Staying afloat after the flood

Written by Naomi Wilcock on 1 March 2013

Architecture has always had the ability to shape how we live our lives and our relationship with the surrounding environment. For the residents of Makoko, Lagos in Nigeria, the threat of flooding is a part of their daily existence, with the July 2012 floods in Nigeria killing 363 people and displacing over 2 million residents. Out of this devastation and the subsequent eviction of residents from slums built on the waterfront, a floating school and a floating town is being created in this water community, designed by NLÉ Architects.

floating school

The Makoko Floating School, a floating building prototype for African water communities, together with the Lagos water community, are designs which will, according to the architects, ‘pioneer sustainable development in coastal African cities’ with NLÉ Architects currently looking at a similar project in the Niger Delta. The design of the school came after the architects conducted research and conceptualised designs for the school in May 2011, together with the Heinrich Boell Foundation.

The Makoko Floating School is built on a flotation platform and is being constructed using local materials. A 3-storey high wooden structure with space for rainwater storage, it also features PV cells and a playground and green area on the ground floor, together with two further classrooms on the first and second floor. According to the progress report issued by the architects, the school will be completed by the end of the month with the floating houses being finished in September of this year and the Lagos Water Community project by the end of 2014 which will herald a new era for coastal developments in Africa.

Speaking to architect Kunlé Adeyemi of NLÉ about the design of the floating school, he said that using floating devices meant they were not relying on the total strength of the soil, as the soil around Makoko is particularly loose. He spoke of the adaptability of the design, as the water level changes frequently in the area so they 'wanted a design that would adapt to the changing conditions' and added that the area has now become a public, communal space with the community interested to see materials that they are familiar with used in a different way.

With global sea levels rising and flooding becoming the norm for many parts of the world, schemes which include provisions against the threat of flooding are becoming more and more common. The idea of building on stilts and raising houses is a traditional approach used in many low-lying areas in Bangladesh and other areas where flooding is frequently a problem. Recent schemes which feature a raised building include the Jean Carrière nursery school in Nimes, France, designed by Tectoniques, which due to the local flood risk prevention regulations required the classrooms to be placed on the first floor and an inaccessible retention pond has to be excavated in the plot.

However, the pioneer of many flood-related designs, owing to the fact that around 60% of their land lies below sea level, is the Dutch. Schemes including The New Water Masterplan, designed by Waterstudio in 2009, proposed a total 1,200 houses of which 600 would be built with floating foundations, forming the world’s first floating apartment complex called The Citadel. Rather than using traditional methods of pumping water out of the area, this project aimed to work with the low-lying nature of the country and create a community on water. 

Using floating houses as a concept is also being used as a solution to the immediate effects of flooding with an airlift device being created which allows houses to ‘float’ if a natural disaster occurs. Designed by Japanese company Air Danshin Systems Inc, the scheme fits homes with airbags which can be pumped full of air. The device has been designed so that movements (such as earthquake tremors) would trigger a sensor which activates a compressor and pumps air into an expandable air chamber below the building, allow the house to move over flood plains.

As well as changing the specific design of buildings and homes, other passive efforts are frequently being employed to help flood water drain off as a means of protecting the local population. In New York, the East River Blueway Plan, a recent riverside development scheme by WXY Architecture + Design, aims to take a natural approach to combating storm and flooding by creating wetlands alongside the East River. According to the architects, these wetlands help to create a 'natural buffer' against urban flooding.

What is clear from the increasing amount of schemes and design solutions related to flooding is that there is not a one-size-fits-all approach. From the NLÉ project in Nigeria to raised schools in France, the solution depends on the various geographical demands of the site and the local environment. However, it is a trend that shows no signs of abating and shows the importance of innovative architecture in shaping how people live their lives, and ultimately survive in tough conditions.

Categories: Environment, Living, Design