Aquatecture: Designing future cities to take a non-defensive approach to flooding

Flooding of inhabited areas is one of the major, but often neglected, challenges that await future generations. It is a problem that needs to be addressed rapidly to help prevent unnecessary loss of lives and unforetold economic damage. But instead of fearing and fighting water, some argue we should develop our cities in a way that makes use of it, and take a non-defensive approach towards rising water levels.

A range of futuristic floating city concepts has already been proposed as unconventional ways to use water, but they may not become a reality anytime soon. In the meantime, we should look at integrating water into the long-term designs for existing cities, for example in the form of interconnected waterways, deepwater ports and buildings that can be flooded. Floating solar and wind farms and tidal power generation off nearby shores could also be integrated.

By making use of the water that surrounds many of our cities, these concepts may offer more benefits than reactive measures such a flood defences and sandbags ever could.

London-based Baca Architects have re-imagined how one of the most flood-prone cities in the world could be protected as it grows in to a mega-city. Their proposals for Shanghai are outlined in a new book, Aquatecture, which is due out next year. It looks a different ways of designing for water, picking up on practical examples from around the world. The book complements the firm’s specialist work around designing waterfronts and water architecture, which includes amphibious houses.


A serious threat

From January to early December 2012 floods accounted for 54% of deaths in Asia, according to the United Nations. In China alone, more than 17 million people were affected by flooding and $4.8bn of economic damage was caused.

Also in 2012, researchers from the University of Leeds, writing in the journal Natural Hazards, said that Shanghai is the most vulnerable majority city in the world to suffer from serious flooding. The researchers found that Shanghai and Dhaka would remain the most vulnerable major cities up to the 2100s – although the potential for flooding would increase in all cities.

“It is not just about your exposure to flooding, but the effect it actually has on communities and business and how much a major flood disrupts economic activity,” said Professor Nigel Wright, who led the research team.


Building a flood-resilient city

Shanghai’s history is deeply connected with the surrounding water; the Yangtze river has helped it grown in to one of the biggest economic powers not only China but in the entire world. The downside is that the city is prone to flooding and is one of the cities most likely to see a serious detrimental impact from rising sea-levels in coming years.

But Baca Architects believe that the impacts of flooding can be minimised by thinking about how the city is developed at present. In 2011, China announced six satellite towns would be built around the city, and it is likely with population growth over coming years that they could eventually be connected to the surrounding provinces.

The architects argue that the location by the river allows for the new towns to be connected in different ways. “Between the satellites, high-risk areas are used for industry with the waterways providing economic routes for heavy goods transportation to the rest of the city and the deepwater ports,” they say. “Off shore floating solar farms, designed to move with the waves, are linked to high-altitude wind generators as well as energy producing tidal barrages to create a distributed and interconnected renewable energy system.”

Their concept is based on four key principles: a resilient system, city rotation, water utilisation and transitional zones – all based on the levels of the land and what its potential uses are.


Resilience can be achieved by the individual satellite towns working together to address any weakness in the overall system, for example, if a power connection fails. As sea levels rise, the architects envision the fabric of the city being reconfigured, or rotated, to use different areas. This may mean that land that is submerged at one point could be used for agriculture if water levels in the area drop; they could also become industrial areas or waterways with a change in tide.

Utilisation turns the threat of water into an opportunity. Land for freshwater storage is preserved within satellite towns for future times when low-lying areas are lost. Transitional zones may be used for water harvesting and water treatment and could also be used for future developments in line with changing water levels.

This approach, the architects argue, could help create a city that does not get damaged by floods but can be flexible to the challenges created by rising water levels.

Living with water

Baca Architects’s re-imagining of Shanghai and the individual water projects they are working on, which will allow flood protection and water use at an individual level, stem from the main ideas behind the LifE project.

This study, which was funded by the UK Government, looked to change the way we think about living with water and concluded that we should take a non-defensive approach to flood risk management.

Water should be allowed onto urban sites, in a pre-determined manner, and not be completely blocked off, the architects argue. Responsible developments could reduce the risk of flooding and also utilise renewable technologies. This idea led them to develop a range of buildings that look to work with water, not against it.


The amphibious house

The large-scale proposals for Shanghai show how a whole city could be transformed to accommodate water, but on a localised level there is also potential to develop technologies that allow individual homes to adapt to changes in the environment.

Areas of low-lying land, or land close to rivers, are always prone to flooding. Baca’s amphibious house is designed to reduce the impact of floods when they happen. It is built on a dock that rests on fixed foundations but can rise up with the water level and float, coping with up to 2.5m of flood water. To allow the house to float the upper levels are made of a lightweight timber construction that rests on the concrete hull.

The house has been designed to be future-proof to projected water levels in the Buckinghamshire area of the UK.

Baca director Richard Coutts says that those living in flood-prone areas need houses that help to protect them and their belongings. “It is not only their homes but also their communities that need to be designed to take this into account so that the consequences can be mitigated,” he adds. “Amphibious design is one of a host of solutions that can enable residents to live safely and to adapt to the challenges of climate change.”

The surroundings of the amphibious house have been designed to act as an early defence system to flooding. Terraces created on different levels will flood first, preventing the house from being hit by a flood wave all at once.


The home that floods

In a more radical approach, Baca Architects are working with Aquobex Resilient Property on a building that can be flooded completely if water levels rise.

The Aquobox, due to be built at the BRE Innovation Park in Watford, UK, is a demonstration home that will be set in a tank and flooded on a daily basis to show how far flood resistant technology has progressed. Aquobox features a fully floadable kitchen as well as water-resistant nano-coatings, fire and flood-resistant boarding, automatic flood guards and water-resistant cavity wall insulation.

The nano-coatings are similar to those being developed to help clumsy smartphone and tablet users protect their gadgets from liquids. But Baca and Aquobex Resilient Property believe they could also be used to help protect homes from damage during floods.


Looking at the bigger picture

Elsewhere, architects, designers and engineers are also looking at new ways to counter an age-old problem.

In New York, almost $1bn has been awarded to a number of infrastructure projects to create flood defences around New York City and New Jersey. The projects, which came out of a design competition earlier this year, include a   which will double up as a park and public space. It is intended to run more than two miles along the river and effectively raise the riverbank to nine feet above its current level.

But while these projects use the more conventional technique of keeping water out of individual areas of a city, the concepts outlined by Baca Architects are taking a view of the bigger picture. They incorporate the development of new technology as well as considering the sociological factors of food production, travel and growing populations.

Their approach takes into account in all the factors a city needs adapt to in order to deal with future environmental issues that lie outside our control. It is how we, as a society, should be looking to protect our living spaces for future generations.

Aquatecture by Baca Architects will be published by RIBA Publishing, early 2015.


Featured image and images four and five courtesy of Baca Architects. Image one via chinahbzyg /

Video: Inside the pioneering urban farm growing plants under London

Deep under the surface of London a series of abandoned tunnels could lead the way in revolutionising how food is grown in our cities. Here, herbs and micro-herbs grow without the need for soil or natural light – and there’s potential to grow vast amounts of produce.

London’s first underground farm, which is still in construction, also benefits from the absence of pests, fast growing times and the ability to transport produce across the city within hours, rather than days.

It has been created by two men, Steven Dring and Richard Ballard, who are, rather ironically, from Bristol, which has rather a lot more greenery that the area surrounding their farm – but certainly can’t offer the sound of the Northern Line rumbling past meters above your head as you water your crops.

There is a lot of space under a lot of cities

The pair, which does business as Growing Underground, got the idea from reading about Dickson Despommier, who envisions a world where vertical farming takes over cities in a bid to help tackle problems such as growing city populations and a lack of space.

“We realised that you could grow without natural light and that kind of transferred through to us. Building it in an office block is really expensive – so could we build a farm in a tunnel?,” says Dring. “There is a lot of space under a lot of cities. You look at the catacombs under Rome, lots of empty Metro sites under Paris, you’ve got the same under New York. So yes, it can expand, yes, there’s opportunity to do it.”


Proving the underground farm concept

In some parts of the world where the climate doesn’t allow for crops to be grown in the traditional way, underground spaces could offer more suitable conditions.

“Certainly in places like Kuwait and the UAE they’re looking at taking farming into tunnels because they have tried it in polytunnels and it is too hot. It is really difficult for them to grow in that environment,” says Dring. “So they are just looking at burying the polytunnels just so they have got a controlled environment, as we’ve got here. If we prove the concept I can see people taking the idea and running with it elsewhere and we may well expand into other countries.”

Japan, the Netherlands and the US also host underground farm projects

It’s quite clear that others share his vision. Under a tower block in Japan there’s an underground farm. PlantLab in the Netherlands is experimenting with underground farming and in the US, The Plant is testing underground and urban farming in an old meat factory.

At present the pair’s farming tunnels are leased from Transport for London for free, as it was necessary to prove the concept before they are properly used. In coming years rent for the tunnels will be charged by the the government body.


Tunnels gone by

The tunnels, which are currently being looked after by Dring, Ballard, their farm manager Gabriel DeFranco and an intern, lie 178 steps and 100ft below the surface. To make matters more complicated there’s no lift going up or down at the moment.

In the past they were used as air raid shelters during World War II. The Clapham North tunnels in south London, which have been converted into the farm, are part of a series of deep level shelters that were finished in 1942 – after the peak of the Blitz. Eight shelters were built overall; other planned ones – including a shelter at St Paul’s Cathedral, were scrapped due to fears they may be targeted and damaged by bombs.

Author Nick Cooper, in his book London Underground at War, says that there were plans to use the tunnels as an express underground line after the war, but their diameter was not enough to accommodate trains.

The tunnels were used as air raid shelters during World War 2

The farm’s tunnels were previously used as a hostel for male National Fire Service personnel in 1943 and then as public air raid shelters from July to October 1944. After the war they sat largely unused until 2006, when they were put back on the market. Other tunnels were used as accommodation for a festival and during the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II.

One set of the tunnels, just down the road from the farm at Clapham South, inadvertently helped to give birth to a cultural section of London.

Almost 500 immigrant workers from Jamaica were housed in the tunnels in 1948 after they had arrived on the MV Empire Windrush.

According to Transport for London tunnel expert Philip Aish the nearest labour exchange was in Brixton which goes to “explaining why Brixton became such a centre of the West Indian Community,” he told the Independent.

Now it is hoped the Clapham North tunnels can revive their former glory and help to contribute to London life once more.


Growing underground

The growing process works using LED lights and an 18-hour light cycle. At present the farmers are trying to work out the best type of light, testing three types with different spectrums of light.

The type and colour of the light will also depend on the plant that is being grown, DeFranco explains. Red plants, for instance, grow best under blue lights.

The herbs and micro-herbs are grown using hydroponic techniques. This means no soil is needed as the plants are provided with nutrients four times a day when they are flooded with enhanced water.

It allows the farm to grow produce quickly in an environment that is unlike any other, which poses challenges that traditional farmers would not face.

“At the moment we’re trying to do organic best practice, as I like to call it,” DeFranco says. “We can’t get organically certified down here because the soil association states that we have to be on ground surface to be organically certified. But we use all the best practices that organic farming would use.”

Their micro-herbs, he says, have an incredibly fast growing and turnaround time, the shortest period being seven days and the longest 21 days. Coriander, for example, can be grown at 4kg per square metre and the farm will have 10,000 square metres of growing space. This illustrates the potential of this type of farming if it is taken to a scale where plants can be mass produced.


Going into production

The next step for the team at Growing Underground will see them kitting out the first stages of the tunnels and moving in to a production cycle. Dring says enough funding has come from “crowd funding and private investors” to allow them to fully expand into the first part of the tunnel and start creating revenue. The challenges now involve moving products up and down the stairs until a new lift can be fitted.

“By the time we have finished the build here this will all be lined completely. It will all be white, painted floor, it will look more like a lab than a farm,” Dring says.

Although it is clear that a lot of work needs to be done to make the tunnels a safe place for growing large amounts of plants, in doing so the farmers will also grow the trust of their eventual end consumers.

The customer will ultimately be the deciding factor in whether farms underground and indoors, that do not use traditional methods, become a success or not.

If the sales are right, this innovative approach could take off and also bring the benefits of underground farming to other cities. Having gotten a taste of the team’s underground herbs, we’ll have to say they rival anything you can buy in established shops.


Image two via Subterranea Brittania