue Reading ›

Harnessing solar energy with windows

In the United States alone, there are 437 billion square feet of windows installed every year. Imagine if all of those windows and the already existing windows on earth could produce solar energy to power the very buildings they adorn.

The idea of a transparent “solar-panel window” that could turn a high-rise glass tower such as One World Trade Center in New York, into one enormous solar panel is not some far-fetched idea of the future. Several companies, including SolarWindow Technologies and Onyx Solar, boast products that could not only reduce a skyscraper’s reliance on the grid, but possibly power entire city blocks one day. These solar panels embedded into windows have a minimal effect on the window’s aesthetic and maintenance.

Continue Reading ›

More than just a pretty façade: Innovative terracotta rainscreen comes to life on Fenway apartment building

Boston’s famed Fenway neighborhood might be best known for the city’s hometown nine, but the baseball-centric community is undergoing a building boom that includes six projects under construction and another six already approved by the Boston Redevelopment Authority. Amid the boom, one project sets itself apart from the Fenway field — Viridian Boston  — with an innovative terracotta façade system that bridges the gap between Boston’s old-school-brick buildings and the sleek modern ones sprouting across the city.

About 90 percent of construction waste on this project was recycled or diverted from landfills. Click here to see more of the Viridian’s sustainable stats.

The 21-story apartment building with 10,000 square feet of ground-level retail features Agrob Buchtal’s rainscreen façade noteworthy for its rapid installation, durability, and an enormous selection of colors and design possibilities. The largest project in the United States to feature the Keratwin K20 Engineered Terracotta Façade System, Viridian’s facade has six different panel colors with three different finishes: smooth, grooved and stripy. The nearly 27,000 individual panels have 63 different lengths and were arranged by architect Bruner/Cott & Associates in seemingly random patterns.

Continue Reading ›

Cutting concrete’s carbon footprint

Emitting up to five percent of man-made carbon dioxide on earth, the cement industry is the second largest greenhouse gas emitter worldwide behind power generation. So it stands to reason that finding a more sustainable alternative to standard concrete, which typically contains 10 to 15 percent cement, could have far reaching impacts.

A groundbreaking company based in Halifax, Canada has done just that. CarbonCure Technologies has developed a proprietary technology that allows concrete manufacturers to produce a concrete that sequesters waste carbon dioxide during the manufacturing process to reduce emissions by about 10 to 15 percent on average.

Let that sink in for a second: a concrete that captures carbon dioxide. Continue Reading ›