Floating Dutchman


When Koen Olthuis was a young architect, he became fascinated by the structure of the Dutch landscape with its water and land. At that time, living on water was still limited to the well-known traditional houseboats. After two years of combined land and water projects, he started up Waterstudio.NL with Rolf Peters at the end of 2002, the first architecture firm in the world exclusively dedicated to living on water. The company was a pioneer in a new market. To bring the market to maturity, the main focus was to change the perception of the general public. Waterstudio began with an ambitious plan to develop innovative concepts in both technological and urban design fields. The firm conviction that living on water is essentially no different from living on land, just with a different foundation technique, spurred the bureau on to develop types of housing with greater density and higher quality than the usual houseboats in a recreational countryside setting.

In the first few years, it became clear to Olthuis that the market was lagging behind his vision. So Waterstudio started to target the media. Not just in the Netherlands, but worldwide. In a time when new media was rapidly emerging via Internet, and climate change and water issues were receiving a lot of attention because of the flooding in New Orleans, the tsunami in Asia and Al Gore’s film An Inconvenient Truth, Waterstudio’s vision was soon noticed. News teams from Discovery Channel, the New York Times and Newsweek paid attention to the story. Stimulating questions from journalists resulted in Olthuis starting to think about solutions to the climate problem on an even larger scale. The vision grew rapidly: from water houses to larger complexes, culminating in floating cities and dynamic urban components. At one point, a reporter from BBC Radio described Olthuis in his broadcast as ‘the floating Dutchman’. He uses the title now as his nickname.

In 2004, Olthuis came to the conclusion that existing foundations and construction methods were mainly based on the idea that living on water was about individual objects: the starting point was still a house measuring roughly 10 x 10 m. For larger objects, existing boxes were linked together to make a bigger unit. However, it soon became clear that this technique was not good enough for floating urban components, including roads, buildings and green spaces. Olthuis had to find new solutions that were simple, affordable, quick to produce and assemble and, what’s more, suitable for many different functions and even multistorey buildings. 

The best ideas come out of the blue. Olthuis experienced his eureka moment while he was fretting at night.The idea was so simple it seemed almost unreal. He wrote it down, and the following morning he was still convinced that it was the answer to the problems in question. The essence of the idea had to do with the way you can lift several books off a bookshelf at the same time: by applying pressure. If you press the sides hard with both hands, the books are squeezed together and the middle ones do not fall down. This is the basic principle for assembling new, extremely large buoyant foundations. Polystyrene and concrete are laid out on the quay like a sandwich and pulled together using draw rails. The platform can then be directly lowered into the water. However, once the platform has been in the water for a long time, the pressure reduces, causing the concrete to fall into the water and the polystyrene foam to float upwards. The trick is to add a layer of concrete to the top of the platform on time. This covering layer forms a single unit with the prefab elements that will now float forever.

An idea does not become reality without the right people and investors. The big breakthrough came when Olthuis met Paul van de Camp, a hotel developer who was looking for a foundation for the hotels he wanted to build on water. Together with his connections and business partners, the idea was born for Dutch Docklands, a developer of large-scale water projects worldwide. The combination of Olthuis’s ideas for buoyant foundations and concrete projects granted to Dutch Docklands via Van de Camp’s international water lobby generated a stream of innovative concepts.

At the end of 2004, Dutch Docklands received a phone call from a German scout asking for the ‘export department’. He was looking for parties to supply floating islands in Dubai. It had to do with a sort of competition where large consortiums were fighting to find favour with Nakheel, the local property developer who controlled almost all the spatial plans. Nakheel wanted to build floating islands in the shape of a poem written by Sjeik Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum. The physical size of a company is easily concealed on the Internet, which is why the caller asked for the export department, but Dutch Docklands – the smallest of the competing parties – was a very strong team in collaboration with the Dutch engineering company Royal Haskoning and Waterstudio.NL. Dutch innovation and enterprise resulted in a wonderful plan. The result was that all the other competitors dropped out and Dutch Docklands started on a three-year process of design and innovation. For this reason, it also opened an office in Dubai.

Media attention and inventions such as floating gardens and floating beaches created entirely unique dynamics. The project, which took place in the middle of the boom in Dubai, led to follow-up assignments: a floating mosque, a floating tower and a floating cruise ship terminal: exceptional projects. They were admittedly not implemented, but they were extremely realistic. While only a few years earlier, a floating apartment complex was seen as the maximum achievable, there was now a demand for floating objects that were not just absurdly large, but also provided new answers to genuine requirements and problems.

The designs did not go unnoticed. The combination of ideas for ‘depolderization’ in the Netherlands as a solution to rising sea levels, together with the conviction that the solutions could be used worldwide in cities located on the water, led to a media climax in 2007 when Olthuis appeared on Time Magazine’s list of most influential people that year. Magazine readers voted him into position 122, higher than several other architects such as Calatrava, Koolhaas, Nouvel and Hadid. It led to many lectures, publications and visits from television crews from countless different countries. However, progress was slow in Dubai. The realized designs – mostly floating houses – were mainly located in the Netherlands.

The ‘New Water’ project led to a new breakthrough. Marleen van Giesen, a young project manager from the Dutch Municipalities Bank recognized the potential of Waterstudio’s ideas and saw the megaconcepts the bureau had thought up for Dubai. She wanted to make use of that expertise to develop and supervise the first real depolderization neighbourhood in the Netherlands, in the west of the country. For that project, the commissioning party had to take a step that is almost unthinkable for Dutch people: from fighting against water to living with water. In one of the most urbanized regions in the Netherlands, water collection was necessary to prevent flooding caused by heavy rainfall. It forced the municipality, the district water board and the banks to work together. The plan was innovative, because the thinking about the struggle against water led to a solution behind the dikes, in the hinterland. Waterstudio was now asked to bring the concepts and ideas that had been the basis for the philosophy all those years into practice. The ambitious plan received visits from abroad even before it was realized. Olthuis stood in the area on many occasions, between the demolished greenhouses on the still-dry bed after it was pumped out, where in the future the water level would rise to chest height. The ‘Citadel’ project was included in a list compiled by ABC News of the most extreme buildings in existence, due to its status of first floating apartment complex in the world.

The global crisis brought the architectural sector to a virtual standstill and as a result, the already delayed projects in Dubai were ultimately stopped. The floating islands in the shape of a poem were saved for a first production of 10,000 m2, but the tender was cancelled at the last moment. But just at that moment, a new market came into the picture; the climate changes pushed the Maldives into the spotlight of world news. The new president, Mohamed Nasheed, issued the message that he was obliged by rising sea levels to buy land in Sri Lanka and relocate his people. A lengthy lobbying procedure via the Dutch embassy, local parties and ultimately the government brought a new climax in 2010, when the government of the Maldives signed a contract with Dutch Docklands. They agreed to develop a floating city, floating islands, floating golf courses, floating hotels and a floating conference centre in a joint venture, as a solution to the problems caused by rising sea levels and also to encourage social and economic advancement.

Building on water has become Koen Olthuis’s life’s work. It is a passion that is perhaps subconsciously rooted in history. He comes from a family of Art Nouveau architects, engineers and shipbuilders, so he is merging the traditions of his ancestors. His activities take place and find meaningfulness in the perspective of climate change. The coming years will demonstrate whether his vision on ‘scarless developments’, ‘trading places’, ‘expanding the urban fabric’, ‘dynamic cities’ and ‘consumption urbanism’ will become fact

The Floating Dutchman



Waterstudio.NL lead by Koen
Olthuis, is specialized in
architecture, urban 
and research related to

living, working and recreation
on water.

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