Floating homes for the Philippines

For the people living in the cities of  the Philippines coping with the consequences of flooding has become a way of life. PhD Pieter Ham, under the guidance of professor of Structural and Building Engineering Rob Nijsse, is working on the construction of sustainable, modular homes in the Philippines. Floating homes.

18 months ago Pieter Ham and fellow civil engineering student Joran van Schaik were doing an internship at Finch Building, a company which specialises in sustainable modular construction. Ham: ‘Modular construction means working with prefabricated building modules which are easy to stack and link, and which can be easily transported by road.’ When the owner of the company learned of the enormous damage done to several cities in the Philippines by one of the many typhoons that hit the country, the idea for the two students’ final project was born: building sustainable, modular housing in the Philippines. They managed to contact a former mayor of the city of Hagonoy and the two students set off. Once in Hagonoy, they could see for themselves the devastating consequences of the flooding which occurs almost daily. ‘People showed us their homes. I was shocked to find myself knee-deep in water,’ Ham says. ‘They were laughing about it but I could see that there was a lot of misery behind their laughter.’

‘People showed us their homes. I was shocked to find myself knee-deep in water,’ Ham says. ‘They were laughing about it but I could see that there was a lot of misery behind their laughter.’

Problems with water

Where was all that water coming from? Homes in the Philippines are built on marshy ground, just like in the Netherlands. Much of the groundwater is being pumped up for industrial purposes, for instance to serve as cooling water for factories, and ground levels are falling rapidly, sometimes by as much as 2.5 cm a year. ‘People used to build their homes on poles, but the poles are sinking as well,’ Ham explains. Excess water from rain, sea and rivers is trapped in the densely built-up urban areas. ‘There are high levels of stagnant water everywhere, causing all sorts of hygiene and health issues,’ Ham says. The solution? Floating homes. Back in Delft, the two students hammered out a concept for a floating house, and got their degrees.

Fish ponds

Around that time the Delft Global Research Fellowship crossed their path. Ham: ‘It couldn’t have happened at a better time. It gave us our chance to continue the project.’ Ham began by building a prototype in Delft. Then he started a pilot project in Hagonoy. ‘They have large fish ponds there which were used to grow rice. But the seawater made the water too salty and they were turned into fish ponds. Then, even bigger floods flushed out the fish and now they are not fit for any purpose, except of course, for trying out our floating homes,’ Ham says.


Floating homes are nothing new in themselves. Nijsse: ‘People have lived on houseboats in the Netherlands for years. The innovative aspect is not so much the fact that the homes are floating but that they are built in a sustainable way.’ The houses are to be built locally, using local workers and local materials. And they will be self-sufficient to a large degree. ‘There is no sewage system, no clean drinking water and no electricity.’ Far from being a handicap the lack of facilities is an advantage, say Ham and Nijsse. ‘It is precisely that which allows us to skip a number of steps. Coal-fired power stations, for instance, are something we in the Netherlands would rather do without now. Our floating homes can have their own source of energy by means of solar panels on the roof. They can have basins to collect rain water and filters to treat sewage. In short, they would be energy-neutral.’ The knowledge gathered in the Philippines can be exported back to the Netherlands. ‘What we learn there we – and companies like Finch – can apply one-to-one in this country. And considering the effects of climate change and our ever-higher dykes, that will have to become a priority.’

In four years time

The aim of the project is to build a couple of houses, on a piece of land made available by the city of Hagonoy. The sourcing of materials and workers will remain local. Nijsse: ‘We won’t be using any machines and we will train people locally so they can work in the factory. Ham: ‘I hope that in four years’ time I will find a number of houses here that people are happy to live in. And  that when they show people their homes they will laugh and really mean it.’

 You can see in this picture how rapidly the ground level is falling - this house used to be on the same level as the street.

Published: March 2017

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