Bradford McKee | Projects

Float House

Trailer exterior
Made from prefabricated parts, the Float House will cost about $150,000

In repopulating cities hit by Hurricane Katrina’s floods, or anywhere waters rise (as they do increasingly around the world), the big question racking the brains of architects and planners has been how to keep houses high and dry when storms surge onshore. The common impulse has been to find ways to hike up the main living areas of houses to 10, 15 or 20 feet high, which is rather imposing on a dry day and costly when you consider that elevators run easily into the five digits.

But today, architects at Morphosis in Los Angeles, working with graduate architecture students at the University of California, Los Angeles, unveiled another solution: a floating house. In the Netherlands, as Morphosis principal Thom Mayne points out, the notion is not novel, yet it hasn’t really been tried in this country. Rather than design around the idea of a house as a fixture on the ground, the Morphosis/UCLA team came up with a house that can close up tight and rise like a boat does in a marina at high tide — and do so affordably.
Trailer exterior
Float House components. In the event of flooding, the structure rises on two steel guideposts (8).

The Float House, on Tennessee Street in the flood-ravaged Lower Ninth Ward, will cost about $150,000; the architects gleaned savings from prefabrication and mass production. It was designed over the past two years for Make It Right, a foundation started by the actor Brad Pitt to help rebuild New Orleans with sustainable, storm-resistant housing.

This model is not a far cry from Louisiana shotgun house. It’s a long box, sided in fiber-cement panels with a folding, photovoltaic roof. Inside, rooms range along one wall and open onto a gallery running the house’s length. Beneath the house is a modular chassis of polystyrene foam blocks encased by glass-fiber-reinforced concrete. Inside the chassis are the house’s guts — plumbing and electrical and mechanical equipment, plus rainwater collection tanks and battery packs charged by the sun. (The house is equipped to go off the grid.)

Concealed inside either end of the structure is a 12-foot-high steel guidepost, anchored by pilings driven down 45 feet. If water were to rise around the house, it would float straight upward along the guideposts and stay fastened to the site. Indeed, at first the house was too light and needed ballast. “It had too much buoyancy,” Mayne says, “so we added a topping slab to the mass of the building, like putting a lead keel on a boat.”

There were a number of code issues to work out with the local building cops, given its nonstandard systems and structure, but it eventually won their approval. Apparently, no insurance underwriter has weighed in on the design yet, but, Mayne says, “I would think they’d be elated,” because during a flood, the homeowner’s biggest investment should stay intact. Ideally, by that time, the homeowner will have closed the carbon-fiber panels over the windows and left town.

Tom Darden, executive director of Make It Right, says the house is going on the market almost immediately. “I would expect that thing to sell in 30 days or less,” he says. It will likely go to a family already enrolled in the foundation’s homebuyer counseling process.

Mayne says that whoever lives there will hardly notice the guideposts or the floatation apparatus. “I see it as a safety belt or an air bag in a car,” he says. “It doesn’t get used. And then when you need it, it gets used.”

Posted in: Architecture, Social Good

Comments [16]

When you start working with and around your environment rather than fighting it, that's when you start seeing some creative solutions. We need more initiatives like these.

I wonder about the utility hookups. I understand that it's equipped to go off the grid, but when it floats what happens to sewage and tap water connections? Is the idea that you rough it until the water recedes? Or are you supposed to jump ship for the duration?
Crusty the Clown

It's difficult to comment on a project such as this, when all that's really left to say is thank you. If more of us could make work of this kind, we would certainly live happier and more fulfilled lives. My only question regards any efforts made to make these structures even more affordable to those in need. Will there be connections made to create government subsidies, tax credits, or even affiliations with banks that make a name for themselves through transparency and honest loaning?

Being familiar with how houseboats are constructed in Seattle, I always thought why not use this strategy for homes in flood zones. It's a really good idea, instead of just rebuilding after each flood, let them float to safety.
Seattle Architects

This is a reasonable solution for occasional floods. Some people however might disagree that "the notion is not novel, yet it hasn’t really been tried in this country." There are numerous homes in Sausalito, CA at the Waldo Point Marina that literally rest on the ground when the tide is out, and float in water up to 15 feet deep at high tide. Flexible utility connections stay connected. The main problem with this New Orleans float house, besides its bizarre design, is that it isn't sufficiently affordable or efficient with space and material utilization. But it will spur others to explore the concept and we'll see better versions sprout up in years to come.

I am dubious about the "will cost about $150k" and how that fits into ordinary market mechanisms of a single family house.

Given that a typical New Orleans residence in the 9th Ward, even prior to Katrina, cost significantly less that $150k, this project seems extremely unaffordable for most residents right out of the gate. This suggests a subsidy of some sort to bridge the gap.

Further, is the suggestion here that the construction costs are really in the range of $110k and a typical mark-up/oh& p are being applied, or, alternatively (and as I suspect) some heavy discounting in the true costs & omission of typical mark-ups have been applied to make this project seem in the realm of the affordable - ie more subsidies?

My point is: there is likely heavy subsidy involved in this project- explicitly so in the design effort, and just as likely in the construction & sales.

The question is: should this subsidy be applied to the protection of single family homes at the expense of larger community infrustructure?

At the most basic level: should we be building floating SFH's on detatched lots, or investing that money instead in better levies? Should we be perpetuating suburban growth in this flood-prone & impoverished area, or asking more regional questions about appropriate sites, restoring lost wetlands, and whether in the face of rising sea levels in makes sense to rebuild such a car-intensive way of life?

After all, these floaties won't help the apartments, schools, hospitals, water & sewer lines, and every other bit of infrastructure that a community needs to function, and its sort of crazy to imagine that New Orleans bounces right back after another Katrina on the back of some houseboats (hell, seal a FEMA trailer with duct tape and it probably floats).

Architects can be clever while being myopic & baldly stupid at the same time, and this represents, in a backhanded way, another form of privilege for the relatively wealthy: one can imagine the helicopter shots of a few of these things bobbing around, unmoored from their pilings, as the rest of the city is flooded & destroyed, again.

The solution to a war is not to try to make a few houses bullet-proof, and the solution to the catastrophic floods of New Orleans is not to make single family homes float. Lets stop playing with boats and focus on the serious questions about planning instead.
Rain Parade

This house seems like it would work better in conjunction with other measures like the levees. Depending on how it holds up under high wind conditions this kind of idea seems like it would work better in flood areas not hurricane areas. Like what Rain said, this is only a house and not other types of buildings. However, these buildings could be set up with emergency supplies and equipment. These supplies could be used to help those who need it right away instead of waiting for help to arrive. People are always going to live in areas susceptible to natural disasters, but with designs like these, life can be a little bit easier.
Stacie Budek

Can docks be built on Lake Ponchartrain for houseboats. Water seems to be at the root of all of this!

I like a lot of the ideas going into this project. According to the information on Morphosis website the home is on track for a LEED platinum rating and also showcases some of the cultural influence of the area. It's nice to see that response to the environment. Make It Right also supports cradle to cradle products, so I hope as many of those as possible were used in the Float House.

My only worry is the price tag. In the long run it seems a house like this would save lots of money on power and insurance (hopefully) but can it be afforded upfront? If enough people cannot afford it so the house can be mass produced, is it a viable solution? It also seems a bit small for larger families, but perhaps larger models can be made as well? Seems there are a lot of questions but I still think it is a great start.
K. Boehme

I think this house sounds like a great idea. But, like some have said, I wonder how it would do in actual intense and windy hurricane conditions. This house would have been perfect for everyone effected by the constant rain/flooding in the Atlanta area recently! I think that the price of the house is very reasonable. When you're living in an area that has such a high risk of hurricanes/flooding, it's worth it to have such a house. In the long run, if your house and all of your possessions get destroyed, it'll cost a lot more than $150,000 to recover. It may be a strange layout and not very easy on the eyes (in my opinion!), but it's a start and has potential to save a lot of homes, maybe even lives!
Casey Canon

i love this idea but if i considering the cost, i think its too expensive, because i believe this house design should be build on a third world country.

Considering the costs compare those in Europe, this is a lot cheaper. i wonder how the chassis costs per sq m or sq ft? How does the chassis works in sewage treatment, electricity,water? Do this float house use flexible pipes like in Netherlands?

This idea has a far wider perspective, not only to areas exposed to hurricane initiated floodings. And that may be the 'raison d'aitre' for flood/float houses:

As water levels rise due to the green house effect, so does ground-water levels, and when this combines with an increase in heavy rain, both in intensity and the number of times per year, a lot of 'normal' areas will experience flooding due to excessive rain water that the sewer systems cannot guide away fast enough.

Preparing for this by building larger sewer systems is extremely costly - therefore, simpler solutions are needed by the society. Large delay bassins is one way - but there is a conflict between the need for large, open areas for the bassins, and the fact that they are mostly needed in dense poulations where land is expensive and a small resource.

In this case, flood houses built INSIDE these bassins can be the perfect idea. You provide the large basins needed, but you can build or 'populate' these areas still. And since these situations a far more numerous than the extreme hurricane/flooding danger in New Orleans, this may be the kick start that's needed to create the basis for a prefab poduction on an industrial scale, that will eventually lower prices, to the benefit also for low income families in New Orleans.
Jorgen, Denmark EU

I applaud the creativity and ingenuity of this project. However, the real sustainable solution here is to not build in the flood zone in the first place. Let the flood plains and riparian zones revert to parks and natural areas and build where the flood risk is low. That is the truly eco friendly and sustainable choice.

how i made ther floting house for flood effected area
kuldip tripathi

concept of floating house is really very good .as sea level is rising very fast this can be the best method to prevent.people .as we say that prevention is better than cure we !! instead we can save our mother earth from getting this situations

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