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Noah’s Ark: A Model for Resilient, Affordable, Waterfront Communities

From our Ideas+Buildings Blog

Every year, Perkins+Will’s design leadership hosts an exciting internal design competition across the firm. This year’s challenge, which centered on the increasingly complex landscape of affordable urban housing, was distributed on a Friday evening and (in the tradition of the competition) was due the following Monday morning. A team of three architectural professionals in our Vancouver office – Jeremiah Deutscher, Achim Charisius, and Santiago Diaz – took home first place. Below, they elaborate on the thinking behind their winning submission, Noah’s Ark, whose initial prototype is proposed for a site on the Delaware River in Philadelphia.

Noah’s Ark represents the intersection of the regenerative form of resiliency planning and prefabricated technology for affordable housing, particularly housing located on urban waterfronts. Our proposal aspires to provide not only a self-sufficient infrastructure for food, energy, and water within a community, but also to support adjacent neighbourhoods and eco-environments before, during, and after extreme weather or other disaster events.

The key goals for our floating urban prototype include:

  • Maintain net-zero flood capacity of the river
  • Restore existing wetlands and biodiversity
  • Float on pontoon-like parking platforms
  • Produce self-sufficient infrastructure for energy, food, and water
  • Maximize water-frontage and real estate value
  • Provide all units with cross-ventilation, water-views, and courtyard access
  • Pre-manufacture affordable, stackable units for individual housing, larger buildings, and community-scale spaces
  • Ship locally manufactured modules to other flood prone areas
  • Connect communities with resilient and low-carbon transit options, such as cable-cars and solar-powered boat2go fleets
  • Create vibrant mixed-use meeting points around transit stations, where residents, community, river, and city meet

In our proposal, all excavated earth is re-used on-site to restore and expand local wetlands. Wetland plants control the river margin from erosion by holding the soil in place with their roots, absorbing the energy of waves, and breaking up the river current. In addition, the sediment and roots in the wetlands improve water quality by filtering out pollution. Overall, the proposed urban prototype preserves and enhances the wetlands’ biodiversity, which includes oysters, salmon, songbirds, and migratory birds.

A number of agricultural towers provide the community with a self-sufficient food production system, creating jobs for the new ‘urban farmers’ who prioritize food varieties that suit their local communities, rather than the countryside. The modular design of the food production system allows for simple addition or subtraction of modules based on each local community’s needs. By using aquaponics, the system combines a state-of-the-art vertical hydroponic greenhouse for growing vegetables and fruits with an aquaculture farm for producing fish and, as a result, clean organic fertilizer. The architectural skin of the greenhouse uses an advanced EFTE pneumatic pillow technology, with printed dynamic frit, that changes its appearance throughout the day to control daylight and provide a superior form of insulation.

A water tank behind the greenhouse stores rain water and has the ability to filter river water. The placement of the water storage within the insulation boundaries of the greenhouse allows it to act as a solar mass, storing heat from the excess solar gain produced by the transparent greenhouse façade.  This not only helps to mediate the temperature within the greenhouse, it also preheats domestic hot water for the community’s residents. The overall food production system requires far less water than traditional field agriculture, allowing for a majority of the recycled and filtered water to be used in the residences.

The proposed energy sources for the community consist of biomass from the ongoing prefabrication processes and local urban wood waste to generate heat, wind turbines to generate power, and river water to provide cooling for the offices and vertical farming components. The individual residential modules are designed to Passivhaus standards, which reduces the modules’ energy load requirements and includes the use of superior, prefabricated envelope systems.

The processes for pre-manufacturing the affordable housing modules, being industrial in nature, occur almost exclusively independently from the mainland. We recommend float crane technology, through which a crane floats on shallow waters, has its own storage capacity, easily makes use of existing shallow-water piers for temporary staging, and furthermore can continue setting unit modules even when the community module is no longer docked. The modules are designed to simply be “dropped-in-place” on floating platforms, so that lean production concepts like just-in-time delivery can drastically reduce the traditionally sizable costs of on-site construction.

Together, these elements form an urban pattern that fosters a healthy and active outdoor lifestyle. In support of this, active modes of transportation and transit are encouraged and public spaces are oriented to the sun in addition to being protected from prevailing winds. A rich and dense mix of uses supports diversity, serendipity, and overall community wellbeing. People can socialize in greenhouses, share a solar-boat2go, enjoy the commercial retail street along the cable-car station, and gather in the community modules that connect the Noah’s Ark to the water and to other neighbourhoods. A variety of programs are offered, including fitness, healthcare, and a local school of agriculture.

The overarching aim of this proposal is to bring a repeatable, flexible, and still deeply locally sensitive approach to affordable and sustainable living.  The result is a unique and locally manufactured solution – a memorable and innovative form of city-building that encourages a new approach to waterfront development in times of inevitable sea level rise.

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