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The Next Frontier in Urban Living: Waterways?

Global warming and urban overcrowding fuel the next generation of houseboat living

Photo courtesy of Jens Kroell & Amelie Rost

Global warming and accommodating urban growth are going to be two of the most vexing problems facing cities in the coming decades. One German city is attempting to kill both birds with one stone by expanding its livable space onto the surface of its local waterways.

Hamburg, the eighth largest city in the European Union, surprisingly boasts even more bridges and canals than Amsterdam or Venice, severely limiting the space it has for new residential development. In many of these cities that contain internal waterways, global warming is causing water levels to surge, resulting in uncontrollable flooding. How could Hamburg pack in more people while simultaneously preparing for rising waters? The city is addressing both of these issues with a “living and working on the water” initiative.

Hamberg’s IBA Dock is a monument to the concept of floating city life. The buoyant three-story office building and exhibition center is made of modular steel; all 11,500 square-feet of the structure float on the Elbe River, near the city’s port. Built to withstand extreme weather and equipped with the latest in energy-saving devices, Architizer called the dock a “symbol of the flexibility of the ideal urban transformation in times of climate change.”

More famous, perhaps, was Hamburg’s 2006 initiative to welcome workers and residents to the Eilbek Canal. At the time, the waterway was overgrown and unused, in part because its steep embankments made development difficult. The city hosted a competition that would open part of the canal to new houseboats, thereby building a new community in an area previously unsuited for residential living. Each competitor would submit a novel design for a houseboat, and the winning entries would be allowed to call the canal home.

Demand was overwhelming; Hamburg received more than 400 submissions, from which 10 winners were chosen, each from a different architecture firm. The last of the selected designs was recently completed.

Architects Amelie Rost and Jörg Niderehe, a married couple, were one of the winning teams, and now live on one of the sleek, modern floating homes. Their design is a wood-paneled, two-story boat that cost about $550,000 U.S. to build and was completed in late 2009. The houseboat is equipped with all the infrastructure utilities of a regular home, including water, sewer, and gas services. There are only about 360 square feet of indoor living space, but the boat offers 260 square feet of terrace area as well.

Rost says the couple is thrilled to have gotten an opportunity to build their dream home in an area so close to the city center. And living on the water provides the added benefit of feeling close to nature.

“At summertime we all use the water for swimming or stand-up paddling,” she says, “and in the winter the canal freezes, so you can actually skate on it.”

But living close to nature isn’t all swimming and skating; sometimes being more exposed to the elements provides its own challenges.

“We have to go on the ice every year and cut our boat free by using a chainsaw, because otherwise the ice could damage the coating of the hull,” she says.

She claims that the biggest downside to living on a houseboat is the additional maintenance it requires. But Rost says it’s worth it.

“You feel more connected…you really can feel the nature,” she says. “For example, when it’s windy or stormy, or when boats pass and make small waves.”

Their firm, Rost Niderehe, is designing four additional houseboats, as well as a floating office for the next phase of Hamburg’s initiative. The new round of floating homes will be finished this year, as the project expands into the canals of the city’s Hammerbrook neighborhood. It’s an exciting thing to be part of, says Rost.

“The process for developing floating houses—and cities, who knows?—is just starting in Hamburg and Germany and it’s not always easy,” she says. “But it’s a great option for developing living space in growing cities, and if cities and their municipalities also think one step further, it could also be an option for creating new urban spaces.”

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