A Renowned Home, Prone to Flooding, Tests the Ingenuity of Engineers

By Anonymous
Science|A Renowned Home, Prone to Flooding, Tests the Ingenuity of Engineers

Farnsworth House sits far inland, but the techniques used to save it may one day be applied to historic homes threatened by rising seas.

ImageA Renowned Home, Prone to Flooding, Tests the Ingenuity of Engineers
The Farnsworth House in Plano, Ill., with floodwaters from the Fox River. CreditCreditNational Trust for Historic Preservation

Perhaps the most unusual project to protect an important building from rising water involves a structure far from the coast: Farnsworth House, a glass-walled midcentury gem in Plano, Ill.

The house was designed and built in 1951 by the modernist pioneer Ludwig Mies van der Rohe on a site near — but, it was thought, not too near — the Fox River. In recent years, however, the house has been repeatedly threatened by river floods, and so the National Trust for Historic Preservation, which owns it, commissioned the Boston engineering firm Silman to design a solution.

In a preliminary report presented to the trust in 2015, the team described the approaches it had considered but rejected.

One was simply moving the house to a drier site. But that “would change the entire dynamic,” said Ben Rosenberg, Silman’s principal in charge of the project. Visitors should experience the house, he added, “in terms of its site and topographical relation to the river.”

The team also considered putting some kind of balloon device under the house, or constructing an inflatable barrier around it. But those devices would not necessarily defend the structure against rushing water or debris, Mr. Rosenberg said.

“The option we landed on, which we are now in the process of designing, is to install a pit underneath the house in its present location, and place the house on a platform that is hydraulically lifted up and down” by machinery installed in the pit, Mr. Rosenberg said. “The flood happens under the house.”

[Like the Science Times page on Facebook. | Sign up for the Science Times newsletter.]

The house will have to be moved off site while the apparatus is built, but once it is back in place, “no one knows the difference,” he said. The hydraulic mechanism would be hidden underground, except when it operates to lift the house above water.

Mr. Rosenberg said work on the project design is nearing completion. “Nothing like this has ever been done before,” he said, adding that the National Trust must give final approval for the work. But, he said, “the buy-in is already there for the concept.”

He said people who care about the house see the proposal as a way to protect the building while interfering with it “as minimally as possible.”

Anyway, he added, “these buildings obviously live in the real world, in an environment that can change around them. If they don’t adapt, the result is worse.”

More articles on adaptations to rising seas