Naval architect Gil Wang on a boat by the icecaps in Greenland. Naval architect Gil Wang on a boat by the icecaps in Greenland. Naval architect Gil Wang on a boat by the icecaps in Greenland. (Photo: Thomas van Es)

Surfer-turned-yacht designer devises plan for floating cities

Gil Wang and his colleagues in Israel have designed entire suburbs that can exist on the ocean.

For as long as he can remember, Gil Wang was drawn to water. He was born in Vienna, a city bisected by canals, and raised in Israel, where he spent his youth surfing in the Mediterranean Sea. "I just wanted to be in the water as much as I could," he told From The Grapevine on a recent Friday afternoon.

He chose a career in construction and design but, he admitted, "architecture wasn't enough. I needed that connection to the sea." That passion brought him to the Netherlands, where he got the unique job of designing mega yachts.

In Amsterdam, he met and married an Israeli ballet dancer. When their first child was born, they decided to move back home to be closer to friends and family. "We both saw our future in Israel," he said. Wang wanted to combine his interests and get an advanced degree in naval architecture, but no Israeli university offered such a specialty. So he sent letters to half a dozen schools, explaining why they should accept him. "I wanted to be a mule carrying knowledge from the Netherlands to Israel, trying to set up this discipline here."

He was pleasantly surprised when, within days, he received responses to his letters. The Technion Institute, known as the MIT of the Mediterranean, created a Ph.D. program just for Wang. And that's where the idea for a floating suburb took shape.

Suburbs on the sea

In the 1995 blockbuster "Waterworld" starring Kevin Costner, the polar ice caps have melted and the human race is forced to build floating cities in the ocean. At $175 million, it was the most expensive movie ever made at the time. Which is really not shocking, considering that building structures on water is quite expensive.

But what if there was a smart and economical way to build future suburbs on water? That was a challenge Wang was ready to tackle. Along with three colleagues – Nitai Drimer, Yiska Goldfeld and Yehiel Rosenfeld – they hatched a plan called Modular Floating Structures, or MFS for short.

Left to right: Gil Wang, Yiska Goldfeld, Nitai Drimer and Yehiel Rosenfeld, who published a scientific paper outlining their floating cities concept. (Photo: Courtesy the Technion) Left to right: Gil Wang, Yiska Goldfeld, Nitai Drimer and Yehiel Rosenfeld, who published a scientific paper outlining their floating cities concept. (Photo: Courtesy the Technion)

Here is their thesis: There's a growing trend of global urbanization. "People are moving out from the countryside into the bigger cities in search of a better life," Wang explained. "It's a global phenomenon." Two-thirds of the world's megacities – places like New York, Miami and Los Angeles – are located on coastlines. Land scarcity in these low-lying and highly populated cities is a growing problem. What's more, the sea level is rising and will, in theory, start to take up more of the land.

So Wang and his colleagues wondered: What if we could create Costner's "Waterworld," but do it more efficiently (and without all the apocalyptic overtones)? The answer they came up with was building structures that floated. It wouldn't matter if the ocean levels rose because the modular pieces are simply floating on top of the water.

The pieces are like Legos that snap together. Each one is about 325 feet long by 100 feet wide. The size is standard for seafaring – it's small enough to be transported, tug-boat style, through places like the Panama Canal. Yet, it's large enough to hold three 10-story buildings. And almost everything can be built on shore, where construction is easier, and then brought already completed to the location offshore.

A schematic of what a typical neighborhood could look like on the barge. A schematic of what a typical neighborhood could look like on the barge. (Photo: Courtesy Gil Wang)

Tasks like plumbing and electricity can all be handled on the structure itself, much in the same way they're done in a self-contained environment on a cruise ship with thousands of passengers. "If you give me fuel, I can make my own water, I can have my own sewage treatment plant. I can have everything I need to sustain a normal residential environment," said Wang. Another possibility is for the modular structures to be close to shore so that everything can be transferred by pipes. "Most of the stuff we get in Israel comes from pipelines from across the sea – the internet, the energy we consume. It's a knowledge we know how to link to."

The nice thing about the modular infrastructure is that it can be built in stages, depending on the needs of the particular place. "You can start slowly and grow on-demand," said Wang. The engineers from the Technion, whose office overlooks the Mediterranean Sea in the coastal city of Haifa, drew up plans for modular neighborhoods – each about 1600 feet by 1600 feet. Approximately 2,000 apartments can be built on top of it. And it can be scaled up, by simply putting another modular piece next to it.

The engineering department at the Technion Institute in Haifa. The engineering department at the Technion Institute in Haifa, where the research is being done. (Photo: Courtesy Gil Wang)

For now, this is purely an academic exercise – building 3D models on computers in their lab. "But it's definitely feasible," said Wang. "It's totally linked to reality." They have just published their first scientific paper outlining their work.

For Wang, the 41-year-old father of three, his eyes are now set toward the future. He will receive his Ph.D. this summer and hopes to continue researching the floating suburbs concept. "I really think that we're just scratching the surface," he told us. "There are so many questions over how to optimize it and what to do next."

And, of course, he will continue to surf and sail. "I was always fascinated with the ability to dwell offshore," he said. "That has been something that I've been thinking about since childhood."

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Surfer-turned-yacht designer devises plan for floating cities
Gil Wang and his colleagues in Israel have designed entire suburbs that can exist on the ocean.