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Staying afloat

An engineer envisions homes atop blocks of Styrofoam

August 29, 2007

Since katrina, many New Orleans residents have begun elevating their old houses on tall foundations to comply with new federal flood guidelines -- and to be clear of the water when the next big flood comes.

But that solution seems inadequate to Elizabeth English, an engineering professor at Louisiana State University's Hurricane Center in Baton Rouge. She worries that those elevated houses will destroy the front-stoop culture that long defined the city's neighborhoods. She also worries that they might not be high enough to escape the next deluge.

So English developed an alternative: Propping a house on steel beams with big blocks of Styrofoam attached underneath. The beams are attached to steel collars that run up and down tall guideposts planted in the ground. When the water rises, the house floats up, but not away. (A more sophisticated version, she said, could use beams that telescope like a car antenna.) "It's an idea that works with the water, instead of fighting the water," English said.

Earlier this year, English's students built a successful prototype. Today, her nonprofit Buoyant Foundation is hoping to raise $150,000 to retrofit a house. Then she'll need to lobby for changes in the Federal Emergency Management Assn.'s National Flood Insurance Program, which denies coverage to houses that aren't affixed to a permanent site.

Though some have called her crazy, English noted that homes were built on similar principles in the Netherlands. She also said South Louisianans had for decades tricked out riverside fishing camps with Styrofoam

"This is a hugely innovative concept," English said. "On the other hand, it's really not new at all."

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