Brad Pitt's 'floating house' can work in RP

Posted at 10/19/2009 5:12 PM | Updated as of 10/21/2009 10:27 PM

A housing design prescribed by architects for post-Katrina New Orleans might suit flood prone areas in the Philippines


MANILA – After Hurricane Katrina pummeled the Southwestern coast of the United States in 2006, celebrity Brad Pitt and his Make It Right (MIR) Foundation set about building environmentally-friendly and sustainable housing for affected families in New Orleans.

Formed by Pitt after he saw the devastation to New Orleans's Lower 9th Ward, the MIR aims to build over 150 houses within 14 blocks using "green" design principles pitched by architectural firms all over the world.

This is supposed to fulfill the promise Pitt made residents in the area: that he would help them build a stronger and safer neighborhood. (Take a virtual tour of storm-resistant MIR homes here.)

Floating House

The Make It Right Foundation's "Floating House." It can rise up 12 feet on 2 guideposts like a raft. Photo from www.makeitrightnola.org.

According to the MIR website, each house the foundation will build will incorporate storm-resistant features like escape hatches on the rooftops, hurricane window fabric that protect interiors against the entry of water, and raised elevation, among others.

The houses will also use mostly eco-friendly materials.

One house that stood out among the rest, however, was a "floating house" that Pitt unveiled in early October.

The house, designed by Thom Mayne of Morphosis Architects, can break away from its moorings and rise up to 12 feet on 2 guideposts - much like an anchored raft.

Though it will separate from its plumbing and electrical lines when it floats up, Mayne said in an interview with NPR.org that the house can provide enough battery power for 3 days so the family can survive until help comes.

It is buoyant because of its chassis made of polystyrene foam (not considered eco-friendly) and glass-reinforced concrete.

Morphosis Architects has not revealed how much the house costs, but various internet reports say building cost is low.

The house has not been tested in real flood conditions, but only in extensive computer simulations. "I mean, hopefully it never gets used. But when it gets used, it's important," Mayne said in a statement.

Disaster-ready housing

Can floating houses like these be feasible in the Philippine setting? Definitely, says Architect Jason Buensalido of Buensalido+Architects.

Founded in 2005, the firm is known for its contemporary designs and eco-friendly projects.

In fact, Buensalido's firm was about to draw a similar plan for a "Float House" when Brad Pitt's floating house was introduced in local newspapers and online news sites.

"It's just as simple as designing a raft. It's just as simple as putting a house on a raft. So you know, it's really possible," Buensalido said in a phone interview with abs-cbnNEWS.com/Newsbreak.

Buensalido said they are looking for partner organizations who are open to building floating houses, like Gawad Kalinga and My Shelter Foundation (which works with disaster management networks). They are even considering pitching the idea to President Arroyo herself.

As a guide to their design, Buensalido cited existing floating houses in areas of the Netherlands like Maasbommel near the Meuse river, where floating houses are already a norm. These houses are anchored on vertical columns, so the houses basically move up and down.

The floating houses are built with hollow concrete cubes underneath for buoyancy, while electricity and water are pumped through flexible pipes. Each house costs about $310,000 (about P14.4 million).

As early as 2007, a Dutch company called Dura Vermeer built 37 such houses that can rise up to 13 feet. Buensalido, however, said RP’s floating houses can go higher to suit local conditions.

In Provident village, the village in Marikina City which was worst hit by floods brought on by Ondoy, waters reportedly rose as high as 30 feet.

 "The question really is how to make it (a floating house) affordable to make. But we want to really make it possible," Buensalido said, adding that pre-fabricating materials and potential mass production could bring the building costs down.

"It's also a matter of material selection. They don't have to be ultra-expensive. It really boils down to economy because it has to answer to immediate needs. It might not be reachable to common people, so you have to make it cost-effective in the way we produce it," he said.

House on stilts

Buensalido's 'Pinakamagandang Bahay sa Balat ng Lupa' entry. The house has a second skin, like a sleeve, which can be customized according to the budget and aesthetic preferences of the buyer. The skin acts like a natural cooling system. Photo from METRO Home Magazine.

Disaster-resistant housing need not be as expensive as floating houses in the Netherlands, as an award-winning design by Buensalido and Associates proves.

Buensalido had come up with an eco-friendly and sustainable house design that won this year's "Pinakamagandang Bahay sa Balat ng Lupa" contest, launched by the University of the Philippines College of Architecture and Lafarge Cement Services, Inc.

Contest rules required that the house had to cost at least P750,000 (the median cost for a Pag-Ibig Housing loan), fit a family of 5, and it had to be flood and typhoon-resistant.

Buensalido's firm designed a customizable modular house, inspired by the traditional 'bahay-kubo', that "actually sits on stilts."

"The whole house is really on the second floor. On the ground floor, there's nothing but empty space, like a veranda. It's consistent with the idea of a bahay kubo which is an elevated house and the rest of the lot is used for social gathering. By raising the house, you're essentially safe in terms of floods and disasters," he told abs-cbnNEWS.com/Newsbreak.

Eco-beam frames that support piles of sandbags inside the walls add to the house's flood-resistance, Buensalido said.

The house can go up several stories, depending on how high an area's flood waters can rise.

Indigenous ideas

The design of the stilt house incorporates a rainwater-harvesting system where a series of valve spouts on the roof direct rainwater either to an underground cistern or an ordinary steel drum.

If budget allows, the cistern can be fitted to a high-tech filtration system that can produce water for drinking or bathing. Drums, meanwhile, can collect water for plants and backyard vegetables.

This could ensure that a family has adequate stocks of water and food when floods or typhoons come. Buensalido said that architects can learn a lot from indigenous housing that were built to respond to their natural climate.

Tribes like the Badjao, for example, have learned to live with rising tides by building stilted houses and house boats.

"If you look at old architecture, like the bahay kubo and houses in Banawe, they all respond to the climate. They're site-specific and that's how architecture should be," he said.

Buensalido describes indigenous housing as "perfect for the Philippines" because they are well-ventilated and do not require artificial cooling, they make full use of natural lighting and do not use as much energy, and they are usually made of sustainable material like bamboo, coconut, nipa, or 'anahao.'

Buensalido said that modern houses need not look exactly like a 'bahay kubo', but can incorporate eco-friendly design principles.

Good urban planning

While low-cost floating or disaster-resistant houses could help people cope with oncoming disasters like typhoons, Buensalido said much of disaster prevention has to do with good urban planning.

"In the first place, urban planners should check the 100-year flood history of an area. And in the first place, they shouldn't build on a site that is flood-prone. In the macro-scale, the reason why we have this problem is because Manila isn't planned well," he said.

(Read: 'Gov't, private developers liable for flood damage')

Buensalido said the recent storms- Ondoy and Pepeng - served as an "eye-opener" for architects and developers, as well as the government.

"It should really be the government. All these urban planning - the government has the power to approve these things at the end of the day. But the government does not have the budget to prevent these things. Architects can only do a certain amount of work to help people respond to disasters," he said. Report by Kristine Servando, abs-cbnNEWS.com/Newsbreak.

EDITOR'S NOTE: This story is part of our series on “Disasters: Search for Solutions.” To contribute to this series, email [email protected]