Imagine waking to the sound of waves crashing at your door. Stepping onto your front porch for some deep-sea fishing, an endless blue horizon in every direction, watching whales breeching in the distance, before taking your jet ski down to your neighborhood’s local floating beach. Picture doing all of this somewhere out in the Pacific, immune from the rising ocean swallowing the world around you.
This idyllic reimagining of the 1995 movie Waterworld might seem like a needless fantasy, but crises call for fantastical thinking — and with as many as 2 billion people slated to become climate refugees by the year 2100, according to research from Cornell University, this waterborne fantasy may be a necessity in our lifetimes.
Even conservative estimates forecast a sea level rise of 26 inches in the next 80 years, according to a 2018 study from NASA. With so many of the world’s major cities living on the coast, this rising tide is rapidly becoming a titanic-sized catastrophe that has left cities searching for answers.
Land reclamation (essentially dumping sand into coastal seawater until it becomes land) has been cities’ preferred method for combating receding coastlines for the past few decades, but it is quickly falling out of fashion. During its five-year peak, China was reclaiming the equivalent of one new Singapore a year, but the government recently put a halt to all commercial land reclamation, citing concern over damage to marine ecosystems. Sand, the primary ingredient in land reclamation projects, has become a surprisingly precious commodity, sparking a $70 billion industry with a healthy enough black market that, in some parts of the world, the 21st century godfather may have a new powder of choice.
While land reclamation is still widespread, its extensive damage to marine ecosystems and rising cost is forcing cities to look elsewhere, but the alternatives bring their own set of challenges. Parts of Jakarta, home to more than 10 million people, are reportedly sinking at a rate of 10 inches a year and could be up to 15 feet below sea level by 2025, according to World Bank. Nearly 95 percent of North Jakarta could be submerged by 2050, according to research from the Bandung Institute of Technology. Despite this existential crisis, the city has struggled to implement its $40 billion sea wall project amidst controversy over its cost and damage to local fishing industries. Stateside, the Trump administration recently halted a project to build a $62 billion sea wall around New York City (initially estimated at $119 billion) after the president used his Twitter account to cite concerns with the project including its cost.
“If you have the second-richest city in the world saying they can’t afford this, you have a real problem,” says Marc Collins Chen, co-founder and CEO of Oceanix, a company focused on bringing floating cities to life.
It is not simply submersion that cities need to worry about, floods will likely make some cities and farmland unusable well before they are completely underwater. With some research estimating that, without additional adaptation, global annual flood costs could increase to $14 trillion per year, cities will soon stop asking themselves how they can afford to fight sea level rise, and start asking themselves how they can afford not to.
“How do you future-proof a city that will sustain all of this extreme weather?” asks Collins Chen.
Hard infrastructure like seawalls is necessarily temporary because sea level can always rise above it, and managed retreat — the forced migration of at-risk populations to safer land — is an incredibly controversial answer. This lack of sustainable options has led some inventive researchers, architects and entrepreneurs to wonder if the solution is to stop fighting back the ocean and start rising with it.
A CONCRETE ANSWER
The idea of a floating island as a refuge dates back at least 500 years to the Uros people of Peru and Bolivia. The Uros built islands made of living reeds to escape destruction from the Inca Empire, and while their islands weren’t made of concrete like the modern equivalents, they are still in use today. But momentum for an entire floating city first picked up steam in the mid-20th century, when Buckminster Fuller was commissioned to design Triton City, a floating utopia that resembled an ash-colored beehive made of lego megaliths.
Though Triton City never came to be, by 1988, you could book one of 200 rooms in the seven-story Four Seasons Barrier Reef, a floating hotel complete with a nightclub and tennis court that sat 40 miles off the coast of Australia. But the “floatel” struggled with rough seas that made for an unpleasant stay and was soon towed to Vietnam where it became an offshore nightclub dubbed “the floater.” Being closer to shore is one solution to the challenge of rough seas. Another? Go bigger.
The Japanese government began experimenting with “very large floating structures” in 1995 by building a floating air strip. The massive one kilometer long “mega-float” successfully allowed planes to land and take off before being dismantled in the year 2000.
“When you go on a Very Large Floating Structure or a Mega-Float, you always feel like there should be some kind of movement, but it is so large and stable, it is almost like land,” says professor Chien Ming Wang of the School of Civil Engineering at the University of Queensland, who worked on the airstrip project. “You are just like a fly on the back of an elephant. When you jump up and down, you don’t feel any movement at all.”
In the 21st century, designs have gotten more ambitious, and the focus has necessarily returned to floating structures as a form of refuge — though now designers are seeking shelter from the ocean itself. Oceanix City, designed by BIG, was unveiled in 2018 in support of UN-Habitat’s New Urban Agenda, and the UN stated that “floating cities can be part of our new arsenal of tools” to combat climate change. The city is a honeycomb of floating neighborhoods and districts intended to house 10,000 people over 185 acres. The futuristic design is intended to be completely self-sufficient and waste free.
The benefits are derived as much from starting fresh and bringing the latest technology to bear as they are from being on the ocean itself. It is the advantage of imagining a city with the challenges of the 21st century at the forefront.
Other projects, such as the Peter Theil-backed Seasteading Institute, see the ocean as a way to start fresh with new, more libertarian, governance. The organization partnered with Blue Frontiers to try and raise money through a cryptocurrency offering in 2018, but the project was canned when the capital goal was not met. The nonprofit is now collaborating with Ocean Builders, a company building “Seapods” in Panama, 833-square-foot single-family waterborne units that are preselling for as low as $200,000.
But starting anew presents its own host of hurdles and challenges, which is why the projects that are currently afloat, from convention centers in South Korea to a $5 million floating home in Miami, have focused on augmenting existing cities instead of striking out on their own.
“If you really want to grow the economy [of a floating city or district] fast, you need to build it next to a city, and if you build it next to a city what you really have is a neighborhood,” says Nathalie Mezza-Garcia, founder and CEO of Seaphia, a business development and consulting company for floating architecture projects and special economic zones.
Waterborne neighborhoods like these are coming to life. Schoonschip, a neighborhood of 46 floating residential units within Amsterdam designed by a collection of architecture firms including Space&Matter, is expected to be completed this year. Waterstudio.NL, the Dutch architecture firm behind the $5 million floating home in Miami, has produced more than 280 floating homes, all with residents. Projects like these are generally built on a concrete base, like a giant shoebox, that displaces enough water to float despite its immense weight. The structures are built directly on top of the base, and anecdotally, cost about 10 percent to 15 percent more to build than an equivalent building on land in a major metropolitan area.
Some, such as Koen Olthuis, co-founder and principal architect at Waterstudio.NL, see modular additions to cities like these as the primary bridge to our floating future, not remote cities in the ocean.
“My urge is to make existing cities perform better, be ready for climate change, for floods, and be ready for the demand of people coming to the cities,” says Olthuis. “I am less interested to have a floating city in the ocean to make a few Bitcoin millionaires happy because they don’t pay tax.”
While most of these floating modular additions completed to date have been residential, commercial projects are beginning to manifest, creating new potential for capitalizing real estate.
GLOBAL MOBILE ASSETS
In preparation for the 2014 World Cup, the government of Brazil spent about $3 billion to build 12 new stadiums. Many of those 12 stadiums outstretched their use as soon as the tournament ended, with the largest, a $900 million stadium in Brasilia, now being used as a municipal bus parking lot. A host of abandoned Olympic assets, from Olympic Village in Sarajevo to a beach volleyball venue in Beijing, have met similar fates, leading German firm stadiumconcept.de to think of a better way: a floating offshore stadium.
The firm has designed a 65,000 seat, 2.8 million-square-foot stadium equipped with over 100,000 square feet of rentable retail space, more than 9,000 square feet of conference area, and a 260-room “aparthotel.” The offshore stadium is intended to float around the world to whichever coastal metropolis is in need, replacing the unused temporary stadiums from past events that the firm’s architect and founder, Peter Knoebel, calls “white elephants.”
On a smaller scale, buildings could travel along a city’s coast, wade along its rivers or go into and out of use depending on the weather.
“I don’t see the water as just a building ground,” says Olthuis, adding that it’s not the same as finding a spot in the city, demolishing something, and then building a high-rise building. “I see the water as more of a breathing space for developers; a place where we can build buildings, but also take buildings away easily; where you can have seasonal buildings or lease a building for three or five years and then you can lease at other locations. These are what we call global mobile assets.”
Olthuis’ firm is currently working on the Lyon Floating Theatre, set to open in April 2021. The theater’s concrete base will be built in Turkey, while the building’s super structure, made from cross-laminated timber, will be built in modules in Holland. Once completed, the pieces will be brought to France and assembled on site in Lyon.
The possibilities for global mobile assets are immense, from floating hospitals traveling to where they are most needed, to resorts that never have a down season.
But one consistent problem is out of developers’ hands: the technology has advanced much faster than the regulatory framework to accompany it. How do you collect tax? Do you lease the water-space? What building codes are structures subject to? Is it a boat, a building or a new classification entirely?
One venture caught in the regulatory tides is the Floating Seahorse Project in Dubai. The developer, Kleindienst, had reportedly sold over 100 units of the beautiful three-story homes — with the bottom-floor master bedroom underwater — by 2018. But the project is still under delays over zoning issues and a lack of approvals. In Dubai, the Real Estate Regulatory Authority governs real estate while the Dubai Maritime City Authority regulates the maritime sector, yet both agencies told Dubai-based XPRESS that the project was not under their purview.
“The most challenging part is finding a government that already has everything in place [from a regulatory standpoint] because many places do have frameworks that somehow seem as if they would fit, but getting those frameworks to where they apply to floating structures takes time, money and research,” explains Mezza-Garcia. “But, if there is enough money and the government sees that there is capital behind these projects, then some governments will be more willing than others to move quickly.”
Capital is starting to come in, and the space has been gaining momentum. Sources for this story said they now get asked “what does it cost?” or “what do the regulations look like?” when 10 years ago, all people wanted to know was how you can make a building float.
But the pace of investment will have to grow substantially if floating structures are going to be the 21st-century panacea for coastal dwellers worldwide that the industry’s backers envision.
The devastation brought by rising sea levels in the coming decades will almost certainly be concentrated among the world’s poor, which is why funding will likely need to come from public, private and nonprofit sources to help the estimated 2 billion people set to become climate refugees in 80 years.
The approach will need to be multi-pronged and solutions will be needed worldwide. Floating real estate can be a major piece to that puzzle, if economies of scale can be introduced and both governments and investors embrace it. Projects around the world, big and small, will need to continue pushing the technology and governance of these buildings until builders can feasibly mass produce them at low costs. If not, floating real estate will likely not be the answer to our rising oceans that many are hoping. But it will doubtless become an increasing part of coastal cities’ landscape either way.
“As I grow older, I have learned that we really can predict the future,” says professor Wang, “because the future is what we are thinking right now.”
While floating buildings are already here, sources for this story predict a floating mixed-use district — a big one — will be completed five years from now, and a floating city in 10 years.
“Everybody wants to see that first proof of concept and everyone thinks that if that proof of concept works and can scale, the sky is the limit because you are talking real estate here, new real estate, within a few minutes ferry ride from major coastal megacities,” says Collins Chen.
Let’s hope the future is now. It will have to be if real estate structures are to ascend with the tides and not get swallowed by the blue abyss.
Reg Clodfelter is a freelance writer based in Berkeley, Calif.