Other Horizons

Today we begin a new weekly feature called “Other Horizons”. Members of the Agonist Editorial Team will provide essays on topics of their choosing outside the Agonist’s normal bailiwick, in order to stimulate a broader conversation here. We hope that you’ll enjoy our efforts.
Climate change is posing a new challenge to the disciplines of architecture and engineering.  The task is two-fold: where to build sustainable living spaces and how to beat the heat.
With more than seven billion people on the planet, mass migrations to cities, and increased risks of flooding and sea level rise, more and more architects and innovators seem to be weighing anchor.
First among these is Dutch water architect Koen Olthuis of Waterstudio nl, whose interest in water design evolved from having grown up in a waterlogged country half of which lies below sea level.
The editors of Inhabitat.com, a weblog devoted to the future of design, have been fascinated for years with Olthuis’s approach. They say that:
Olthuis has made a name for himself as an architect who pushes the boundaries of possibility when it comes to the built environment. With a studio focused on designing floating buildings or a future water world, Waterstudio, nl has designed everything from floating apartment complexes in the Netherlands to a floating mosque in the UAE to even an entire floating community of islands for the Maldives.
In an in-depth interview with Inhabitat.com, Olthuis explains the sustainability of building on water, as well as how he uses 3D modeling technology to help both clients and skeptics visualize how building on water could change the world.
National Geographic offers visual projections of additional concepts for sustainable offshore settlements which include:
The Seascraper—a self-sufficient community of homes, offices, and recreational space—was designed with the intention of slowing urban sprawl, according to its designers.
No idea is left unexplored as is demonstrated by a team of Serbian designers who came up with the Trash-filled “Oceanscraper”.
Trash would be collected at the bottoms of the towers and recycled in their cores. The undersea towers would support above-water islands hosting self-sufficient human settlements.
For more revolutionary ideas about sustainable living see “Floating cities of the future”.
As for beating the heat, National Geographic offers 10 Green-Tech Solutions.
Singapore, for example has found a unique way of using plants and trees to curb the heat island effect.
British architect, Norman Foster, redesigned the parliament building in Berlin to include a dome-reflector system that draws warm air out of the building.
Then there is the “Floating Food”, in New York

The Science Barge is a floating environmental education classroom and greenhouse on the Hudson River in New York.
Fueled by solar power, wind, and biofuels, the barge, which was built in 2007, has zero net carbon emissions.
Vegetables are grown hydroponically—with plants getting all of their necessary nutrients from water instead of soil—in an effort to preserve natural resources and adapt to urban environments, where healthy soil, or soil at all, is hard to come by. Rainwater and treated river water are used for irrigation, and pesticides are prohibited.
For more innovative designs see here
Finally, the principal philosophy of designing for climate change is to live “with” nature rather than to “subdue” nature to the whims of humankind.  As we can see, a new breed of conscientious architects and engineers is doing just that.


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  • Waterstudio, nl has designed sketched everything from floating apartment complexes in the Netherlands to a floating mosque in the UAE to even an entire floating community of islands for the Maldives

    There, fixed. An architect’s drawing is far from a full design. There are the small questions of fresh water supply, electricity, internet, and sewage to address, coupled with inclement (stormy) weather, aka: 100 mph winds, to name but a few items to be “designed”.

    Large windows and heavy seas are hardly compatible.

  • As a non-swimmer, to be surrounded by water would make me a bit edgy, to say the least. I would also be concerned about how to keep children safe. And I can imagine that when you’re having a party you’d be pretty busy trying to keep the drunk guests from tumbling tipsy into the water.

    But it’s an interesting concept that needs much more exploration. Maybe in our future world, the Internet cannot exist?

  • Koen has in mind to design water settlements for the waters in and around a city. Not far out in the open ocean.

    He also makes the following point:

    We dare to say that if your land is threatened by water, the safest place to be is in fact on the water. The effects of the average tsunami are much less on open waters than close to the shore because the wave will gain height as it hits the shore. All our plans are the result of intense engineering by the best maritime engineering companies that take into account the existing and expected extreme weather conditions, as well as local wave conditions. Together with insurance companies, and using maritime safety regulations, we find a balance between safety and feasibility

    Koen has a solution for electricity as well.

    Compared with building on land, water provides several opportunities for a more sustainable design approach. For example, one can think of water cooling and heating. These developments can use sea wind for cooling,and floating solar fields for the local production of energy,

    Btw, Koen is designing for a future water world. Nowhere does it say that his ideas have already come to fruition. He is still in the process of trying to convince the skeptics.

    Here‘s another innovator’s idea on how to transform saltwater into freshwater

  • Steve/Adrena: I started reading “The Fifty Dollar and Up Underground House Book”.
    Don’t think I’ll go for the $50 model but there are some great ideas in the book and I’m seriously thinking about building that way.

    • I think humans owe it to themselves to explore all alternative ways of living. Following is an image of a house build inside the rock of a hill or small mountain. Talk about being sheltered.


        • The biggest problems with underground homes are keeping water away and preventing the weight of uphill earth from ‘creeping’ down. These can be avoided with proper design, but using natural caves as a starter lets Mother Nature do some of the heavy lifting. I’d be happy with a place like Mesa Verde, for example.

          I’ve always wanted to buy the old quarry in Marble Colorado and carve out a hermitage (summer access only, pretty remote). Would need to pipe in light and have to do something about ventilation.

      • Related subject: The old mining town of Creede Colorado wanted to house both its current emergency equipment and some antique fire engines dating back to the 1890s but they didn’t have the money to build a place. My uncle suggested they use some of the old mines, whose adits were more or less level with the road up the canyon. Several of these old mines had huge ‘foyers’, maybe 150-200 feet in diameter and 50 feet high. The ‘builders’ only had to pour a concrete floor and spray a coating of Sakrete on the ceiling/walls to get a weatherproof, waterproof fire department garage for a couple of thousand dollars. It worked so well another mine was similarly converted to a mining museum for the tourists. The shafts branching off from the ‘foyers’ could be sealed off or used as small storage areas.

        Maybe before I build underground, I’ll go looking for old mines. 🙂

      • I’ve seen one built on flat land. Basically, they dug a big square hole and dug out to the sides from that. Seen from above, the bottom of the hole was a patio/garden and the living quarters surrounded that. Lots of glass overlooking the patio. Suspect natural light and ventilation would not be optimal.

        Also seen a house built on the flats, with earth piled on sides and top so it looked like a small hill.

        There are good and bad points to hilly terrain, but I’m more inclined to build on a slope. One alternative is to cut a notch into the top of a ridge and build so the roof reconstructs the original ridgeline. Views in both directions, good natural light, good airflow. All you need is the right piece of land. Unfortunately, such land is likely to be remote, so if human company is a big part of your life, it might not work for you. On the other hand, if you just want the world to STFU and go away, it would be ideal. 😀

  • This would be easier to imagine. In an interview with SecondSight, a quarterly magazine that provides an ongoing research into the spirit of our times, Coen explains his vision for cities of the future.

    ‘I don’t believe in complete cities on water, i do believe in responding to the flexibility of a city. Thus the future of architecture will be having small hybrid cities as an addition to the huge cities on land. So we can constantly answer to the innovative desires of urbanization.’

    I guess coming from a country that has people living on houseboats in Amsterdam and on large lakes, I find his ideas not so farfetched.

    In fact, I spend part of my childhood vacations on an aunt’s houseboat on a lake (De Kagerplassen) near The Hague. Her principal residence was in the city – the houseboat was her (and her husband’s) cottage.

  • Recall a seeing a several underground homes in the Negev. No wood in the desert, no water to mix mortar even if stones were available. Some included not only living quarters but a mill and bird cotes (doves? pigeons?). The Middle East seems to be big on digging – tunnels into Gaza just another day a the office.

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