Finding an apartment is never easy, but when you’re a debt-saddled student on a tight budget with little income, it can be impossible. In Europe, students are struggling with skyrocketing rents and severe housing shortages. In Denmark, it’s estimated that 40,000 new beds are needed to accommodate demand.
“My oldest son needed a place to live when he was going to university,” says Kim Loudrup, cofounder of the Copenhagen housing startup Urban Rigger. “When we went online to see the availability for student housing somewhere close to us [in Copenhagen], it dawned on us that it was a nightmare.”
Urban Rigger’s unconventional architectural solution? Build low-cost modular dorms that can float in urban harbors, bringing students into the city center without the exorbitant rents, and tap Copenhagen’s own architectural star, Bjarke Ingels, to design them.
Loudrup and Ingels think the student housing shortage could have far-ranging implications for cities, since it makes it difficult for students to attend schools in urban areas where they could contribute to knowledge-based economies. “The education of our youth is one of the best investments any society can make,” Ingels says. “To make it possible to find someplace to live that is enjoyable and will enable them to become better students. In that sense, not investing in our future is simply the worst place to cut corners.”
This week Urban Rigger, which Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG) owns a 10% stake in, completed its first project in Copenhagen, a series of floating dorms priced at $600 per month to rent, not a bad rate for a private bedroom, bathroom, and kitchen and shared living areas. The startup envisions replicating their model in other cities grappling with housing shortages–and sea level rise.
As a rule of thumb, centrally located housing is often more expensive than that on the fringes of a city. Meanwhile, desirable waterfront land is often scooped up by luxury developers. Because of this, affordable housing is often far from city centers and university campuses. Urban Rigger wanted to flip the equation and give those prime, central locations to students, making it easier for them to create connections with their school and the community around it.
Urban Rigger took a look at the location of major universities in Europe and found that about 80% of them are located in the urban core of capital cities. It so happened that many of these cities are also located near bodies of water, and many are gradually shifting from industrial to knowledge-based economies.
“Most major postindustrial cities in the world are experiencing some sort of a transformation and decline of their port industries,” Ingels says. “You’re seeing cities all over the world where you actually have increasingly available port areas that can be transformed and could be the home for alternate forms of urbanization.”
Ingels wants to recast these ports as alternative residential areas. It’s an idea that riffs on BIG’s obsession with “social infrastructure,” a term the firm invented to describe projects that turn industrial infrastructure–which is typically viewed as a negative thing–into a positive amenity. For example, BIG is at work on a waste-to-energy plant in Copenhagen that’s also home to a ski slope. In Manhattan, the firm is working on the Dryline, a waterfront park that masks heavy-duty resiliency infrastructure.
With Urban Rigger, Ingels and Loudrup are trying to turn ports–which have a reputation for being messy and dirty–into residential areas. Other cities are already embracing the trend. Hamburg, Germany, is working to transform its industrial port neighborhood into a residential and cultural district called Hafencity; just across the water from Copenhagen, Malmö, Sweden, has also transformed part of its port into a residential area.
“The shipping and container industry in Western Europe is giving way to more economically competitive ship yards and manufacturing plants in Asia,” Ingels says. “You have a declining industry that makes and moves containers. So what we’re suggesting is to inject new life into it.”
The crux of Urban Rigger’s housing model is the availability of waterfront areas to dock the dorms. The company has to pay for access to properties along the water, but it’s optimistic that cities will open up municipally owned land to such projects, since many of the universities experiencing housing shortages are public. “We might be in a situation where the goodwill of addressing an issue that is important to the government means that we’d get some access to the key waterfront sites under their control,” Ingels says.
In the past, space-starved cities have created new real estate along their waterfronts with artificial infill, but in addition to being an expensive form of development, infill is highly susceptible to sea level rise. While climate change didn’t spark Urban Rigger’s design, the floating-home model is one solution to more smarter waterfront development.
“In terms of sea level rise, this is the most resilient form of housing because it moves with the water,” Ingels says. “It’s the only building type that will never flood.” Loudrup agrees. “[Urban Rigger] lives hand in hand with the environment; it rises and falls with the water,” he says. “That’s sustainability in one sense.”
Each unit, which can house 12 students at once, is composed of modular shipping containers. These modules are powered by a photovoltaic array and use a heat-exchange system that draws upon the thermal mass of water to warm and cool the interiors. Meanwhile, an aerogel developed by NASA insulates the interiors.
“What we tried to do with this first one is use a lot of very well-known established [sustainble] technologies,” Ingels says. “Even though we’re trying to make very affordable super-efficient units, we can also include some of these elements that are more high end.”
The company manufactures its floating dorms at a shipyard in Poland, which is capable of building 100 units per year at a cost of $700-$800 per square foot. “It’s harnessing the efficiencies of the container industry, which is a super highly efficient, highly developed industry,” Ingels says.
The units are experiments in communal living. While each resident has his or her own bedroom, bathroom, and kitchen, they share amenities like a courtyard, kayak landing, bathing platform, barbecue area, and roof terrace. Decks and staircases connect the apartments. Inside, the units are well appointed with modern finishes and ample daylighting; floor-to-ceiling windows let the students take in panoramic views.
“We talk about students needing housing that’s affordable, but we also need to talk about motivation and inspiration,” Loudrup says of the sleek aesthetics of Urban Rigger. “It’s not about being cute; it’s about being motivational. The secret in education is in motivating the student and motivation starts at the doorstep. If your base works, everything falls into place.”
Urban Rigger hopes to apply this model all over the world–and BIG, which will handle design in addition to owning part of the company–hopes to continually evolve the design and manufacturing to make the model more replicable.
While Urban Rigger is an experiment in affordable student housing, Ingels sees it as a way to explore scalable, mutable architecture. Individual units can be outfitted as lavishly or as sparingly as possible, which will impact the bottom line. Moreover, multiple units can be linked together to form entire floating communities.
“With big buildings, it’s always a prototype, and it’s always the first and the last one you’re going to do,” he says. “You can take everything you learn from that experience to the next time you’re doing a project, but it will always be a new project in a new situation for a new client with a new program. In this case, we’re going more into the realm of manufacturing. With the first iPhone, Apple learned a lot and in the next generation and the next generation, it keeps becoming a more awesome product. That’s something we can never do with architecture, but we can do with Urban Rigger.”
Though Urban Rigger hasn’t explored applications outside of student housing, Ingels thinks that with a few modifications, it could help alleviate the refugee housing crisis. “Maybe this could be an intelligent way to relieve stressful [housing] situations in a way that’s not just putting up tents but really creating completely safe, completely secure high-standard living spaces,” he says. As with the availability of and rights to use waterfront land, this scenario is also dependent on the goodwill of those with property rights.
The first Urban Rigger development was completed this week in Copenhagen’s harbor, and a 24-unit project is in the works in Sweden. Loudrup says he’s also been fielding queries from North America. BIG is also planning to build one to house its interns. “The first Urban Rigger that arrived is a proof of concept,” Ingels says. “Based on the experience with this one, we’re going to make a 1.1, a 1.2, and eventually a 2.0.”
As cities reevaluate their waterfronts and consider creative ways to tackle the affordable housing problem, it’s entirely possible Urban Rigger could end up developing water-borne units in a city near you. “[In the past], the waterfront was really a logistical space, whereas now it’s an enjoyable space,” Ingels says. What better location for your front door?
[All Photos (unless otherwise noted): Laurent de Carniere/courtesy Bjarke Ingels Group]