Living on water
By Eleanor Trenfield
We should look to the Dutch to make living on the water more prevalent – if we can just overcome our bureaucratic and financial barriers.
Flood resilience and understanding how to work with nature in development are key to the future of development in the UK. A recent video series by The Architectural Review titled ‘Architecture + Water’ discusses London’s waterways within this context: the challenges regarding flood resilience faced by London’s waterways and its inhabitants, and the opportunities that rivers present if we see water as an asset rather than a barrier.
My husband and I are among the many who have sacrificed living in London for more space, a garden, and a place that we can afford. If I could have my pick of locations, I would live somewhere along the River Thames. Not on the 34th floor of one of the many recent developments along its banks; but a place that would allow me to feel more connected to the river and its tides. For my husband, an architect, and myself, a landscape architect, this lack of alternative, affordable living options in London spurred our interest in the potential provided by London’s waterways and the possibilities for what form such development might take.
A few years ago the Evening Standard published an article about floating homes and living on the water. For a fifth of the price of a studio apartment in Canary Wharf, we could have a floating home of a comparable size within one of the marinas in London. Our floating home would not necessarily be a boat or even look like a boat; it would be more akin to a contemporary studio: a minimum of 4.5m x 9m (the equivalent of a studio apartment in London), fully serviced with plumbing and electrical connections, clad in something durable like black powder-coated steel, and with a glazed facade onto a sunny courtyard garden from where we can observe and be part of life on the river.
My research into floating homes highlighted a current lack of support for this kind of development within London. Mortgages are not easy to find for floating homes: there are a few companies that offer 14 year loans for floating homes, and require a deposit of around 30%. Their APRs are higher than standard mortgages, and the shorter term of the loan would result in comparatively higher monthly payments than a standard mortgage.
There is also a shortage of available moorings: I could not find a mooring for sale in central London, and while there are moorings which can be leased, the leasing arrangements vary as many are privately owned. The Canal and River Trust controls the licences for moorings on the canals within London and the non-tidal part of the River Thames (from its source to Teddington Lock). East of Teddington Lock, the River Thames becomes tidal and licences are controlled by the Port of London Authority (called ‘River Works Licences’). The Port of London Authority’s remit is to maintain safe passage of the river, enhance the environment and promote the use of the river for trade and travel. Note, there is no reference to using the river for residential occupation.
As an example, in Poplar Marina near Canary Wharf, the lease of a mooring from BWML, which owns the marina, is around £7000 per year (residents would also need to pay Council Tax and electricity bills). However there is a substantial waiting list, and only about one in every ten moorings is likely to come up for lease each year. At South Dock Marina, Southwark, there are 650 people on the waiting list for a residential mooring.
A water district
Judging by these waiting lists, there is clearly a market for new moorings. IJburg, a neighbourhood in Amsterdam which is formed of man-made islands, is an interesting case study. Waterbuurt (or Water District), within IJburg, includes a community of approximately 95 moorings in a marina. Of these moorings, 55 are uniform floating homes, each of three storeys, designed by architect Marlies Rohmer, and the remaining are occupied by an eclectic mix of individual floating homes, each two or three storeys, offering visual richness to the scheme.
The jetties/walkways designed by Rohmer give the impression of narrow pedestrian streets. Lighting is incorporated into the railings and services (water, electrics, waste) are attached to the underside of the walkways, plugging into each property within the development. Two steel mooring poles on each property keep the houses fixed to the jetties and allow the houses to move up and down with the water level.
The Dutch model of community self-build is also popular within IJburg. Within this model, local authorities take a proactive approach to develop-ment by identifying land parcels and supporting local communities in building their own homes, within a set of fixed parameters and rules.
It is this strategic, coordinated approach to development which is lacking on the Thames by the Port of London Authority and the various local authorities, including, until recently, no clear structure of fees for River Works Licences. The development of floating homes would be a great opportunity for these authorities to explore a proactive, communal, self-build model evidenced by IJburg, one which references the eccentric and rich mix of vessels present in UK harbours and marinas.
An artist’s impression
Jim Naughten is a photographer who lives on a boat near Kew Bridge and owns his own mooring and adjacent land on the river bank which accommodates parking, storage and a grassy courtyard. His boat has a large retractable glazed roof over a studio space, the light and airiness of which contrasts beautifully with a dark wood-panelled living room which houses a glowing log burner.
His boat adjoins the site for the new Watermans Park Marina, proposed by Hounslow Council and currently occupied by illegally moored boats. Proposals include moorings for 26 vessels up to 30m in length, set out in a saw-tooth fashion to reduce the extent of the encroachment of the boats on the waterway and also to take full advantage of the views up / down the river. The tidal changes would be addressed in a similar way to the floating homes in IJburg, with additional proposals for a webbing system below the boats to offer support for the further varying tidal levels of the Thames. Whilst it is evident that the proposal for Watermans Park Marina resulted from the need to address the degradation of the riverside and illegal moorings in this location, Hounslow Council is taking a proactive approach to development of this nature, a positive step towards coordinated development on the river.
A wider reach
Potential locations for floating homes could include much more than just river banks and marinas, and have the benefit of touching the ground lightly and being reversible. They could be located on floodplains and challenging locations where the standard development model would not be appropriate, allowing new areas for development whilst maintaining the important water-storage function of the land. With rising house prices and increasing flood risk, this is an option that could work with nature and provide a lower-cost property type which is aligned with build cost rather than ever increasing land values. Floating homes offer a potential solution to a much wider housing need in areas far beyond London and the River Thames.
To create the infrastructure required, the concept needs political will and investment. It needs developers who are willing to commit to the infrastructure and lifestyle, local authorities and waterways authorities that will collaborate to create new policy and new communities, mortgage lenders who are happy to widen their portfolios, and most of all, residents who are open to an alternative to traditional bricks and mortar.
Rivers, waterways and floodplains have huge potential to accommodate growth in a way that is sensitive to the environment, to offer creativity in design and to establish engaged communities, and we need to see them as the assets that they are. While our dream of a floating home is not yet an affordable option, for my husband and I the quality of living on the water, of being connected to nature in this way, is very valuable.