Over the past three weeks, people off the coast of the Thames estuary may have caught a strange sight: a floating house being towed through the waters by a single tugboat. Made of wood and buoyed by three steel pontoons, the Flood House is the work of architect Matthew Butcher–who, for the past 10 years, has been investigating future living conditions in areas susceptible to flooding.
He’s not alone. The Flood House joins other recent prototypes and proposals from architects addressing the problem of rising sea levels through their work. For example, Baca Architects recently completed the Amphibious House, a conventional home whose foundation can float on floodwater like a docked boat. Then there’s NLÉ’s Makako Floating School, which serves the lagoon community in Lagos, Nigeria. And after Hurricane Sandy devastated parts of New York City, numerous architecture competitions catalyzed new ideas for flood resistant architecture.
But for Butcher, a co-founder of the speculative architecture practice Post-Works and a professor at UCL Bartlett School of Architecture, the solutions so far have been too technocratic, and haven’t addressed what he views as the primary architectural problem: how will our relationship to our homes change as the landscape changes around it?
“It’s this idea that you can deal with the problem of rising sea levels by building buildings that look exactly like houses on land on the sea,” he says. “That these houses will have heating and exactly the same comforts that we’re used to experiencing. I think we have to address notions of comfort and this idea that we’ll continue to live our lives as is.”
Butcher has been exploring this idea for the nearly a decade through a text-based project that imagines a series of architecture that responds to flooded landscapes of the future. Flood House, commissioned by Radical Essex, a year-long architecture programming and events project, is the first time he translated his ideas into a working prototype.
To design the house, Butcher took photos of structures found around the estuary, like fishing boats and sheds, World War II bunkers, and the Maunsell naval sea forts. The resulting plywood and weatherboard structure is a kind of hodgepodge homage to the vernacular of the low-lying region, borrowing ideas and materials as needed.
He also took a cue from Alison and Peter Smithson’s piece, Patio and Pavilion, from the 1956 “This Was Tomorrow” exhibition at Whitechapel gallery. In it, the architects laid out the basics for survival: shelter and access to nature, machinery, and art. The Floating House meets all of those requirements and little more: the imagined resident would have a roof over her head, be closely connected with water, and be tugged along by a motor boat. As for art, the Flood House has a commissioned piece by artist Ruth Ewan–a weathervane with the word “Level” written on it. Otherwise, there’s little else by way of decoration, appliances, temperature control, or other standard luxuries we’re used to in homes.
To Butcher’s mind, the spartan approach is a necessary step to envisioning how future architecture might respond to frequent coastal flooding. Rather than exploring the form the architecture will take, he’s more interested in exploring how we will respond to this new dual landscape–one that oscillates between dry land and water–if we’re forced to engage with it more directly. Our relationship with nature has previously been cut off by architecture, he says, and our environments have become incredibly controlled. The Flood House imagines a future where we don’t have the daily comforts that we’re used to, and everyone’s home is little more than a futuristic-looking floating shed. Butcher hopes that this will get architects thinking less about adapting the housing we’re used to now and more about what building for future scenarios.
The Flood House has been traveling Thames estuary since April 18, mooring at various sites along the Thames Estuary (it’s currently moored off the pier at Southend-on-Sea until May 12). Though the house is open to visitors, Butcher says that no one is currently inhabiting it. “If you were to live there it would be quite the harsh existence,” he says. “It does have an interior but it’s very basic.”
The Flood House will be floating or moored on the Thames through May 14.