Updated: 8/27/03; 11:55:38 PM
    Documenting a personal quest for non-toxic housing.

On The Waterfront

In this article we explore a concept which is probably not, as yet, very practical for the average person in need of a non-toxic home but is nonetheless feasible and very compelling.

There is a fundemental problem which faces all those with Environmental Illness or who may succumb to this steadily growing health problem in the near future. We are running out of clean places to live. Urban and suburban sprawl continue unabated throughout the industrialized world and with it comes a steady growth of pollution from primitive automobiles, primitive home energy systems, household and landscape pesticides, alien landscape flora, and the crude noisy pollution-prone machinery used to tend it. The very wealthy now dominate most of the remaining cleanest places to live, due to the natural tendency of an unregulated real estate market to let the value of such property escalate without limit. What's left is in very remote areas which compels people to continue this pathological behavior; fleeing for the edge of wilderness and dragging along with them everything they're fleeing from!

But what if you could manufacture your own real estate in a pollution-free place that isn't necessarily out of reach of all civiliation? A place the cars can't go and where there are no neighbors with primitive technology and filthy habits to pollute your environment and yet isn't many hours away from the nearest town? Sound like a fantasy? Maybe not.

In San Francisco Bay there is one of the most unique pieces of real estate anywhere in America. It's an island called Forbes Island. This is no ordinary island. In reality, it is a floating structure originally made as a home by a Mr. Forbes Thor Kiddoo, a carpenter originally from New York who became wealthy building floating homes for the West Coast houseboat market. Using the simple foam core ferro-concrete platform technology he developed for these homes, he crafted an eclectic home of his own in the form of a hundred foot long fantasy island complete with its own lighthouse, trees, waterfall, and 'beachfront' with most of the habitable space in structures under its artificial turf covered surface. Made famous by appearances on TV shows such as Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, Forbes Island is now a restaurant and tourist attraction visited by thousands each year.

This is no exotic 'experimental' building technology. Though most definitely a rich-man's folly in the classic tradition of 'folly' architecture, Forbes Island is based on a kind of structure that has proven perfectly practical for hundreds of floating homes on the US and Canadian west coasts. In fact, it is the basis of the largest floating housing development in the world, recently built on the outskirts of Amsterdam. And, being based on ferro-cement, this is an inherently non-toxic structure. The leading builder and developer of these platforms is the Vancouver based International Marine Flotation Systems which produces these platforms for housing, commerce, industry, marine, aquaculture, and civil projects and which has built thousands of these platforms since the 1980s.

platform detail from floating home - International Marine Flotation

The only technical difference between Forbes Island and other floating homes using the same technology is a more elaborate design and the fact that it is self-mobile, equipped with engines that allow it to move freely about the bay, albeit at a slow speed. Most floating homes made with this kind of platform are intended for permanent mooring, the structures atop them being perfectly conventional houses that just happen to be sitting on a floating 'lot' of concrete rather than dirt.

As eclectic and fanciful as Forbes Island's design is, it is actually quite efficient in its use of space and materials and fairly well illustrates a basic design strategy which can be directly applied to non-toxic housing using the same platform structure. The same form of construction used for the platform is applied to its habitable structure as well, forming a kind of barge-like configuration where one lives in the space between the platform and the top surface deck. In the case of Forbes Island, the design goes for the illusion of an underground dwelling, the roof being the rock, grass, and tree covered surface of the artificial island with portholes peering out from the 'underground' dwellings within it. These are decorated inside with an antique nautical motif, as if the island were formed by some concretion grown over a sunken pirate ship. This is the same ferro-cement construction previously described in the Gallery article on free-form organic architecture (see The Classic Rock Realm of Ferrocement) and it allows for the maximum efficiency of space use by letting the 'roof' of a home double as usable space for gardening, landscaping, solar power, or anything else one might imagine.

I have applied a similar strategy in the design of community structures for fledgling marine colonies. Presented here are several images of such structure from an article I wrote on the subject a couple years ago.

four seed colony configurations

These simple but attractive structures would readily work for a non-toxic housing application, as would any of the eclectic structures more typical to ferro-cement based housing, while maximizing the cost-efficiency of the space. The concrete platform is itself fairly expensive so the more of its total area you can effectively use the better -better still if you can double that effective area with a roof usable like an outdoor deck. [Note that the platform system in these illustrations is a more sophisticated Pneumatically Stabilized Platform system developed by Float Inc. intended for open sea and coastal wave zone applications.]

Forbes Island was built before the advent of ubiquitous GPS systems and small electric-powered station-keeping drive systems. These are, today, quite common and so, while still largely limited to sheltered water unless they are built to a very large scale, there is no longer a limit to fixed mooring and at-shore locations. They can be 'parked', using automatic station-keeping, anywhere there is relatively calm water, without fixed moorings. Marine regulations may conflict with this in some areas, particularly in the aspect of leaving one's home 'unpiloted' for any length of time. Such regulations tend to lag far behind the contemporary level of technology -as is the norm with most government bureaucracy.

How would one make this kind of housing work? What about power, telecommunications, plumbing, and traveling to and from this strange floating home? In fact, all these issues are easily covered by current off-the-shelf technology and marine products. Photovoltaic panels, solar thermal panels, and the compact wind turbines in common use on boats today readily cover the power issue in a pollution-free manner. This can be supplemented with propane or, ideally, hydrogen from products like PowerBalls, running simple generators or more sophisticated compact turbogenerators of residential scale fuel cell units. Marine water 'generators' will provide an endless supply of fresh water, commensurate with the available electric power, while Incinolet incinerating toilets readily cover waste disposal. Wireless telecommunications now provides options for TV, telephone, and Internet connectivity most anywhere on the globe. Many desert inhabitants commonly rely on satellite telecommunications services offered at costs consistent with broadband line services. Near shore, direction wireless bridges provide practical links to land-line services at land-line bandwidths. Conventional boats are adequate transportation, at least in sheltered bay areas. The less toxic alternative is sailboats or the much easier to operate electric launches such as the elegant Spincraft electric launches made in Canada. Certainly, there are still complications to life on the water but nothing that would preclude a comfortable standard of living.

SeaRoom resort complex - U.S. Subs

Again, none of this is speculation or experiment. These are all things in use today, just not that well known. For example, floating condominium buildings can commonly be seen along many waterfront urban areas and one can already purchase a marine equivalent of the mobile home known as the SeaRoom. Made by the US Submarines company, a maker of tourist, research, and luxury personal submersibles, this product has been available for many years and relies on exactly the mix of support systems described above. I have considered the Sea Room as non-toxic housing but its semi-submerged steel hull construction makes it much more expensive than the simpler ferro-cement platform.

There is technically no limit to the scale of structure one can build with this technology, though strangely this virtue is not usually exploited in more conventional floating homes since they depend on marina-style mooring with rather limited 'berth' sizes. If a modular platform and habitat structure is employed, it can expand on demand indefinitely. You can 'grow' your real estate forever. This potential is well illustrated in a clever design called Footloose from the Netherlands amphibious living design competition Amfibischwonen. Here we see a clever system based on a 4 meter square concrete platform which is used interchangeably for a nice light modular housing unit, garden, wind turbine, and other units which are plugged into each other to form a larger island habitat.

Footloose floating housing concept - Amfibischwonen competition

The larger the structure the wider the range of sea conditions it can tolerate thus allowing it to be located farther from shore. (though this comes with the caveat that the farther from shore the more expensive the transportation due to the limited spectrum of capability current transport technology provides) This presents an interesting possibility. One is not limited to the creation of just a single home. One can found freely expanding communities and/or businesses, moving them progressively farther out to sea as they increase in potential self-sufficiency and in the scale of transportation they can support. This capability is what compelled me to suggest structures like this as the basis of marine eco-villages which could grow into full-fledged marine colonies -polution-free self supporting cities- that could move out beyond the 200 mile national boundaries of the nations that spawned them to become new autonomous self-mobile states. That may seem fantastic but there are no longer any technological obstacles to it.

Why would one choose to live on such an artificial floating island structure on the water? Waterfront property offers some of the cleanest air anywhere by virtue of the high rate of ambient air exchange afforded by ocean or lake breezes. Even regions with relatively bad general pollution levels enjoy orders of magnitude cleaner air along the shore, as long as there are regular breezes. Unfortunately, few people can now afford such property -especially those who need it most. A floating home offers a potentially unlimited amount of waterfront real estate with no land cost. You can have as much as you can afford to build. There are no surrounding lawns and trees to generate pollen, no roads with cars to generate pollution -though, of course, boats are still a pollution issue albeit far less than automobiles. In many parts of the world one need pay no property taxes on houseboats and floating homes and this would also apply to those farther off-shore. There are, however, some maritime regulations which may impose complications and requirements for equipment.

This particular kind of architecture has fascinated me for some time. Many designers, futurists, and eco-development advocacy groups have pursued various visions for such structures ranging from small homes to vast arcologies. Even the famed oceanographer Jacques Cousteau designed a marine colony structure he hoped his organization might one day build. More recently, the famous Titanic discoverer Bob Ballard has begun working on the development of open-sea housing structures derived from the pylon buoy technology of the FLIP marine research vessel. Many famous architects have explored the marine colony and marine housing concepts; Paulo Soleri, Buckminster Fuller, Eugene Tsui, Scott Howe, Jean Phillip Zoppini. Considering how long houseboats and the idea of turning them into something larger have been around, it is truly amazing to me that there are no thriving marine cities today. There have been no critical technical obstacles to it for a good century.

To close this article, I present an assortment of marine colony and housing concepts.

Aquarius marine colony - Marshal Savage's The Millennial Project

Nexus marine colony - Eugene Tsui

Oceania marine colony - Oceania group

Sea City marine leisure city complex - TV21 Annual 1971

a collection of marine resort, community, and housing concepts - Pierre Zoppini

Copyright 2003 © Eric Hunting.