Dutch floating community rises to the challenge of climate change

Published on the 23rd of May 2019
Floating community

It is one of the defining questions of our age: do we focus on preventing climate change, or switch our efforts to adapting to it? The Schoonschip floating community in Amsterdam has a simple answer: why not do both at the same time?

In a world of rising sea levels, the Schoonschip floating community (Dutch for “clean ship”) is showing how to live sustainably on the water. In waves of arrivals since December last year, houseboats are being towed down the Johan van Hasselt canal in North Amsterdam to be moored in place near the De Ceuvel cleantech playground. By 2020 the neighborhood is expected to house over 100 residents across 46 households, all experimenting with sustainable solutions to the unique challenges of on-water living.

It is an example of growing relevance to urban planners working in coastal areas – if action to reduce carbon emissions doesn’t ramp up significantly, the C40 network estimates 800 million people will be put at risk from sea level rise of at least half a metre by the 2050s. Global average sea level has already risen by about 16–21 cm since 1900, with about 7 cm occurring since 1993.

schoonschip floating community


Water is something to live with and enjoy

Marjolein Smeele, a Schoonschip Foundation board member, resident, and one of the architects behind the community, says she thinks the neighborhood can be “an example of how to live on the water” in a country where nearly 30% of the land lies below sea level. “Being Dutch, we are used to living under the level of the sea,” she says. “It would be normal to feel scared about water because we are so low, but we don’t because we’ve arranged things so well. Water for us is something to live with and enjoy, not to be afraid of – we Dutch have built great things to protect us from our water.”

The Netherlands’ formidable network of sea barriers is the most obvious example of this, but the Schoonschip floating community shows another way of coping with rising oceans – by floating on them. The key is to build a sustainable neighborhood suited to the challenges of an aquatic environment and that harnesses the unique synergies it offers to residents. To achieve this goal, a range of approaches are being tried. “Solar panels, good insulation, water recycling showers, vacuum toilets – each boat is different,” Smeele says. “Some people decided to look for good materials for clean building, others wanted everything green, so have green on their facades and roof. Everyone took something they really wanted to go for.”

Schoonschip floating community

Sustainability Masterplan for Schoonschip (Metabolic)

Innovators float sustainable solutions

This is where Metabolic came in during the early phases of development, working with municipal authorities and a coalition of innovators including architects Space&Matter to draft a sustainability masterplan for a floating development that prioritizes sustainability. Instead of relying on carbon-intensive gas heating, homes are well-insulated and utilize passive solar heating through designs that make the most of natural sunlight, complemented by pumps that harvest warmth from the canal water, even in winter. Solar boilers provide hot water, and water-recycling showers are equipped with technologies that recover heat that would otherwise go down the drain.

Municipal water company Waternet will harvest waste water and transport it to a nearby floating biorefinery which will recover nutrients and energy from organic waste streams. All houses are equipped with vacuum toilets linked to this decentralized sanitation facility, using an anaerobic digester to produce energy with biogas and harvest phosphorus and nitrates. In terms of building materials, the priority is materials that are sustainable, lightweight, and buoyant – bamboo is one favored option, as is hemplime created as a by-product of the cultivation of hemp seeds and fibers. A community center will serve as a hub for neighborhood-wide sustainability initiatives, the kind of which community members have been engaged in long before moving in – for instance a 2017 boat tour to fish out plastic from the canal.

Schoonschip community floating into place

The houses were constructed off-site and towed in groups to the location, an approach Space&Matter co-founder Sascha Glasl has suggested could be used to respond to flooding disasters. “If you have a catastrophe somewhere and you have these houses in stock, from one day to the other, a neighborhood can appear,” he says. Glasl added that a hybrid model could be developed for “amphibious” homes on dry land that can float during times of flood. “When the water comes, they float,” he says. “When the water goes away, then they can stand again.”

Floating microgrid

Smart microgrid on the water

One of the most innovative aspects of the project is a smart grid devised by Metabolic spinoff Spectral, which is working closely with research partners Fraunhofer ITWM and CWI as part of the EU commission-backed Grid-Friends project. The Schoonschip floating community holds a special permit that gives them ownership of their own grid and full responsibility for energy sourcing and billing. Each household is equipped with a large solar PV array and heat pump, with energy stored in battery storage systems – each positioned close to the center of its respective boat so as not to cause the vessel to keel. The households are connected to an energy management system which intelligently coordinates supply and demand within the community microgrid, and allows residents to trade energy with each other.

Spectral founder and CEO, Philip Gladek, says the project team is coordinating with partners including green energy supplier Greenchoice to enable the Schoonschip microgrid to provide support to the broader energy market, providing frequency regulation and other services to the Dutch transmission system operator Tennet. “As we shut down the baseline generation from coal power plants and entirely move away from fossil fuels, communities like Schoonschip will play an essential role in balancing the public electricity grid to ensure we can keep the lights on,” he says.

Schoonschip floating community

Replicable blueprint for green building

According to Metabolic CEO and founder Eva Gladek, efforts are being made to share what has been learned. “One of the greatest things about Schoonschip is it has resulted in a largely replicable blueprint for the cutting edge of green building and how you can implement that into homes, and that is going to be made public,” she says. “I’m very happy the community has decided to share the knowledge we developed in this process.”

Having done the hard work of trialling new technologies and approaches – and the regulatory challenges involved – the team behind the Schoonschip floating community hopes that lessons can be learned which could be applied to building projects globally, both on land and on water. After all – a rising tide lifts all boats.

For more details on the project, visit the Schoonschip website, and our summary of the floating community. To find out more about smart microgrids, contact Spectral process engineer Peter Van Duijn. For more on sustainable neighborhoods, reach out to our green building consultant Fanny Thibault.

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