Kunle Adeyemi’s Floating School redefines innovative design by transforming the already buoyant waterfront city of Makoko, Nigeria into a contemporary community with independent floating structures using locally sourced materials.

The Nigerian settlement of Makoko with an estimated population of 100 000 people on the waterfront of Lagos is like a scene from the 1995 movie Waterworld. Nondescript structures of all shapes and sizes balance precariously on stilts sticking out of the oily waters of the lagoon as vendors ply their trade on dinghies along the crowded waterways.

There are the children who, with no playgrounds to scamper and play games on, hone their swimming talents by diving into murky waters. Those lucky enough to enrol into the Makoko Floating School just off the shores of the lagoon are having a field day. The school, which opened at the beginning of Nigeria’s 2013/2014 school year, is no ordinary structure. It is the brainchild of Kunle Adeyemi, a Nigerian architect who was struck by the plight of the fishing community of Makoko. Adeyemi decided to extend a helping hand in the form of a low-cost floating school becoming an international revelation, particularly for the kids.

“Makoko is a community living on water. For nearly 100 years, it has thrived on fishing and sewing industries, providing over a third of Lagos’s fish supply and most of its timber,” says Adeyemi, “It is a highly dense and urbanised area, yet it has no roads, no land and no modern infrastructure.”

The Floating School accommodates 100 students built on a structure that uses 256 plastic drums to keep it resting on top of the water. Constructed with locally-sourced wood, the frame was built with the help of Makoko residents. Electricity is generated through the use of solar panels on the roof, and rainwater harvesting helps operate the ablution facilities which cost just under R75000 to build new.

In a geographically changing world where water levels are steadily rising, many coastal and waterfront communities are finding themselves inundated with the problem of adaptive housing solutions that withstand swelling tides and swift currents. Flood-proof schemes are floating around most commonly implemented in various stilt systems to elevate the structure above predetermined water lines,  but even this solution becomes static at a certain point.

Adeyemi’s innovation has not been without any resistance as city officials were against the construction of the floating school and had wanted to tear the area down, saying it is unfit for habitation (as well as widespread speculation that it was because real estate would be more valuable). But Adeyemi wants to keep building—just a little differently. Instead of stilts, he sees floating structures, with better access to power and fresh water, and more sustainable means of waste disposal.

Building in Phases
Phase one
Phase one of the project was more of a realisation of the ‘makoko floating school,’ a triangular form in section constructed with a parallel series of timber A-frames on a platform supported by emptied blue barrels.
The three-storey structure contains classrooms on the middle level in enclosed volumes flanked by public green space and playground below, and an additional open-air rooftop classroom above. Rooftop PV cells on the roof collect solar energy, coupled with water catchment systems that make the dynamic educational facility partially self sustainable. While the slender wooden slats create a shading device along the outer envelope along with well ventilated spaces to maintain a comfortable interior environment.

Phase two

Phase two included the construction of floating housing units that can be interlocked or float independently. This was followed by the same aesthetic and functional principles of the school. The houses also contain a state-of-the-art device designed by Japanese company Air Danshin Systems Inc. that detects certain movements (such as earthquake tremors) by activating a compressor that pumps air into a chamber below the structure so that the dwellings may navigate safely over a flood plain.

Phase three

The final phase saw the creation of an entire floating community fully equipped to deal with flooding problems while maintaining an improved quality of life, which was completed towards the end of 2014. This grand master plan marks a new wave in resilient architecture in high-water zones, a true sustainable innovation indeed.

The floating school was designed for about 100 students (aged 4 to 12), with its own power system based around solar panels on the roof.  It spots its own rainwater harvesting capacity, as well as a fully functional toilet—something unusual for the area.

What the architect says

Adeyemi describes the structure, which is nearly finished, as “very stable”. And he says the children see nothing strange in taking a boat to class. “It has been exciting for them since we built the first platform. They love it, and are always around it.”

“Makoko is a settlement that people often drive by. I’ve driven by it myself for many years,” says Adeyemi, “but I started to visit and I was inspired, shocked, and motivated by the environment. I asked if there was anything I could do, and they said the school was always flooding, and they needed an extension. So, that’s what we did.”

More broadly, he sees the design as a way of “addressing issues that are larger and more prevalent in coastal African cities, where there is rapid urbanisation and a shortage of housing, and you have energy and waste management issues, and the impact of climate change.”
“There are urban strategies for dealing with sea level rises and flooding that are more infrastructure-related. But this is about flood-prone areas within cities that we can use for urbanization,” he says.

Aside from Lagos, that could mean much of coastal West Africa—from Nigeria to Senegal. “We hope to be a catalyst and that a lot of other people will adopt similar systems to address climate change and flooding,” concludes Adeyemi.

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