A local solution to a global flooding problem

Monday, February 20, 2017

The Record recently featured an article on Elizabeth English, an associate professor at the University of Waterloo, who is leading a team of researchers on a project to help manage flood-prone areas of the Grand River.

Excerpt from "A local solution to a global flooding problem"

By Greg Mercer, Waterloo Region Record, Feb. 14th, 2017

[...] Later this year, [the Grand River] will become a testing ground for an old-school technology the associate professor of architecture at the University of Waterloo hopes can be used around the world in flood-prone areas.

English is leading a team of Waterloo school of architecture researchers who want to build a floating pavilion in a flood zone of the Grand River — the first step in plans to design prototype floating homes for flood-prone First Nations communities.

English and her group hope Canada, with help from the National Research Council, can become one of the first countries in the world to allow amphibious homes in our municipal building codes. 

That's significant, because floating housing are still not embraced by insurers and disaster management agencies around the world, she said. 


Climate change means flooding is only becoming a more pressing problem around the world. Amphibious housing, which homeowners can retrofit themselves using foam blocks, means communities can better adapt to flood-prone areas, English said.

In the last two decades, 10 of the worst floods around the world have caused damage exceeding US$165 billion, and displaced 1.1 billion people. In Canada, the Parliamentary Budget Officer says floods, along with storms and hurricanes will cost the federal disaster fund more than $902 million a year.

English became fixated on the idea of amphibious housing in 2006, after watching the devastation from Hurricane Katrina while doing research at Louisiana State University. She watched U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) try to relocate entire neighbourhoods, and wanted to do something to help. 


The benefit of amphibious construction is that older homes can be affordably retrofitted with floats, called buoyancy blocks, which follow guidance posts when water rises, and return back to the same spot when the flooding recedes. 

It costs about a third the price of stilts, she said — about $10 a square foot on the cheap end, and $40 a square foot on the high end. It's also more accessible for people with disabilities.

But in some states, including Louisiana, federal insurance and mortgage policies prevented amphibious housing from being widely used. English has been pushing FEMA and other agencies to embrace the technology, arguing it makes more economic sense than other alternatives. 

Slowly, regulators are beginning to remove some of the restrictions that kept homeowners from building amphibious houses. But there's still a long way to go, English. 

"I've been at this 11 years now. Changes like this don't happen overnight," she said.

Read the full article by Greg Mercer on the Waterloo Region Record's website.

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