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Amphibious Architecture in Hampton Roads?

Diagram of an amphibious home. Courtesy of Baca Architects.

Exploring floating foundations, and other emergent technology at sea level rise Adaptation Forum

Elizabeth English spoke about amphibious architecture at the 14th Hampton Roads Adaptation Forum. ©Chris Patrick/VASG

Elizabeth English spoke about amphibious architecture at the 14th Hampton Roads Adaptation Forum. ©Chris Patrick/VASG

By Chris Patrick, science writer

Seeing the devastation of Hurricane Katrina firsthand changed Elizabeth English’s life. At the time, she was studying the aerodynamics of wind-borne debris at Louisiana State University’s Hurricane Center. But after Katrina, English shifted her focus to amphibious architecture.

Amphibious architecture is outfitting homes, and other structures, with buoyant foundations that allow them to float on the surface of rising floodwater.

Diagram of an amphibious home. Courtesy of Baca Architects.

Diagram of an amphibious home. Courtesy of Baca Architects.

“Instead of asking Mother Nature to adapt to what we want, we adapt to Mother Nature,” English said during her presentation on amphibious architecture at the 14th Hampton Roads Adaptation Forum. “Adaptive Structure and Innovation Solutions,” was held September 29 at Hampton University. The 70 scientists, planners, engineers, and emergency managers attending the forum explored how emergent technologies, like floating foundations, can be used to solve Hampton Roads’ recurrent flooding problem.

English is an associate professor at the University of Waterloo School of Architecture in Cambridge, Ontario, as well as the founder and director of the Buoyant Foundation Project, a non-profit research organization for the development of low-cost amphibious housing whose motto is “float when it floods.” While humans’ first impulse may be to try to prevent flooding, English touts another mindset.

“Water can do what it wants to do, and we get ourselves out of the way,” she said. English believes that, where possible, outfitting homes with floating foundations is better than elevating them, which can leave a home vulnerable to flooding depending on the high-water mark.

“And it works absolutely beautifully,” she said, providing forum attendees with a dozen examples of working amphibious structures worldwide, from the Netherlands to Bangladesh to a rural community in Louisiana that has been building floating foundations for 40 years.

An amphibious home at Old River Landing in rural Louisiana that rises and falls with the flooding of the Mississippi River. Courtesy of Elizabeth English.

An amphibious home at Old River Landing in rural Louisiana that rises and falls with the flooding of the Mississippi River. Courtesy of Elizabeth English.

After English spoke, Lynn Underwood, a building code consultant in Virginia, took the floor.

“I take the building code everywhere I go,” he said, holding up two thick volumes. Underwood guided a conversation among forum participants about the potential of amphibious architecture in Hampton Roads. The discussion gravitated to a consideration of what would need to happen to retrofit Norfolk’s regularly flooded Chrysler Museum of Art with a floating foundation.

The rest of the day followed a similar format: Speakers presented an emergent technology, and attendees considered paths to implementation. Bill Moore, Hampton University professor of atmospheric and planetary sciences, talked about his university’s new satellite direct broadcast receiving station. He asked participants if the data the equipment collects, such as sea surface temperature or flooding coverage, could be useful to them. Todd Broward of Divided Sky Aerial, an aerial drone flight services company, discussed the potential of collecting flood-related data by drone.

The forum was organized by Mason Andrews, associate professor of architecture at Hampton University: “The day was for trying big new ideas and emerging technologies to see how they might be put into useful service,” she said. “I really enjoyed it. It’s great to have all these people finding solutions.”

View presentations from the forum here.

The Hampton Roads Sea Level Rise/Flooding Adaptation Forum started in 2012 with support from Virginia Sea Grant as a way to connect up-to-date research on flooding and sea level rise with those making public policy decisions in southeastern Virginia. The event is hosted in partnership with Virginia Sea Grant, Old Dominion University, and the Hampton Roads Planning District Commission.

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