As sea levels rise, some low-lying cities have started experimenting with floating buildings and amphibious houses. But one architect has another unlikely sounding suggestion: What if buildings could avoid flooding simply by not touching the ground at all?
Architect Lira Luis thought of the concept as she was working on another installation that happened to be on water and required invisible, easily removable attachments. She started using magnets for the attachments, and when she accidentally held the magnets the wrong way, she noticed that they repelled each other even through a layer of water.
"This is where my a-ha moment came," she says. "What if buildings and cities levitated?" While magnetic levitation is used in transportation systems, such as Japan's bullet trains, she realized that she'd never seen it used in architecture. There may be a reason for that—it may be completely impractical. But Luis is committed to trying it out.
Luis, who is originally from the Philippines, wants to build a model in a Filipino village on an island where people already deal with frequent flooding—and that's at an even higher risk of flooding in the future because of rising seas.
Right now, people in the area live in houses built on stilts, and Luis points out that system doesn't work well when a storm surge raises water levels higher than expected. "You can't predict how high the water will go," she says. "Think about New Orleans, when the levies broke. People in high-rise buildings didn't anticipate that the water would reach those heights."
A floating building, she argues, wouldn't be as stable as her solution, which completely disengages with the ground or water.
People might access their levitating homes with ladders or bridges, or, if they were rich, via helipads. In the future, she imagines people flying up to upper levels of a building—perhaps directly to their apartment—via jetpacks.
Though it's a wild idea, she's trying to build it. Luis typically uses architectural software, but is currently building traditional scale models. "I'm approaching it the old school way," she says. She was trained at the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture, and she takes inspiration from its namesake, who built scale models when engineers told him a particular design—for extra-thin columns—wouldn't work. "He couldn't do the calculations, so he built a mockup," she says.
The current model is tiny—13 ounces—and can levitate 1.5 inches off the ground. Luis says that the height of levitation would depend on the height of a building, much like foundations do now (a skyscraper might have a footing a third the size of the total height; a small house needs much less).
When a building can levitate, she also thinks it could be built differently. "when the building’s foundation is disengaged from grade, and levitated, I'm thinking the building itself will need to be constructed in midair," she says. That could happen through scaffolding, or, more experimentally, through new biology-inspired technology that allow buildings to actually grow themselves.
Luis is also building a slightly larger prototype that will be on display at the upcoming Coverings Conference, and she hopes to eventually build it at scale.
Of course, there's a very good chance that it may not work. "You can only levitate something about an inch or a few inches before it gets very inefficient," says Martin Simon, a physics researcher at UCLA who specializes in magnetic levitation. "How that will help in a flood, I don't understand—not to talk about
the expense and a million other problems."
Photos: Ksju Kami. Rendering: ALLL. Sketch: Lira Luis