New Hack for S.F.’s Rising Waters: Floating Architecture

The rising tide lifts all boats, they say. For the San Francisco Fire Department, that was exactly the problem.

At least it was at Fire Station 35, located on the Embarcadero at Pier 22 1/2, almost directly beneath the Bay Bridge. The station there, built in 1915, houses one fire engine and, along the adjacent pier, berths two of the department’s watercraft. But with the pier in disrepair and the station needing to house more firefighters and engineers, the vexing question of sea level rise forced planners to get creative.

In short, the most straightforward idea—constructing a new firehouse and dormitory on a fixed pier—was a nonstarter. In order to accommodate projected levels of sea rise, the pier would stand too tall above the water in the short term to make boarding and disembarking from the boats practical. Similarly, the existing firehouse couldn’t be raised relative to street level and still be accessible to fire engines.

Instead, the solution that the city’s planning department floated—see what we did there?—was to build, in fact, a floating station. It would house office space, locker areas, a kitchen, and dormitory rooms for crew on its second level, and the seaworthy structure would be built atop a 1,440-square-foot steel barge tethered to mooring piles sunk deep into the bay floor. That way, the barge could bob up and down to respond to both the tides and, over time, changes in the water level in the bay without moving laterally and nauseating the firefighters living in the dormitories.

Seasickness aside, the barge idea is more practical than it may appear at first blush. Construction estimates from S.F. Public Works suggest that it would cost slightly less (at $28.1 million) than a fixed pier would. And while not exactly ubiquitous, buildings on large stationary barges can be found around the world, among them the Vernon C. Bain Center’s prison barge in New York, which houses 100 inmate cells; a small school in Alaska; luxury apartments in lowland Amsterdam; and a civic pavilion in Rotterdam.

“Absolutely, these are the future,” says Koen Olthuis, the principal architect at Dutch design firm Waterstudio, which has engineered several floating buildings in the Netherlands and in Asia. “You have to compare this a little bit with high-rise buildings. If you go back 120 years, when the first high-rises went up, people were a bit afraid. But today, we can’t think of a city without high-rise buildings. It’s just the common evolution of cities. Once you see this reach a tipping point, you’ll see everybody start doing it.”

As of press time, S.F. Public Works was fielding proposals for the design and construction of the new floating fire station. They will be culled to a final round of five, and then to a short list of two by the end of May, from which a design and builder will be awarded the bid. Construction is slated to be finished by the fourth quarter of 2020.

“There’s a lot of excitement about this approach,” says Charles Higueras, a program manager with S.F. Public Works. “It’s a bit of a precursor, quite likely, to future construction on the water alongside the Embarcadero. So people will no doubt be watching this very closely.”