Rising Waters Are Spawning a New Breed of Cyborg Architecture

Mies van der Rohe's Farnsworth House, a masterpiece on the banks of the Fox River, has been hit by three different "100-year-floods" in the last 20 years. Now, preservationists are considering putting the home on permanent hydraulic jacks to lift it above floodwaters. The Farnsworth House would become a cyborg building—and it's far from the only one.

Writing in the Chicago Tribune, architecture critic Blair Kamin describes how the home's owner, the National Trust for Historic Preservation, is considering several ways to save the Farnsworth House. Mies, when he designed the home in the late 1940s, foresaw the flooding issue—that's why he lifted the building up on steel columns that make it seem to "float" over the landscape. But that landscape is changing: The floods are coming more and more often, and the fragile building can't withstand many more.

Rising Waters Are Spawning a New Breed of Cyborg Architecture

The simplest option: The building could be moved to higher ground. The problem there? Many historians argue it would defeat the careful siting of the structure around the wooded glen it sits inside. What about building up its foundation so it's a bit higher above the floods? The same issue applies—and it's very expensive, at $2.9 million. The third idea, and by far the most remarkable, would only cost a smidgen more:

The trust is considering a daring plan that would temporarily move the house from its site, build a pit beneath it and insert hydraulic jacks that would lift the house out of harm's way the next time the Fox attacks it. Or so goes the plan, which seems like something out of a science fiction movie.

Whether or not this plan would be carried out is still up in the air—the public will debate the idea at a meeting on May 29. But imagine the scene: As meteorologists crow impending storms, a steward at the home would flip a switch and the home would creak to life, rising slowly but surely above the grassy lawn where it's spent the last 65 years. When the water receded, it would be lowered gently back to earth.

In fact, 800 miles east of Farnsworth, hydraulic jacks are becoming a bonafide trend for homeowners who are also threatened by rising tides; in this case, communities on the Jersey Shore who, rather than rebuilding in less dangerous coastal areas, are jacking up their homes on hydraulics so they meet FEMA's standards for flood-prone areas.

Rising Waters Are Spawning a New Breed of Cyborg Architecture

Ram Jack Foundation Solutions, a North Carolina company that specializes in hydraulic house lifts—normally for damaged foundations—is actually inventing a specialized solution for flood-prone homeowners. It's called the Sandy Bracket: A unique bracket that attaches a home's existing wooden foundation piles to a series of helical steel pilings driven deep into the ground. That way, they can lift aging homes up above the coast without damaging the aging structures.

Here's how Helical Pile World describe the lifting of one home:

Ram Jack was able to simultaneously lift the Heinle's house from 7 feet 7 inches above sea level to 12 feet 2 inches above sea level by installing helical piles to an average depth of 20 feet parallel to the 33 existing timber piles. By using the innovative "Sandy Bracket" pile attachment, Ram Jack was able to slowly lift the house by nudging the timber piles upward a few inches at a time.

The Sandy Bracket, it turns out, wasn't just invented after its titular storm. It was invented more six years ago to help Gulf Coast homeowners rebuild after Hurricane Ike.

Rising Waters Are Spawning a New Breed of Cyborg Architecture

A home being raised after Hurricane Sandy. Image: AP Photo/Mel Evans.

It's a booming business heralded by the changing climate. But it's hard not to see it a real-life reenactment of the finger-in-the-dam scenario. Whatever seemingly foolproof technology en vogue today will almost definitely prove shortsighted in another century. Perhaps by then, we'll have figured out a way to stop the rising tides for good.

Lead image: National Trust for Historic Preservation.