New Realm of Development: European Architecture Team Joins Local Developers to Try to Bring First Floating Homes to Boston

Great leaders have often said if one doesn’t know exactly how to bring something innovative and new to the market, then go find someone that does.

That’s exactly what has happened for 6M Development’s Bill Caulder and his local team in their Pier 5 proposal for the first floating housing community in Boston, reaching out all the way to the Netherlands and London for the pre-eminent floating community architects in the world.

The development team for one of the floating community plans for Pier 5 (seen in the background) believes they have assembled the right amount of local talent, and the best design professionals from Europe, to be able to build Boston’s first floating community on Pier 5. A community meeting Feb. 8 will hear their proposal and two others on Monday, Feb. 8. Pictured here are Al Carrier, Bill Caulder, Gregg Nolan and Gosder Cherius.

Architects Richard Coutts, of London, and Koen Olthuis, of the Netherlands, were brought onto the 6M team in an attempt to design and implement the first floating housing community on the East Coast, and maybe the United States. Both are very excited to apply what they have learned over the last 15 to 20 years in the Netherlands and United Kingdom to Boston Harbor – if they are chosen out of the three competitive bids now before the City’s Boston Planning and Development Agency (BPDA) for the pier.

“There is a lot of pressure here to make sure this is a financially viable plan,” said Coutts in an interview this week. “If it is a good example of development, it will be expanded and replicated. If it isn’t, then this concept will stop here. There is huge pressure for us to make it a great environment and financially feasible.”

A key part of the project is bringing the canals of Amsterdam to Boston Harbor, and Caulder and his co-developer, Gosder Cherius of Bastion Companies, believe they’ve found the right professionals to bring Boston into a new realm of development – that being on the water where they can forgo the high land costs that plague development in the city.

“I can tell you with certainty it is financeable and financially viable,” said Caulder. “We’re looking forward to vigorous debate in the community and in the BPDA…We see the status quo is not an option. An abandoned pier is something no one in Boston deserves.”

After living on the water himself in the North End for years, Caulder wanted to do something that would bring people to the water – if not live on the water. To date it hasn’t been attempted, but the team believes their architects can steer their proposal towards reality.

The idea is to strategically demolish parts of the existing pier in phases, and use it as an anchor that will support 138 units of floating housing and amenities where Pier 5 now sits abandoned. It will include a partially underwater restaurant, and parks as well. All of this while keeping the community floating with the tides and not exceeding 35 feet above the water so as not to block views of those behind the Pier.

“It really would be a wonderful neighborhood with a different focus, but with parks, restaurants and other amenities,” said Olthuis. “It’s really an exciting thing to be part of it, something that would be done for the first time in this part of the world.”

Olthuis and Coutts said there is a history of floating communities in Amsterdam, and in some parts of London too. Living on the water is not a totally new concept in Europe, but about 15 years ago the two architects teamed up to actually make it real housing that was desirable to live in.

In Amsterdam, floating housing was not desirable and was usually simple wooden structures floating on the water. If not that, it was large single homes that were exclusive and blocked off access to the water. The two architects brought a bit of normal to the market, they said, by creating homes and activating the waterfront to the public.

“What was there could barely be called a house,” said Olthuis. “Richard and I brought a quality product that could be constructed really efficiently with a mortgage and such.”

The success of that development market led to opportunities in London, where Coutts is from, and they were able to construct floating homes in the heart of that city that were less expensive. They said that enabled key middle-class workers like nurses to suddenly be able to afford a home in the heart of the city and not have to live far away or in substandard housing.

They said with land at a premium in Boston, New York and Chicago, such major cities in America might be perfect for just such a concept – which is why they’ve decided to give it a first try on Pier 5.

Now, however, they are more confident – along with the local development team – that they’ll have success, if chosen, due to the fact that they’ve learned from so many mistakes over the years.

Some of those include not including green space early on in Amsterdam, and then having to add it after the fact. That isn’t a mistake in the Pier 5 design, which features several parks. The same is true of storage areas. Something they learned was that floating communities lack indoor storage, so they have designed storage areas into the parks in a way that isn’t noticeable.

“All this knowledge we bring is from experience and something we wouldn’t have done 10 years ago because it was new to us,” said Olthuis. “You have the advantage in Boston now that you don’t have to make the same mistakes again with this concept.”

Caulder has also brought onto the team Gregg Nolan of the Nolan Group and Al Carrier of Carrier and Associates – both with Charlestown ties. That has led to an ultra-local team that has an international flair.

“We are excited for this project because we believe it’s a game-changer,” said Carrier. “This is going to be something great for Charlestown because we have a local team and we’ve brought in the best professionals from Europe to provide the design. It’s a great team. We won’t build something that isn’t going to work for Charlestown. I still have to live here. I don’t want to go out and have someone throw a cup of chowder in my face at the Warren Tavern because I built something that didn’t work out.”

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