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Since mid-April, an angular, wooden house floating atop steel pontoons has moored at three sites along the Thames Estuary, all the while monitoring local environmental conditions in this passage where the Thames meets the North Sea. Named the Flood House and measuring about 18 by 24 feet, it is a theoretical dwelling, devoid of human residents yet intended to explore the possibility of living in a structure that responds to its natural surroundings — in this case, the rise and fall of the tide. It was designed by London-based architect Matthew Butcher, who selected the Thames Estuary for its high flood risk, which is increasing due to global warming. In 2012, the UK government approved an extensive plan to attempt to manage this threat until the year 2100.
With the help of a tugboat, Flood House has traveled over 20 miles since its launch from Canvey Island off the southeast coast of Essex. A weather station on board gathers data on indoor and outdoor environmental conditions such as temperature, moisture, and wind speed, and broadcasts a brief overview of the information on Flood House’s website. At this time of writing, for instance, at 10:40pm in Southend-on-Sea, the measuring devices are noting a forecast of 57˚F and scattered clouds, with a falling tide.
Butcher has yet to analyze the data, which will reveal Flood House’s relationship to the movements of the sun and the wind: specifically, sensory probes in the construction material will indicate parts of the house that were warm or cold along its journey. He’s hoping these results will show the varying comfort levels people would encounter living on the waters of the Estuary. For now, he describes the data collection as part of the project’s “poetic exploration” of how any building in such a flood-threatened area would face constant flux. From his experience, buildings are increasingly made to fit “a generic specification” worldwide, with many designs failing to properly address climate disparities.
“I was concerned that we are continuing to build architectures that avoid a direct relationship with the environment and the weather,” Butcher told Hyperallergic. “We continue to live in very controlled environments with complex mechanical heating and cooling systems, which in turn through their operation use up vital natural resources. In contrast, the Flood House would be a comfortable place to live, but it’s aim is to suggest a reengagement with the ecologies of the Thames.
“Living there, your body would be forced to feel the rise and fall of the tide as well as the change in seasons.”
Butcher modeled his house on other structures he has encountered along the coasts of the Estuary, from fishing huts to the Maunsell forts, which were built during World War II and teeter above the water on stilts. Flood House also fits into the greater trend of floating architecture; many of those structures have similarly arisen out of concerns about rising sea levels. Also designed for the River Thames is Baca Architects’ Amphibious House, which rests on ground near the water’s edge but is built to be buoyant in the event of a flood. In Lagos, architecture studio NLÉ has received high praise for its Makoko Floating School, a triangular floating educational center that adapts to tidal changes and shifts in water levels.
Flood House completed its journey this week, but you might still have an opportunity to view it. Aside from examining the weeks of data his structure gathered, Butcher is currently in discussions to exhibit it at a number of different locations to continue the necessary conversation of engineering homes for exposed and volatile environments.