As part of a mission to catalyze the redevelopment of flood-ravaged New Orleans, world-renowned architect and UCLA distinguished professor Thom Mayne, seven graduate students from the UCLA Department of Architecture and Urban Design, and architects from Mayne's Morphosis firm have created the first floating house permitted in the United States.
Known as the FLOAT House, the structure is a new model for flood-safe, affordable and sustainable housing and is designed to securely float with rising water levels. The innovative house was built for actor Brad Pitt's Make It Right
Foundation, which is helping with the rebuilding of New Orleans' Lower Ninth Ward, one of the neighborhoods hardest hit by Hurricane Katrina.
The concept for the FLOAT House emerged from research on the local flooding record, the social and cultural history of the city, and the ecology of the Mississippi Delta. In the event of flooding, the base of the house — reconceived as a chassis — acts as a raft, allowing the house to rise vertically on guide posts, securely floating up to 12 feet as water levels rise. While not designed for occupants to remain inside during a hurricane, the innovative structure aims to minimize catastrophic damage and preserve the homeowner's investment in their property. This approach also allows for the early return of occupants in the aftermath of a hurricane or flood.
"The immense possibilities of the Make It Right initiative became immediately apparent to us: How to reoccupy the Lower Ninth Ward, given its precarious ecological condition," Mayne, the winner the 2005 Pritzker Prize winner, said in a press release
. "The reality of rising water levels presents a serious threat for coastal cities around the world. These environmental implications require radical solutions. In response, we developed a highly performative, 1,000-square-foot house that is technically innovative in terms of its safety factor — its ability to float — as well as its sustainability, mass production and method of assembly."
UCLA students were involved in every step of the process, making the FLOAT House unique among the 13 projects by local, national and international architects selected to participate in the first phase of the Make It Right initiative.
After the initial acceptance of the prototype design, Mayne invited students from UCLA Architecture and Urban Design to partner with his architecture firm in furthering the design and constructing a prototype at UCLA. The group researched, designed, developed and helped construct the FLOAT House prototype through a specialized design-build studio project.
The studio project spanned five academic quarters and also included meetings with New Orleans city officials, architects, developers and other prominent experts. The studio culminated in construction seminars focused on the building of the prototype on campus.
From researching the context in New Orleans, through the design and building process, to ultimately shipping the 46,000-pound concrete chassis from Los Angeles to the Crescent City, the students were involved in a process that not only offered an immersive, real-world educational experience but one that also advanced cutting-edge research between the university and industry, contributing to regional and national economic growth and social advancement.
"Our students were thrilled to have the opportunity that this unique project afforded to apply their research and design to a real-world problem — building affordable, sustainable housing for communities afflicted with flooding problems," said UCLA Architecture and Urban Design chair Hitoshi Abe. "Our success demonstrates that the value of applied research can change the working methodologies of students and faculty who strive to develop and evaluate solutions that will have a positive impact. The close collaboration between students, faculty and outside experts generates a unique studio environment characterized by outstanding creativity and energy."
The UCLA students involved in the project were Linda Fu, Saji Matuk, Ian Ream, Monica Ream, Erin Smith, Jeanne Stahl, who is from New Orleans, and Ryan Whitacre.
Design of the FLOAT House
Designed in response to the specific needs of Ninth Ward residents, the FLOAT House serves as a scalable prototype that can be mass-produced and adapted to the needs of communities facing similar challenges across the globe. The state-of-the-art home uses high-performance systems, energy-efficient appliances and prefabrication methods, resulting in an affordable, sustainable structure that generates its own power, collects its own water and minimizes resource consumption.
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"When Brad Pitt launched Make It Right, he promised the residents of the Lower Ninth Ward that he would help them build back stronger, safer and better able to survive the next storm or flood," said Tom Darden, executive director of the Make It Right Foundation. "The FLOAT House is helping us deliver on that promise. For the first time, this house brings technology to Americans that was created to help save lives and homes from floods. It's an approach and design that could and should be replicated all over the world — now threatened with increased flooding caused by climate change."
Like the traditional New Orleans shotgun house, the FLOAT House sits on a raised 4-foot base, preserving the community's vital "front porch" culture and facilitating accessibility for elderly and disabled residents. The high-performance chassis is a prefabricated module, made from polystyrene foam coated in glass fiber–reinforced concrete, which hosts all the essential equipment to supply power, water and fresh air. The chassis is engineered to support a range of home configurations.
In July 2009, the chassis was transported to New Orleans, where prefabricated modules designed by the group were assembled on-site. Construction services were donated by general contractor Clark Construction Group Inc.
While the FLOAT House is the first such structure to be permitted in the United States, the technology was developed and is in use in the Netherlands, where architects and developers are working to address an increased demand for housing in the face of rising sea levels associated with climate change.