In recent years, we have seen a number of unique engineering efforts aiming to design homes that will better protect occupants in the event of natural disasters.
The Float House in New Orleans designed for Brad Pitt’s Make it Right Foundation project – a house which can literally break away from its moorings in the event of a flood and rise up to 12 feet on two guideposts – is one such example. An elastic iron alloy, designed by researchers at Japan’s Tohoku University to sway with an earthquake, is another.
The latest such effort, coming from Japanese firm Air Danshin Systems Inc., involves protecting houses from earthquakes by literally tossing them into the air or, at the very least, using a levitation system to raise them by up to three centimetres in the event of a tremor.
It works fairly simply, and requires only basic – albeit powerful – equipment. Within one second of an earthquake, a sensor turns on a compressor which in turn forces a huge amount of air under the building, pushing the structure upwards and separating it from its foundation by up to 3cm. An indoor valve keeps the structure steady as it ‘floats’ by controlling the flow of air under the house. The concept, some say, is akin to having an airbag for a house.
Once the quake is over, the house gently falls back onto an earthquake-resistant reinforced concrete foundation.
Better yet, the company claims, the system requires little maintenance and can be up to one-third cheaper than alternative earthquake-proofing systems.
Not everyone is excited. Some have raised concerns about the system’s ability to get air through the pump quickly enough for it to work given the sudden nature of any earthquake. Still others have raised concerns regarding the possibility of sideways movement during the period in which the house is not firmly attached to its foundations. This is particularly a concern in the event of high wind or other adverse whether conditions, or earthquakes that bounce up and down, as many do. There are also concerns about houses crumbling from the loading and about technical challenges regarding utility infrastructure such as electricity and water/sewerage pipes as a result of the raising.
Fears about sideways movement or the house simply falling off are particularly pertinent. One commentator, for instance, describes a levitating house as being ‘as slippery as a puck on an air-hockey table.’
Despite these concerns, demand for the new systems in Japan is hot following the earthquake which caused last year’s Fukishima disaster. Air Dashin is set to install it in 88 homes across the country, and the company hopes to get the system into larger, more critical structures.
The new idea, it seems, is getting off the ground. So, too, are the houses.