University of Waterloo

Amphibious Housing: Flood Risk Reduction for Vulnerable and Marginalized Populations

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Project Summary

Increased flooding is rapidly creating a global crisis, especially in marginalized communities. Floods undermine social and economic resilience and further impoverish those who are already vulnerable. Our solution is to retrofit amphibious foundations to existing houses, a low-cost flood risk reduction and climate change adaptation strategy that incorporates local knowledge and cultural practices. An existing traditional house in a flood-prone location may be retrofitted with locally-sourced flotation devices and vertical guidance to keep it from floating away. These systems lift the house above the flood and return it to its exact original position as water recedes. Already-marginalized populations are disproportionately affected by flooding, as are women, children and the elderly. Reducing flood damage eliminates the need for repairs, which also means less displacement, loss and trauma. As we retrofit homes in vulnerable communities, we will teach the local population the necessary skills to continue retrofitting their homes on their own.

Problem Statement

Flooding is the world’s most common natural hazard, accounting for 50% of all weather-related disasters and affecting 2.3 billion people globally over the 1995-2015 period (CRED/UNISDR 2015). Generally, flood damage reduction involves one or more “PARA” strategies (Doberstein et. al. 2018): “Protect” (build engineered structures to hold back flood waters), “Avoid” (not building homes/communities in flood-prone areas), “Retreat” (remove homes/communities from flood zones) and “Accommodate” (build/retrofit homes which are not damaged by flooding). Often, in low income, vulnerable and marginalized communities, protect strategies are too expensive, avoid strategies have not been pursued, and there is no political will for retreat. This leaves the “accommodate” option.We propose to expand an innovative accommodate strategy called “amphibious housing” to vulnerable and marginalized communities in multiple flood-prone regions of the world, including Vietnam, Bangladesh, coastal USA and northern First Nations Canada. Amphibious housing refers to retrofitted or new homes which have buoyant capability, reinforced structure, and vertical guidance posts to guide movement during flood events (English, Klink and Turner 2016; English, Friedland and Orooji 2017). Building on successful pilot projects in Vietnam Canada and Bangladesh and our proposed Phase 3 projects in multiple countries, we will also train and build knowledge and skills capacity in a cadre of carpenters, housing contractors, engineers and university/polytechnic educators in multiple flood-prone regions. We will aggressively expand the amphibious housing concept via our related Buoyant Foundation Project, GAPS, and ICAADE (International Conference on Amphibious Architecture, Design and Engineering) networks that currently have members in over 25 countries.

Solution Overview

Our team’s innovative solution is to retrofit amphibious foundations to existing houses in flood-prone areas. This is a low-cost, flood-risk-reduction and climate-change-adaptation strategy that reflects local knowledge and cultural practices. With 100&Change funding, we propose expanding on our two recent amphibious construction projects. One is in Vietnam’s Mekong Delta, where we retrofitted four rice farmers’ houses. The newly amphibiated houses performed flawlessly in the 2018 monsoon. Another prototype, with proposed application to First Nations homes in Canada, has been tested successfully under freeze-thaw conditions and is now being monitored for wind performance. The five-year 100&Change project will start in Vietnam, Bangladesh, Louisiana and Canadian First Nations, where our team is already well-connected, and then expand to other regions globally within three years. As we progress, we will teach local populations the skills to work with us on immediate projects and provide training to support scale-up, with local builders and carpenters learning to retrofit homes feasibly and cost effectively on their own. It is critical to have support for research and sustained access to global locations for construction and collection of data under diverse, real-time flood conditions; for monitoring, evaluation and adaptation of the amphibious solution as needed; and then to disseminate best practices based on numerous examples for durability/sustainability and broader long-term uptake of findings. The project is expected to have both broad impact on multiple locations/geographies and intense impact, through secure housing for vulnerable populations in flood zones, on small populations before the number of foundation retrofits multiplies.

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Project Funders

  • National Research Council of Canada 2017 - 2021
  • Global Resilience Partnership and Z Zurich Foundation 2017 - 2019
  • International Development Research Centre 2014 - 2015

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