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Musings about the environment and all it touches, from education to city planning

The houseboats of Hamburg

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Houseboats on the leafy Eilbek Canal

Houseboats on the leafy Eilbek Canal

Hamburg’s real estate is not all land-based; there are some houseboats, too. Surprisingly few, actually, given the extent of shoreline along rivers, lakes and canals. This is a water city; locals boast that Hamburg has more bridges than Venice and Amsterdam together. Maybe the lack of houseboats is due to the fact that many of the canals are tidal, and the Elbe itself can be fairly temperamental.

Walking distance to downtown, yet this is your backyard (on the Eilbek)

Walking distance to downtown, yet this is your backyard (on the Eilbek)

Nonetheless, there are houseboats to be found. The best known may be along a stretch of the lovely Eilbek canal. In 2006, the city issued a design challenge called “Living on the Water”. The prize winners would be granted the right to their own berths, and would be picked for innovative solutions to the constraints: canal navigation and bridge access was had to be unimpeded, draught had to be 80 cms or less, etc. As a result, there are now ten houseboats moored along the canal; these are the winners out of over 400 entries, attesting to the popularity of the idea.

Your neighbours across the canal.  Despite the leafyness, it is a very urban area

Your neighbours across the canal. Despite the leafyness, it is a very urban area

Along the Eilbek

Along the Eilbek












One of the winners, architect Amelie Rost, says it’s not all fun and games. The biggest downside is the additional maintenance required. But Rost says it’s worth it; one feels more connected to nature, feeling the waves. She adds that she sees this as a viable option for cities.

The process for developing floating houses —and cities, who knows?—is just starting in Hamburg and Germany and it’s not always easy. But it’s a great option for developing living space in growing cities, and if cities and their municipalities also think one step further, it could also be an option for creating new urban spaces.

New houseboats have now been built in the Hammerbrook area, an booming office neighbourhood close to downtown; some of the houseboats can be rented as a floating hotel suite. There are also floating restaurants and offices in the same neighbourhood.

Corporate houseboats in the Hammerbrook area

Corporate houseboats in the Hammerbrook area

The idea that floating buildings may be the future of cities has been developed on a larger scale through the IBA’s “Floating Dock”. This was designed as the main office of the 2013 International Building Exhibition, as well as a demonstration centre, a purpose it still serves. The floating three storey building has 1900 m2 of floor space used for offices, conference rooms, a visitor centre, and a café with an outdoor terrace. The building, floating on hollow concrete pontoons, can easily handle the three meter tides of the Elbe. And like all other buildings in the IBA, it is an energy miser, incorporating 25 cms of insulation in its outer walls, as well as solar collectors. But it also uses a feature for which houseboats have an advantage: a geothermal heat exchanger that makes use of the relatively constant temperature of the water over which it floats. The power needed for the heat pump is matched by what the photovoltaic panels on the roof produce, so that during summer the air-conditioning system is completely carbon-neutral.

The IBA Dock

The IBA Dock

So this might be the future. But I have a definite fondness for the past, when houseboats were used by poor but independent and resourceful people. These still exist in Hamburg and have recently been captured in Evgeny Makarov’s beautiful photography series. They’re a bit reminiscent of the shacks on Finn Slough in Richmond. Cryptically, these ones are described as being “in the south side of the city”, which I take as meaning they’re located either along the Bille or the Harburg area, where there are labyrinths of old channels squeezed between the industrial harbour.

One of the houseboats in Evgeny Makarov's series

One of the houseboats in Evgeny Makarov’s series

Another one from Makarov's series.

Another one from Makarov’s series.


Written by enviropaul

November 22, 2015 at 4:58 am

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