The Folklore of Flooding


2 May 2016

In the distance, a small timber house perches on three steel pontoons. From afar it appears to be composed of straight lines and jutting angles. Constructed from timber, it has an exposed wood and white paint finish, while on top sits a delicate copper weathervane – the word ‘level’ can be seen engraved into a metal banner above its east-west axis. As it travels along the Essex coast it succumbs to the ebb and flow of the tide. When the water level is high, it floats; when it's low, it sits marooned on the mudflats.

This is Flood House, the physical culmination of five years of scientific, historical and literary research into the phenomenon of flooding. Constructed by designer Matthew Butcher, it is both a prototype for a new type of marine dwelling and a laboratory for monitoring environmental conditions such as temperature and moisture levels.

Flood House's aesthetics draw on a number of forms that Butcher encountered around the estuary, particularly remnants of the Second World War: pillboxes, bunkers, and the naval sea forts designed by Guy Maunsell. A team at UCL’s Bartlett School of Architecture, where Butcher lectures, manufactured the plywood and steel structure. It was constructed at the Dauntless Boatyard on Canvey Island, Essex – a piece of reclaimed land itself liable to flooding – and from there has begun to be towed by tugboat along England's southwest coast

The project was inspired by Butcher’s interest in climate change and its future effects on our landscape. Although Flood House is a physical object, Butcher finds its other ramifications equally pertinent, particularly as it will not be accessible to the public. He conceived the project to stimulate discussion, rather than to provide an architectural solution to inhabiting flood planes. “Flood House is very narrative driven. It's not like I want everyone to abandon the way we live, that's not the point,” he says.

A significant part of the project centres around its website. The narratives and imagery that can be found there serve to contextualise the House and create a mythology around it. Chosen by the Essex-based curator Jes Fernie, the texts include a short piece of fiction by author Joanna Quinn that imagines how life would play out within the Flood House. Butcher explains: “It’s a different type of looking that's more in tune with the environment. Flood House addresses the idea of something existing in a flood plane or a landscape that is tidal, which can potentially present you with quite a lot of extremes.”

Traditionally architects have responded to extreme weather conditions by reworking established forms rather than approaching the problem with an entirely new architectural language – something that concerns Butcher. “When you see the traditional Dutch model of a floating house it is just a replication of what is on the land. It doesn't address the fact that it’s in a very different environment,” he says. Flood House is forced to confront this problem by virtue of its nomadic existence, which makes it directly responsive to the environments it inhabits.

Within the rich narratives of flooding, Flood House establishes itself as a design piece that engages with both technology and tradition. Having evolved from extensive historical research, the structure participates in the long-standing socio-political discussion around flooding. Butcher hopes it will also initiate a new discussion, encouraging the viewer to reassess the way we engage with the environment. It’s a complicated brew of ideas, and also an important one: as devastating floods become an almost annual event in certain parts of Britain, perhaps looking towards the environment and adapting our behaviour will yield some long-term solutions.