The first floating house to be permitted in the United States was completed and opened for public touring on October 6 in New Orleans' Lower Ninth Ward. Designed by Morphosis Architects for the Make It Right Foundation, the FLOAT House is Morphosis founder Thom Mayne's reimagining of a New Orleans vernacular that is compatible with the city's changeable environment. To adapt to the region's most severe weather conditions—hurricanes accompanied by flooding—the house acts like a raft and floats by as much as 12 feet above its foundation as water levels rise.

In designing and engineering the FLOAT House prototype, Mayne, FAIA, and Morphosis' Los Angeles design team were joined by his University of California – Los Angeles (UCLA) graduate architecture students and engineering consultants. Working for the past two years on engineering a viable solution, the team developed and manufactured a mast and chassis system that combine to anchor the house securely while allowing it to float out of harm's way during severe flooding.

"It's like an airbag in a car: you hope you never have to use it, but when you need it, you really need it," says Mayne. When a hurricane is expected, residents can close the hurricane shutters, lock up the house, remove themselves from harm's way, and rely on the knowledge that the house will still be standing and will be relatively undamaged when they are able to return.

FLOAT House's design takes into account the Mississippi River delta's ecology, the flooding record, and the city's cultural and social history. The 1,000-square-foot house is a simple shot-gun style 16 feet wide by 58-feet long, set on a raised four-foot base in the New Orleans tradition. Designed as a floating chassis, the base is a prefabricated module constructed of polystyrene foam coated in fiberglass-reinforced concrete, forming a lightweight foundation capable of floating. The chassis houses all of the home's electrical, plumbing, and HVAC equipment, protecting it during floods. The house rises vertically along two steel guide posts at both ends of the structure that are fastened to reinforced concrete pads anchored to the ground by driven wood pilings.

Mayne says the chassis can accept any home configuration; FLOAT House's shell and floorplan are just one design option. In addition to hurricane resistance, being able to float above floodwaters, and being modularly built, the house incorporates high-performance systems, the most energy-efficient appliances available, photovoltaics for electrical generation, and a geothermal heat pump. It's on track to achieve a LEED-H Platinum rating. Comfort and aesthetics were as important as performance, Mayne says. In addition to concealing all of the house's high-tech systems, the design team respected the neighborhood's established aesthetic, preserving the front-porch culture and maintaining the house's orientation to the street.

Floating residential structures, Mayne believes, are the ideal solution for New Orleans, which currently sits about three feet below sea level and continues to sink by about 1/8-inch each year. Analysis of the region's climate data indicates that a hurricane lands in the New Orleans area every three and a half years, Mayne points out.

Having developed a solution for residential building in flood zones, Mayne's goal now is to study the prototype's performance and modify the design as necessary with an eye to scaling up to mass production and achieving an affordable price tag. "This house has to sell for $150,000; at 1,000 square feet that's very aggressive," he acknowledges. Mayne believes the system can be adapted to communities around the world facing similar climate challenges.

Make It Right is currently evaluating potential residents for the first FLOAT House.