AMSTERDAM – Even on a gray, gloomy day, the view from Leo Noordergraaf’s Amsterdam home is still breathtaking.
“It just felt like you were walking in a holiday park,” he said of his first encounter with the three-story home, located just a few miles from the city center. “How great would it be to live every day in a holiday park?”
If living in a holiday park means hanging out in a house that floats on water with walls made of windows and a front yard in which he can swim, Noordergraaf has definitely made his vacation dreams come true.
His house is one of 75 structures that floats in the Amsterdam neighborhood of IJburg, built along a series of artificial islands, and loosely anchored to long poles that are drilled deeply into the ground. While houseboats have traditionally been the refuge of the working class, priced out of landed dwelling, these bobbing homes offer luxury living.
Ranging in size from 1,200 to 1,700 square feet, the houses cost between $460,000 and $780,000. If you look out the windows in warm weather, you may see people swimming and canoeing. And when the water freezes, an ice-skater may whoosh by.
“What I really love about the house is all the windows,” he said. “So you have like a great view, and so even when it’s not nice weather…everything still looks spectacular.”
Noordergraaf and his partner, Alejandra Morales, have a 2-year-old daughter, and they’re looking forward to the days when she can truly appreciate the wonder that surrounds their home.
The Netherlands, threaded by canals, dikes, sluices and floodgates, has long been a pioneer in the relationship between man and water. After Hurricane Irene battered America's East Coast in 2011, then-New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg called up the Dutch for advice.
It is also one of the most densely-populated countries in the world. Space has always been scarce, and about 60 percent of the population lives below sea level. So around 10 years ago, a group of engineers and architects gathered to brainstorm ways to better use the water that surrounds the country. They decided to try building homes that float.
“This project was a very big challenge for me,” said Marlies Rohmer, the architect who designed the Noordergraaf and Morales' home. “I wasn’t anxious at all. I was very curious how we could do that.”
In all, the project took seven years of research, designing, engineering and building. In order to make the whole community come together successfully, each home first had to be built on land. Since a tugboat would pull the homes to their final floating locations on the water, developers had to build narrow houses – thin enough to fit through a tight canal passageway.
The process also presented a lot of urban planning questions.
“You have to think about where do you park the cars,” said Rohmer, explaining that residents can park their vehicles in a nearby, non-floating garage. “Where do you make enough storage? In Holland, we have bikes, so you see people putting their bike on the jetties,” she said.
In the United States, there are a handful of floating communities, in Florida, Seattle and Sausalito, Calif. But until last year, they hung in a kind of legal limbo. When a Florida marina tried to kick a man and his floating house out in 2008, however, the case wound its way up to the Supreme Court, which declared last January that floating houses, without self-propulsion or steering, were distinct from houseboats, and therefore did not fall under maritime law. The ruling cleared the path for more floating villages.
But that doesn’t mean the lifestyle is for everyone.
“Sometimes it can really shake,” said Morales, explaining how balance can be a tricky thing. One time a lot of people came over for a party, and neighbors told them they could see their house sink lower in the water, Noordergraaf said.
The home had to be built around their heaviest piece of furniture – the tub on the bottom floor. Since the bathroom sits below the water, Morales said sometimes she sees people swimming by her house when she’s in the shower.
For the most part, the couple wouldn’t change a thing about their quirky living situation.
“I think you can explore this idea all over the world,” he said. “It’s very easy. Everywhere you have water, you can create this. It’s excellent.”