A floating home on a lake with green grassy banks

Floating Architecture: The Future of Real Estate Design

Homes on the water have long been desirable for their connection to nature. But as the world changes, their flexibility is giving them a competitive advantage, too.

Floating architecture on water has a long history, with traditions for float homes—or houseboats as they’re called outside of North America—found all over the world, from Dubai, United Arab Emirates to Miami, Florida, United States. In the Dutch city of Maasbommel, there’s a pioneering community of floating and amphibious homes.

The latter are semi-floating, meaning that if water levels rise they can move upwards. And if they drop, the houseboats can rest on concrete foundations to provide stability. These communities appeal because they allow their inhabitants to commune with nature in sparsely populated spots, and they can also protect them from flooding caused by rising sea levels.

A modern white and glass floating architecture house on the water in front of skyscrapers
Waterworld: The Arkup 75 “liveable yacht,” pictured here in Miami, is not just striking, it’s perfectly engineered to face tough conditions with eco-friendly solutions. Image: Arkup

A Growing Trend

Floating structures are growing in popularity on a global scale as entrepreneurs and architects recognize the sense of freedom and independence they give to those who own them or rent them.

Given concerns about rising sea levels precipitated by climate change, this flexible form of architecture—also an attractive alternative to high-density urban living—is unsurprisingly seen as ever-more appealing. And, of course, many structures are designed with sustainability in mind.

“We’d observed how people live on boats in the Netherlands,” says Nicolas Derouin, co-founder of Arkup, a company that manufactures fiberglass “liveable yachts”. Its main markets are in the Caribbean and the U.S., in particular Miami. Floating structures are subject to different weather conditions, he points out. “Off the coast of Miami there are strong currents and winds during bad weather, so we’ve developed our own pillars incorporating a hydraulic system that can lift the yachts above the water. This also benefits those who suffer from sea sickness.”

Living on the water and being in tune with nature is good for people’s well-being—Mike O’Shea

Arkup fabricates two yachts called Arkup 75 and Arkup 40 (the numbers refer to their length in feet). “Arkup 75 is for a more high-end niche market. The smaller Arkup 40 is more affordable and for a larger market,” says Derouin, whose background is in renewable energy. Both models have a flat roof covered with solar panels, which also harvests rainwater, rendering them relatively self-sufficient and suitable for off-grid living. The yachts are glass-fronted and have spacious decks.

Time to Reflect

Floating home on a lake next to a cascading tree
The Portage Bay Float Home in Seattle by Studio DIAA won a 2021 Housing Award from the American Institute of Architects, and is designer Suzanne Stefan's family home. Image: Kevin Scott

A desire to be immersed in nature inspired Mike O’Shea to set up U.K. company Eco Floating Homes, which, among other projects, has designed a lakeside home in a gravel pit in the Cotswolds. “Living on water and being in tune with nature is good for people’s well-being,” he says. “Clients are prepared to pay a premium for it. And it offers the opportunity to live in or near London without having to buy a hugely expensive house.”

“We use a lot of timber, which locks CO2 inside it, to make our structures. We mostly use cedar, which is resistant to water and decay,” he continues. “Light reflected on water can be very strong, so on south- and west-facing façades we install brise-soleils [sun-shading structures]. For the parts that touch water, we use rust-proof steel or aluminum that give the structures longevity.”

Suzanne Stefan, co-founder of Seattle-based architects practice Studio DIAA, designed her and her husband’s home, The Portage Bay Float Home, by the shore of Lake Union within Seattle’s city limits. It was built on thick logs, tied together with wood or steel stringers. “We wanted to feel immersed in nature—we’re surrounded by water and a lush garden. A living room with skylights invites light inside. Next to it are bedrooms and a bathroom. Each room has floor-to-ceiling glass doors and generous views of the landscape. A wraparound deck provides areas to relax.” Her family is sporty, and the house is a great base from which to swim, sail, paddleboard, kayak, and dive.

At Home in a Water Wonderland

A white, modern house on a lake at dusk, with lights on in the upstairs rooms
MOS Architects’ Floating House on Lake Huron, Canada combines the classic style of a wooden cabin with a pontoon base that allows it to adapt to the water levels. Image: Raimund Koch

Similarly eye-catching is New York practice MOS Architects’ Floating House, a summer residence on the Canadian side of Lake Huron, designed for a couple. It was built off-site and towed to the island. “The main advantage of floating architecture is that there’s romance and magic,” says co-founder Hilary Sample. “It’s connected to nature in a very direct, unique way.” The house is spacious: it has two bedrooms, a bathroom, a living room, a kitchen, a sauna, a storage area, and a space to moor a boat.

“A hinged arm anchors the house to the island, while allowing it to move up and down,” she continues. “The house had to be resituated as the water level has changed. It’s still more adaptable than other houses and perhaps a model for future development.”

This mobility and flexibility is likely to make floating architecture increasingly advantageous, says Derouin: “While most houses on land can’t be moved, floating structures can be relocated, allowing communities to expand or contract. Floating buildings can also be protected from natural disasters as they can be easily moved.”

As they’re made off-site, these floating homes also have less of an impact on the environment, so perhaps a demand for floating communities will soon come to rival the more conventional preference for land-locked architecture.

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Banner: A lakeside retreat in the Cotswolds English countryside by Eco Floating Homes. Image: Mike O’Shea