Mayne Makes a Houseboat

Mayne Makes a Houseboat

The gable roof is designed to help collect rainwater for use in the house.
Courtesy Morphosis

Morphosis today unveiled its new housing prototype for New Orleans: the FLOAT House, whose foam base literally acts as a raft in case of flooding. Conceived for Brad Pitt’s Make It Right Foundation, which is enlisting top architects to help rebuild and redesign part of New Orleans’ Lower 9th Ward, the prefabricated structure is designed to rise vertically on guide posts with rising waters, floating up to 12 feet if necessary. It’s the first floating house permitted in the US.

The house’s colorful exterior, long profile, raised base, and front porch are inspired by the eclectic Shotgun houses of New Orleans. But the house’s most important element, said Morphosis principal Thom Mayne, is its functionality ("There’s a lot I don’t like about the aesthetic design," Mayne said candidly, "but aesthetics are secondary.")

Not only does the house float, but its prefabricated structure is cheap to mass produce, and its sustainable elements make it completely independent from the grid. Other members of Mayne’s team included Clark Construction, Thornton Tomasseti engineers, and UCLA’s School of Architecture and Urban Design.

The house’s base is composed of polystyrene foam coated in glass fiber reinforced concrete, which contains all of its mechanical and electrical systems, so as to make constructing the rest of the structure—which consists of modular red fiber cement panels and exposed galvanized steel— much easier and cheaper. The 945 square-foot house will cost about $150,000, which amounts to about $150 a square foot.

Like many Make It Right’s houses, it’s meant to be mass-produced not only in New Orleans, but for communities across the world, especially those in flood zones. It’s also meant to be green: with rooftop solar panels, rainwater cisterns for water use (rainwater collection shapes the house’s inverted gable roof), energy-efficient electrical systems, and even geothermal heating and cooling. The house is aiming for a LEED Platinum rating.

Mayne said that the firm is now looking for government and private sponsorship to help get the house made on a larger scale. It remains to be seen if the FLOAT house and other innovative Make It Right designs by the likes of Pugh + Scarpa, Graft, MVRDV, Trahan Architects, and Kieran Timberlake, will be replicated outside of their setting on the edge of the Lower 9th Ward. The foundation plans to complete 150 new homes in New Orleans by next December.

"You don’t get an opportunity in this country to create housing with a major social impact," said Mayne, who worked for two years on the house, not only developing the design, but shepherding it through New Orleans’ labyrinthine regulation process. "People just want to build houses for rich people."