“Here, we have the ultimate freedom of the water. We have a comfortable detached house of our own, and the city centre of Amsterdam is only fifteen minutes away.” Residents of Waterbuurt-West live in exceptional houses in an exceptional neighbourhood, and they enjoy this situation to the full. The area has 158 waterside homes, 55 of which are individual floating houses. Unlike other well-known shoreline schemes such as that in the bay area of Sausalito (California, USA), Waterbuurt-West has a pronounced urban character with an explicitly planned urban design and architecture.
Waterbuurt-West is part of Amsterdam’s IJburg development zone which spreads over a number of artificial islands in the IJmeer lake. Residents of Waterbuurt who possess a boat or with their floating terrace (and there are many of them) can head for the historic inner city canals or open water, both within easy reach. A sluice separates the water on which the houses float from that of the IJmeer, so providing a calm internal pool of clean water.
With some 100 homes per hectare, the density of the neighbourhood is comparable to that of the famous Jordaan district in central Amsterdam. The main urban design challenge was to give the water its due prominence as a distinctive feature of the neighbourhood. Simply distributing the floating houses along the shores of the island or at the ends of piers would not have achieved the desired density. Thought also went into the potential noise nuisance from IJburg’s principal traffic route, along which the neighbourhood lies.
Quay building with car parking
The solution was to moor the floating houses on jetties, and to build the larger block, the Quay building (“Quay Building”) on a platform which projects into the water alongside the main road. Besides forming an acoustic barrier for the neighbourhood, the Quay building has an important ancillary function: it provides car parking space for the residents of the floating houses. This was necessary because motor vehicles could not be allowed on the jetties, and an open car park at the waterside would be detrimental to the atmosphere. The number of houses moored along each jetty ranges from 4 to 25. Some of them are coupled into short rows of 2 or 3 houses, a unique choice for floating dwellings. This made it possible to create homes in different price classes. Three taller “pile dwellings”, provide visual accents for the neighbourhood and mark the three cross-bridges between the jetties. The siting plan is designed to give as many houses as possible open lines of sight across the water at both front and rear.
The slender jetties along which the floating houses are moored provide public access. Waterbuurt-West is after all part of the city, not a gated community. Each house is separated from its adjoining jetty by a metre-wide gap of water, thereby accentuating the watery context. The house upper floors project slightly over the gap. A box beneath the aluminium deck of the jetty channels service pipes and cables to the floating houses. An automatic flushing mechanism prevents solar heating of the drinking water pipes (with associated health hazards), while a heating ribbon around the pipes prevents freezing in winter. The metre cupboards for gas and electricity are built into the parapet rails and are connected to the houses by flexible trunking. These connections allow for vertical movements of the houses relative to the jetty, caused by changing water levels which can vary by several decimetres. The gangways to the houses are similarly movable. A special stairway, hinged in two directions, was developed for the middle house of a linked group of three.
The building materials are light in colour. The front and rear faces of the floating houses are predominantly white, with ample glazed openings and steel-finish plastic mouldings. The opaque side walls temper the resulting metallic look with alternating white and brown shades. Regardless of the visual references to the world of water, the architecture provides a level of domestic comfort equal to that of other new residential developments in IJburg. A highly versatile building system gave future owners considerable influence on the interior layout and finish of their own floating houses. For example, purchasers could choose which side of the house would enjoy a view or privacy respectively, and the roof terrace could be positioned at the front, rear or middle. The ground plan of the house, including window positions, was adaptable to individual preferences. Several extension options, such as a floating terrace, a veranda or a private boardwalk, were available. Low maintenance requirements and the non-release of pollutants when in contact with water also played a part in the choice of building materials. Each house takes the form of a timber superstructure over a concrete tub, giving it a low centre of gravity. The tub is cast as a unit to avoid maintenance-sensitive seams. Although largely underwater, the tub provides residential space. A typical use is for children’s bedrooms. Not surprisingly, children opt for bunk beds so as to have a view over the water from the upper bunk.
The houses are joined to the lake bed for legal reasons, which require a technical distinction between floating houses and houseboats. Each house is anchored to two mooring poles in a diagonal configuration which provides maximum stability. A sliding connection allows for vertical movements of the house due to changing water levels.
A stable, level house places demands not only on the structure but also on the interior furnishing. The location of heavy elements such as bathrooms and toilets was calculated separately and, where necessary, compensated. Residents on the water appear to have no objections to constraints of this kind and are proud of their adaptability: “Our house tilts a bit when we reposition the bookcase. We can tell because the drawers tend to slide open and the shower doesn’t drain properly.”