David Nixon's Floating Habitats
Founder of Future Systems discusses amphibious architecture at Ecobuild
For me, an hour spent listening to the man who describes himself as Britain’s first space architect, David Nixon, talking about amphibious architecture, was the highlight of Ecobuild.
One of the original founders of Future Systems along with Jan Kaplicky, David Nixon is now based in Los Angeles and Ireland, and works on projects for organisations including NASA and the European Space Agency.
PART ONE: LARGE QUANTITIES OF WATER ARE COMING TO A PLACE NEAR YOU
To set the scene David described the relationship between land and water on Earth focusing on the sheer volume of water that is on and around the Earth. There are 1.3 billion cubic kilometres of water in the Earth’s rivers, seas and oceans and 30,000 cubic metres of water in the atmosphere.
David informed us of a UN study that predicts that the rise in sea level could vary across the world from 18cm to 59cm in the next 50 years, and recent studies by NASA have shown that the ice caps are melting quicker than anticipated. In 2000, Iceberg D15, the largest ever recorded, that measures approximately 295km by 37km [bigger than the island of Jamaica], broke off from the ice shelf and is still not fully melted after 12 years.
‘Fortunately Greenland has not yet begun to melt [as the country] alone holds enough water that if melted, could cause a 7m rise in sea levels’ stated David.
David explained that land and water has not yet been found on any other planet and the onus of the peaceful coexistence will change. He enforced the fact that we will have closer contact with water in the near future and therefore living on water needs to be taken seriously.
The Maldives may be the first nation to disappear completely. Sea level rises and storms are inundating the island. To draw attention to this fact the Maldives Government recently held an underwater cabinet meeting and is now looking for a new home for its 300,000 inhabitants.
Bringing the talk back to London, David discussed the alterations made to the Thames Estuary over the last few decades. In the 1980s the Thames Estuary was lowered four times, in the 1990s three times and in the last 12 years it has been lowered 75 times. According to David the Thames barrier now closes an average of once every two months. David believes that all developments along the Thames need to be flood resistant or flood tolerant and that even if it’s not law yet, property insurers will demand it. This will have major implications on planning and design of future residential projects.
From this David concludes that future residential projects on low-lying coasts on or anywhere at risk of flooding, should incorporate floating houses designed for survivability and durability.
PART TWO: MAKE THEE AN ARK OF GOPHER WOOD
Referencing Michelangelo’s ‘Deluge’, which depicts the Sistine Chapel in a flood, he stated that the scene was not dissimilar to floating houses along the river Amazon in Peru, which rise with the river. He then went on to show examples of amphibious houses and discussed the construction techniques for them. In particular he focused on Dura Vermeer’s amphibious houses in the Netherlands that are constructed in a large concrete box which fills with flood water causing the house to become buoyant during a flood.
‘We can look at a broad range of design argents for floating homes in search of inspiration.’
David believes we will need to seek inspiration from floating homes around the world, including the Kashmir Houseboats, Houseboats of Amsterdam, floating martini mansions [yachts] and traditional floating homes of Kerala, India, made of coconut fibre and bamboo.
PART THREE: LIFE ON THE OCEAN WAVE
David goes on to introduce us to his new term - blue field site. A blue field site is ‘an area of naturally or artificially sheltered water on a coast, estuary, river or lake, able to support a community safely, economically, reliably and in an environmentally acceptable manner.’
David proposed numerous amphibious housing projects going into detail of construction, housing sizes and site strategies. He believes our first mission should be to tackle the issue of rising sea levels on islands such as the Tuvalu. The Pacific island has a population of 11,000, with the highest point being 4.6m above sea level. By the end of the century it will be uninhabitable and David believes that Tuvalu could be transformed into the world’s first floating nation on Earth. He proposed two floating home communities of 1,000 homes each, with aquatic fields to feed the population and suggested using converted cargo carriers as the construction method to achieve this aim.
Our second mission should be to relieve existing mega cities from overcrowding. Mumbai probably has the worst case of overcrowding, the Dharavi slum has a population between 600,000-1,000,000 in an area of just 1.7 square kilometres, resulting in a density of 3 square metres per person. David’s idea is to move the entire population to a series of off-shore communities in a sheltered portion of the bay to the east of Mumbai. He proposes liveable accommodation built to the present standard of density. By moving onto the water, space is no longer an issue.
David concluded the talk by restating that we live on a water planet - ‘Architects must move to water. We must learn to get our feet wet. The oceans beckon us’.
David Nixon’s ability to generate ideas that propose solutions to problems was refreshing. He used informed strategy and tested construction techniques to back up his radical ideas. This is what I want to hear when attending a talk by an architect. I like to hear ideas, thoughts and unresolved solutions. Something to start a conversation and something to progress. David Nixon is a man with ideas.