The bustling district of Makoko in Lagos, Nigeria, renowned for its teetering stilt homes on the lagoon, stirred architect Kunlé Adeyemi’s vision in 2012. The striking community that many would see as hazardously built, served as an eye-opening epiphany instead, birthed during a season of devastating floods. Indeed, for Adeyemi, as cities surrendered to encroaching tides, Makoko’s community was already adapting. This insight fueled his craft, leading to the design of a floating school for the lagoon community that was as innovative as it was inspiring.

Adeyemi’s design approach, largely celebrated and criticized in equal measure, embraces the grim forebodings of climate change, aiming to harmonize human habitats with water, which dominates 70% of Earth’s surface. Drawing from his 2011 epiphany and the distilled insights from his acclaimed Makoko Floating School project, Adeyemi’s architectural firm, NLÉ, birthed the Makoko Floating System (MFS).

Now, the MFS offers a beacon of hope to obscure communities under the hammer of climate change. Government agencies and architects worldwide are noting the urgency in adopting, in Pieter Figdor’s words, “climate adaptation”. Figdor, the CEO of Public Domain Architects (PDA), speaks out of experience having overseen the successful creation of the Nassauhaven project, Rotterdam’s pioneer floating residential area.

The 17 floating homes crafted by PDA serve as a reminder of human adaptation – sturdy yet soothing, these wooden homes rise and fall with the tides and boast sustainable attributes, from solar panels to biomaterial heating and wastewater purification. But for Figdor, floating buildings are not only resilient but also ethical, embodying the spirit of coexistence rather than dominance, living “with” instead of “against” water.

The picturesque city of Rotterdam is internationally renowned for its groundbreaking water architecture, with floating pavilions and offices shaping its skyline. Once again the city is taking center stage hosting NLÉ’s Water Cities Rotterdam exhibition. Displaying a series of floating pavilions and celebrating the robustness of MFS, the exhibition challenges viewers to reimagine human civilization embracing the waterway.

Far from its birthplace in Makoko, the MFS has crossed continents. Adeyemi’s design has swayed on numerous waters in China, Belgium, Italy, and even over the Atlantic in Mindelo, Cape Verde, where it functions as a floating music hub. The potential for the MFS is enormous, as it can be employed for various purposes, from housing to education, becoming a global solution tweeted for each new locale.

With superlative engineering in place, prefabricated, flat-pack parts of this triangular A-frame structure can be constructed by a small team in a couple of weeks. It can be erected without recourse to heavy machinery and stands in defiance of European building codes. Adaptable and inclusive, the MFS is not merely a structure but a message of resilience and unity.

While several proposals for climate-resilient floating cities have caught global attention, the floating streets of Lagos and Rotterdam represent the present reality. The grand narrative of living with water is being incrementally weaved into existence, demonstrating just how life on water might look, signaling the silent evolution of climate adaptation.

Looking ahead, Adeyemi envisions a neighborhood of MFS structures in Amsterdam, designing multi-story “water scrapers”. Similarly, Pieter Figdor has ambitious plans to scale the Nassauhaven project to a floating quarter of 100 homes. As the planet inches towards a wetter future, the architectural community is offering the technology and ethos of coexistence. As the waters rise, this next chapter of architectural innovation positions itself to float along — living with the water, rather than against it.