The Netherlands: A Case Study for Integrated Flooding Systems

Daphnee Arielle Stowers and Teriya Lee

The Netherlands is a prime example of how an integration of urban and domestic scale infrastructure creates an effective flood control system. Although Dutch history bears evidence that technological advancements have led to improvements in urban flooding systems, it has inflated the system into a complex sprawling network which the average citizen cannot comprehend. The recent development of amphibious houses suggest that flood defense should take into consideration the domestic scale as well as the urban. To address the need for such integration this essay will examine the Netherland’s various flood defense systems from the 17th century up to present day.

One of the earliest forms of flood defense is the dike. In this system, a layered barricade is constructed against a body of water such that its height is tall enough to resist predicted water swells. First, a layer of tamped, i.e. packed, earth is constructed between the water and land. This layer serves as the bulk of the dike. Then, a layer of non-absorbent materials is laid between the tamped earth and water. A ditch is carved out between the tamped earth and the land to catch any water seepage. The resultant dry land is called a polder – an English word from Dutch origins. (UNC)

Section diagram of different types of dikes. Lamberts 1985.
Section diagram of different types of dikes. Lamberts 1985.

During the early days of the dike, raw and organic materials were used in construction. In the 13th century, mud was laid in front of the tamped earth. Starting from the 15th century, seaweed was used in place of mud. The seaweed was held together by piles, which were wooden rods driven into the soft ground. An alternate version of this type of construction is to replace the seaweed with reeds. A later variation in construction involves lining piles very close together, eliminating the need for seaweed or reeds as a filler. This variation proved very popular, and became the primary form of dike construction from the 17th century onwards. (Hoeksema)

Materials used for the construction of dikes in the Netherlands were limited because of external circumstances. From the early 17th century, the Dutch were embroiled in several conflicts that stagnated their economy, including the War of Spanish Succession, Anglo-Dutch sea wars, and trading restrictions imposed by France and Britain. Expenditure on warfare limited resources spent on improving social infrastructure. (UNC) At the same time, the Dutch were seeing evidence of fatal flaws in their dike system. That is, organic materials used in the construction of dikes are prone to erosion, build-up, and infestation. Water currents running against the dikes eroded its materials, and therefore periodic maintenance was needed to ensure its integrity. Moreover, sediments resulting from erosion build up at the bottom of the sea/river bed, consequently raising the water level. Accordingly, the height of the dike will have to be raised at the same rate of sediment build-up. Furthermore, in 1730, the wooden piles used to construct a majority of the Dutch dikes suffered from an infestation of the pileworm. The pileworm is a mollusc with a hard abrasive mouth and a soft body. They are typically 0.3 inches thick in diameter and can reach a length of two feet. In an attempt to protect their soft bodies, these creatures bore holes through the wooden surface of the dikes, and as a result, allowed water to impregnate the dike. Several remedy measures were put into effect, such as the application of an arsenic compound to the wood, and nailing of iron plates to block and ward off the pileworms. However, the efforts were futile. In merely 2 years, the pileworms had destroyed nearly 31 miles of dikes. Owing to economic difficulties, material problems with dikes were not solved immediately. (Hoeksema)

In addition to material problems, the end of the 18th century coincided with the end of the little ice age. This was a time period from 1550 to 1850 that saw dropped global temperatures and rapid expansion of mountain glaciers. (NASA) The end of the period meant that melted glacial water flowed down to rivers and consequently water levels rose. Simultaneously, the 18th century also saw an economic recession for the Netherlands, as the country became more and more entangled in debt over warfare expenditure. (UNC) To seek economic relief, the Dutch exploited the abundance of peat in their soil. Peat is a source of fuel, and therefore valuable in the advent of the industrial revolution. The Dutch economy was centered so much on peat that entire communities relied on peat-digging as their sole source of income. However, the depletion of peat in the soil drastically reduced its absorbency. Holes from peat digging filled up with water because the soil could not contain the water, and thus formed artificial lakes. These lakes, coupled with erosion and flooding, merged with nearby lakes to form a “water wolf”, the Dutch term for bodies of water which grow at an alarming rate. Water wolves pose as a real threat for nearby towns because heavy winds can carry the water over its perimeter and cause floods. (Downing) Material complications, economic crisis, and finally the emergence of water wolves gave rise to a need for a more efficient system of flood defense.

Whereas dikes create polders by using gravity to resist water, pumping engines defy the force of gravity by using mechanical forces to draw the water out of its container. Pumping engines run on the principle of pressure balance. Since areas of high pressure tend to flow into areas of low pressure, the engine essentially creates a situation where water is on the side of high pressure, allowing the machine to draw the water up and flow into the side of low pressure. (Bellis)

An example of polder creation using pumping engines is the Harlem Lake. The Harlem Lake was a water wolf that grew from 30km2 to 170km2 between the 16th and 18th century. Communities lived along the banks of the Harlem Lake, and it was used for shipping, fishing, and sewage drainage. Increasing maintenance costs to reinforce the lake’s dikes led to drainage proposals, however the proposals was met with much opposition. Locals who profited off the lake did not want it drained, and the high cost of proposed schemes meant that it did not receive any response from the deficit government. For two centuries, the growing lake was ignored. However, in 1836, the paths of two hurricanes crossed the Harlem Lake and brought its waters northeast to the gates of Amsterdam. Amsterdam was, and still is, an important trade port, hence damage brought about by the flood raised concerns about the threat of Harlem Lake. The Dutch government agreed that the negative economic impact of a paralyzed Amsterdam far outweighs the cost of draining the Harlem Lake, and thus called for drainage proposals. (Cruquius Museum)

Archimedean Screw. William Dwight Whitney 1902.
Archimedean Screw. William Dwight Whitney 1902.


Longitudinal Section of the Cruquius pumping station. Cruquius Museum.
Longitudinal Section of the Cruquius pumping station. Cruquius Museum.

Initial proposals include using 79 windmills to power Archimedean screws and scoop wheels. However, King Wiliam I, head of the Dutch monarchy at the time, was not satisfied with the efficiency of water flow in this proposal. He ordered a feasibility survey of using steam power alone to drain the lake. (Cruquius Museum) It was calculated that in order to keep the polder dry, 1087 horsepower will be needed. Each pumping engine had a horsepower of 350, and therefore 3 pumping engines will be needed to permanently keep the polder dry. The estimate expenditure for constructing and running the 3 engines was £687,500, however the actual expenditure was £827,200. (Downing) When inflation is accounted for, that amount would be equivalent to £540,000,000 ($872,991,110) in 2012. The scale of the proposed pumping engines exceeded all previous examples, and even to this day, is celebrated as a landmark of mechanical engineering achievement. The initial drainage started from 1849 and finished in 1852. Currently, the Harlem Lake is home to farms, towns, and the Schiphol airport. (Cruquis Museum) Evidently, the pumping engine was very successful in conquering water.

From the primitive form of dikes to the pumping engine, it is undoubtedly an improvement in technology that led to a more efficient system of flood defense. A comparison between the Archimedean screw and the Cruquius pumping station show how technology increases the detail of mechanical parts. Likewise, current technology now allows the once rudimentary dike system to transform into a sophisticated one. This transformation is manifested in the form of the Deltaworks project. This project was initiated after the massive storm of 1953 that flooded 800 square miles of the country and killed 1835 people. Human mastery of materials such as steel and the invention of composite materials such as reinforced concrete has allowed the Deltaworks to grow into a labyrinth of dams, levees, upgraded dikes, and surge barriers, each arm the size of the Eiffel Tower. The Deltaworks is an ongoing project that has spanned decades. In the fear of another disastrous flood such as the one in 1953, the Dutch has strategized a plan that covers two centuries worth of barricade erection and land reclamation. As Marcel Stive, coastal engineer of the Delta Committee says, “We will completely control the water”. (Wolman)

Maeslantkering Barrier. Regional Association of Dutch Water Authorities.
Maeslantkering Barrier. Regional Association of Dutch Water Authorities.

But on a second thought, is that too ambitious? The arrogant tone of Stive’s utterance is strikingly similar to that of the protagonist in a Greek tragedy, where the protagonist’s hubris, i.e. excess of ambition and pride, ultimately leads to his own tragic ruin. An alarming analogy, but one which warns: perhaps the human race should consider alternatives other than waging war with Mother Nature.

Plan showing the scope of the Deltaworks. Deltawerken Online.
Plan showing the scope of the Deltaworks. Deltawerken Online.

The Central Water Authority was established in 1798 in the Netherlands to carry out research on the physical consequences of the country’s development. The authority also acted as conductors of projects. However, the actual repairing of defense systems were left to each community. (UNC) There was an efficiency between the cooperation of centralized and decentralized powers. But currently, advancement of technology has inflated flood defense systems into such humongous scales that it is no longer comprehensible to an average person. The urban scale of Deltaworks sprawls all across the country, and involves a group of highly educated people whose burden is to protect the entire population of the Netherlands. (Wolman) The alternative to erecting giant barricades and relying on a relatively small group of planners is focusing on the domestic scale and distributing the burden further down the chain of command. It seems that the Dutch understands such an alternative may be beneficial to their flood defense system as a whole, because the notion of amphibious houses has been gaining interest within the country.

The turn of the 21st century saw an invention so innovative and so radical from its precedents that it may just be the answer to fixing flood defense systems for good. One key component that separates itself from any other flood defense system is the fact that it has the ability to work with the floods, not against it. Amphibious houses are structures built on land supported by a system in which allows the homes to rise and fall in accordance to fluctuating flood water levels (Spiegel Online International). When amphibious houses experience a flood they have the ability float to up to 18 feet above the ground. This is made possible by having these homes slide along two mooring poles at the front and rear of the structure. As far as a home’s plumbing, electrical, and natural gas connections, PVC piping is incorporated within the system to ensure that these entities move along with the up and down motion of an amphibious house.

Amphibious house, dry condition
Amphibious house, dry condition. Basa Architects.
Amphibious house, flood condition. Basa Architects.
Amphibious house, flood condition. Basa Architects.

One of the few pioneers who jumped on the idea of utilizing amphibious mechanics is Koen Olthius of Waterstudio in the Netherlands. Being that the Netherlands is roughly 27 percent below sea level (Rosenberg), Olthius’ firm is known for specializing in floating structures to counter the concerns of flooding. The new approach from which amphibious mechanics derived from is using water as the building ground; water is not the foe, it is a grand opportunity to generate better architecture.

The first amphibious house designed by Koen Olthius of Waterstudio is called the Watervilla Aaslmeer located in Westender Lake in the northern part of the Netherlands. Completed in 2004, this house is 260 square meters with two storeys, one of which is underwater. With the incorporation of amphibious features, the Watervilla Aaslmeer is moored to the bottom of Westender Lake to keep the house in one set place. Like most amphibious houses around the globe, the base of the house is concrete to provide a sense of buoyancy. One key detail this house exemplifies is its symmetricality. Symmetry is crucial to maintaining the stability of the house. A lack in symmetry will call for extra weight to be put in place where necessary to even out the balance of a house which is in turn costly (Mustonen).

Albiet the next building to be discussed is not in the Netherlands, Baca Architects designed the United Kingdom’s first amphibious house in 2013 located on the banks of the River Thames. It is going to be a typical triangular roofed house incorporated with amphibious mechanics. Said to be made out of highly insulated lightweight timber construction, the house will lie on top of a concrete hull essentially forming a free-floating pontoon. Like the Watervilla Aaslmeer, the UK’s amphibious house will contain four dolphins which act as vertical guideposts to allow the home to go up and down vertically on a single axis (Baca Architects).

Referring back to architect Koen Olthius, he discussed in a TedxWarwick talk his award winning project called App-grading Wet Slums. Although this project does not consist of amphibious homes, it does introduce a brand new typology developed by Koen Olthuis himself called Floating City Applications. Such applications consist of any entity found in urban and rural cities in conjuction with the floating mechanism: residential buildings, boulevards, restaurants, cruiseterminals, roads, solar blankets, and agriculture to name a few. In regards to the Wet-Slum, Olthius forsees an implentation of applications that adhere to the upmost necessities of the people living in wet slums. Seeing that wet slums are in direct contact with water, they are automatically at risk of rising sea levels. To countour this unavoidable force of natural disaster, Olthius proposes to provide wet slums with four different types of infrastructure: water, food, shelter, and energy. Every floating entity would have photovoltaic systems to generate energy for those living in the slums (Inhabitat).

In an age when climate change is increasingly becoming more unpredictable, it is of upmost importance to develop flood defense solutions that perform in ways which past systems failed to do. With a new turn of the century typology, amphibious structures may just be the final piece to the flood defense puzzle. Amphibious structures not only deals with domestic scale components of urban cities, they work with the water instead of against it. A carefully planned out integration of urban and domestic systems may provide a permanent solution to countering floods across the globe. If today’s dikes were to fail during a potential flood, amphibious houses can be the follow up solution to counter what the dikes failed to do. Following the instance of a flood, pumping engines can then drain the water eventually allowing the flooded area to return to its original state. Learning from past mistakes is absolutely vital due to the current changes in climate. Despite the fact that it would take years of development and construction to implement an integrated system efficiently, it can be the start of a world where natural disasters can have a whole new meaning: a tool to create new architectural typologies.



Amphibious Houses

Baca Homes. “Baca Homes – Project Site.” Baca Homes – Project Site. Accessed October 28, 2013.

Davies, Gareth. “Amphibious Houses: Dutch Answer to Flooding: Build Houses That Swim.” SPIEGEL ONLINE. September 26, 2005. Accessed October 28, 2013.

Meinhold, Bridgette. “VIDEO: Koen Olthius Shares the Benefits of Floating Cities at TEDxWarwick | Inhabitat – Sustainable Design Innovation, Eco Architecture, Green Building.” Inhabitat Sustainable Design Innovation Eco Architecture Green Building VIDEO Koen Olthuis Shares the Benefits of Floating Cities at TEDxWarwick Comments. March 26, 2012. Accessed October 28, 2013.

Meinhold, Bridgette. “ Proposes Floating City Apps To Aid Slums Affected By Rising Sea Levels | Inhabitat – Sustainable Design Innovation, Eco Architecture, Green Building.” Inhabitat Sustainable Design Innovation Eco Architecture Green Building Waterstudionl Proposes Floating City Apps To Aid Slums Affected By Rising Sea Levels Comments. November 20, 2012. Accessed October 28, 2013.

MUSTONEN, SALLA, ASAMI NAITO, and ILKKA TÖRMÄ. “Floating Village.” 2007. Accessed October 27, 2013.

Rosenberg, Matt. “Polders and Dikes of the Netherlands.” Geography. Accessed October 28, 2013.

Pumping Engines

Bellis, Mary. “Steam Engine History.” (accessed October 27, 2013).

Cruquius Museum. “Polder Drainage.” Cruquius Museum. (accessed October 7, 2013).

Downing, Samuel. “On the Drainage of Haarlem Lake.” The Transactions of the Royal Irish Academy 23 (1856): 449-460. (accessed October 6, 2013).


Hoeksema, R. J.. “Chapter 7.” In Designed for dry feet: flood protection and land reclamation in the Netherlands. Reston, Va.: American Society of Civil Engineers, 2006. 93 – 102.

NASA. “Glossary.” NASA Earth Observatory. (accessed October 27, 2013).

UNC – University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “Dutch Historical Ecology: Industrial Revolution.” The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. (accessed September 23, 2013).

Wolman, David. “Before the Levees Break: A Plan to Save the Netherlands .” Wired Magazine. (accessed September 8, 2013).

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