10 Architectural Schemes That Could Help Us Adapt To Rising Seas

From a floating house to a mobile city shaped like a giant lilypad, designers offer up some wild solutions for a wetter future

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Universal Studios in Hollywood has a stunt show and set inspired by the 1995 film Waterworld. Courtesy of Flickr user William Warby

We dream of drowning cities. Popular culture is overflowing with depressing yet strangely romantic images of our future waterworld—from books like The Drowned World to films like 2012 and The Day After Tomorrow. We’re drawn to works that dramatize the effects of climate change, perhaps because we take some glee in seeing how bad it can get.

This morbid fascination with environmental catastrophe has invaded the zeitgeist for good reason. Ice caps are melting faster than ever, while hurricanes and tsunamis seem to strike with growing frequency and severity. The sea level is rising at an increasingly rapid rate, promising to dramatically reshape our continents, and the lives of the millions of people who live along the coasts. In short, science fiction is threatening to become science fact.

But for some architects, planners and designers, the prospect of a drowned world is inspiring—a call to action to preemptively develop possible solutions. Humans have been changing the environment for the worse, but we have the technology and capability to dramatically improve it—to purposely alter the environment by designing new buildings and changing cities. The following architectural schemes offer solutions for living with water, whether it be in a single community, in a wide flood zone or in a drastically flooded world.

Water-Based Urban Development, by DeltaSync

DeltaSync is a Dutch firm specializing in floating urbanism. Last spring, the interdisciplinary design consultancy completed a year-long feasibility study (pdf) for the Seasteading Institute, exploring the possibility of building “the first floating city with political autonomy” by 2020. DeltaSync’s design uses foam and steel hexagon-shaped islands that can be joined together like Settlers of Catan tiles to form a variety of urban designs. If your seastead isn’t working out as you had planned, just move a few tiles. The DeltaSync proposal is most noteworthy for its in-depth, 100-plus page report exploring the practical issues, such as ideal community size, operating expenses and income generation, that need to be addressed for such a community to prosper.

Floating City, by AT Design Office

AT Design Office was commissioned by a Chinese construction company to design a floating city using existing technology. The network of prefabricated islands has an elaborate infrastructure with features ranging from public green space to submarine transit to waste disposal. While some of the details are a little fuzzy, this floating city is a fascinating exploration of new planning strategies for small, sustainable communities. How do we create a versatile construction module that can accommodate a variety of programs? And how do we organize those modules so that farming, industry, residential and entertainment areas all exist in a relatively restricted piece of land? According to project architect Slavomir Siska, smaller-scale prototypes might go into construction next year.

Floating City Apps, by Waterstudio.NL

Waterstudio.NL is an architecture firm based in the Netherlands that focuses on “developing solutions to the problems posed by urbanization and climate change.” Led by So Koen Olthuis, the firm envisions a variety of large-scale, flexible solutions that can help waterproof our existing cities. Their primary project is based on a familiar concept: downloadable apps. Watersudio.NL’s “City Apps” add functionality to a piece of hardware—in this case, the city—by placing unique floating structures around the urban environment. According to the designers, possible examples include floating apartment complexes, car parks, power plants and even forests.

In Olthuis’s view, “wet-slums” are the ideal environment for these urban downloads, which can quickly and easily provide new public services for people who are sometimes living without the most basic amenities. The reason is twofold: “On one hand, slums are sustainable by nature. They have a low impact on the environment and inhabitants will slowly transform an abandoned or condemned area of a city into something of value. This transformation will usually result in a close-knit community of hundreds of thousands of people with their own culture, way of life and economy. On the other hand, slums are fragile and very sensitive to the climate changes, natural diseases and city evolution ... [and] require support to prosper, to create new opportunities for themselves in the future and to address social and environmental problems.”

Freedom Ship

Have you ever wanted to live on a cruise ship or an aircraft carrier? Me neither. But the minds behind Freedom Ship hope to transform the lives of 100,000 passengers into an endless holiday with their 4,500-foot-long vessel, which combines “the amenities of a modern city with those of the finest resorts.” This wasn’t designed for a flooded world, but it would work in one. The proposal has been on the drawing board for at least 15 years and calls for a 25-story floating superstructure that includes residences, civic institutions, entertainment facilities and lots of retail. One of the primary goals of Freedom Ship is to establish the world’s largest duty-free retail shopping mall. There are no floor plans yet, just a lot of renderings that make the project look exactly like what it purports to be—“a flat-bottomed barge with a conventional high-rise built on top”—and an airport on top of that. Like the train in the sci-fi film Snowpiercer, the Freedom Ship will continuously circle the globe. But this time, residents are free to come and go as they please.

The Big U, by BIG and One Architecture

Rebuild by Design was a 2013 competition to find design solutions to protect American cities from natural disasters, organized by the Hurricane Sandy Rebuilding Task Force and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. One of six winning entries, “The Big U” is a resilient infrastructure system designed by the Danish firm BIG and Dutch firm One Architecture. Rather than building an imposing coastal barrier, BIG, inspired by New York City’s High Line elevated park, designed a system that combines resilient infrastructure (barriers, berms and terraced landscaping) with integral public programming customized for each neighborhood based on input from the community. The components could be as minor as a playground with porous ground surface, to let floodwater drain away, or as large as an outdoor market that, when shuttered, becomes an enormous flood wall. The design, ultimately protecting 10 continuous miles of waterfront, will provide the city with new parks, paths and pavilions in addition to serious flood protection, thereby making the city safer and more beautiful. The architects were awarded $335 million to begin the first phase of the project, which will safeguard the Lower East Side.

Lilypad, by Vincent Callebaut Architectures

Vincent Callebaut’s “Lilypad” has made the rounds on urban design blogs a few times, and for good reason. It’s a radical idea—“a floating ecopolis for climate refugees”—illustrated by a glossy rendering. The 124-acre mobile city is built around a freshwater lagoon and designed to house and sustain a population of 50,000. It is intended to serve as a short- or long-term solution for those whose communities have been destroyed—or even erased—by rising sea levels. Its biomimetic design was inspired by the form and functon of the Amazonia Victoria Regia lilypad. And of course, it’s fully sustainable, because those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it. Drawing power from every kind of renewable energy source—solar, thermal, wind, tidal and more—the Lilypad actually produces more power than it uses, at least on paper.

Noah's Ark Sustainable City, by Aleksandar Joksimovic and Jelena Nikolic

All these floating cities are well and good, but to sustain them, we’ll need farmland. Inspired by the biblical Noah's ambition to preserve all species in the face of a disaster, Aleksandar Joksimovic and Jelena Nikolic imagine a refuge for all living species—flora and fauna (though they don't plan to invite them aboard two by two). Their proposal, originally created for the 2012 eVolo skyscraper competition, calls for a floating island with habitable spaces constructed beneath rings of terraced farmland and green space. It’s like a floating Machu Picchu. The "arks" can float independently or several can be linked together to form a large floating community or even perhaps a country. Massive turbines underneath the ark generate tidal power for its inhabitants.

FLOAT House, by Morphosis

Morphosis designed the FLOAT House as part of Make It Right, a program launched in the wake of Hurricane Katrina to build architect-designed sustainable homes in communities affected by natural disasters. The house was inspired by the traditional New Orleans shotgun house and GM’s “skateboard” chassis, a standardized automotive frame that can support a variety of body designs. The pre-fabricated chassis, built from expanded polystyrene foam coated in glass fiber-reinforced concrete, doubles as a raft. As flood waters rise, so does the house. To make sure the house doesn’t float away, the chassis is secured to piers. Solar panels, rainwater collection and low-energy appliances are a few of the building’s sustainable features. While it isn’t designed to be hurricane proof, the FLOAT House is an elegant, versatile solution to building in flood zones that will mitigate water damage and make sure evacuated residents can return home as soon as possible.

Floating Schools, by Shidhulai Swanirvar Sangstha

Shidhulai Swanirvar Sangstha is a non-profit organization working in the flood-prone areas of Bangladesh that “aims to transform the region's waterways into pathways for education.” Shidhulai serves nearly 97,000 people with a 54-boat fleet made up of solar-powered vessels. The boats are designed to house critical civic infrastructure, such as schools, libraries and clinics. Each floating school can accommodate 30 students, computer equipment and hundreds of books. And, as part of its curriculum, students are taught about the river environment, climate change and water conservation. This project will be featured in the upcoming exhibition, “Sink or Swim: Designing for a Sea Change,” at the Annenberg Space for Photography in Los Angeles.

Cloud Nine, by Buckminster Fuller

(Buckminster Fuller)

The oldest proposal on this list is also the most speculative. Imagine if our skies were full of enormous spheres, each a mile wide, safely housing thousands of residents high above a flooded continent or radioactive wasteland. Buckminster Fuller originally designed “Cloud 9” in 1958 for a client who requested a proposal for a community that could float on water, but he took the design much further. Although a mile-wide sphere sounds ridiculous, Fuller calculated that the mass of the structural components of the dome would be much less than the mass of the air it contains, and if that interior air was heated to a temperature one degree Fahrenheit warmer than the outside, the entire structure would lift off. The floating spheres could be anchored to the ground or piloted around the world. While the design might work on paper, Fuller imagined it more as a far-future solution and an example of the type of radical thinking that’s required to make humanity more sustainable.

So far, no one has tested his theoretical design, but perhaps one day in the future, we'll realize Fuller's dream. As he himself wrote in 1981: "While the building of such floating clouds is some years in the future, we may foresee that, with the floating tetrahedronal cities; air-deliverable sky-scrapers; submarine islands; sub-dry-surface dwellings; domed-over cities; flyable dwelling machines; and rentable, autonomous-living, black boxes, man may be able to converge and deploy around Earth without its depletion."