Monday, 10 September 2007

Underwater city? The future of Toronto's condo industry

Artist's conception of underwater hotel

Canadian astronaut sits at a picnic table behind the Ontario Science Centre and talks about water and the future of man.


The Toronto Star published a speculative article that I wrote about underwater condos in its 5 kilo Saturday September 8th edition. I am having trouble with my mac posting an automatic link. Until I get that solved, you can use the following to see the article.

The Toronto Star edited the story for bad grammer, length and photo selection. Some sections of the story were removed and most of the pictures I supplied were not used. The Star used a file photo and a few pictures from one of the underwater resorts. Below is the orginal story and some of the photographs I took for the piece. The Star version of my story reads better, is tighter and the layout is eye catching, however, you might find it interesting to read the longer more extensive version of the piece.

Somewhere .... Beyond the lake -- the uncut version


Dennis Chamberland in a minisub

Lloyd Godson wading in the water on Toronto's Ryerson University campus - photo by sweir

Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up to me
Wet Bars are a given in condo of the future

By Stephen Weir

Three decades from now the most sought-after view in the city of Toronto may well be the wreck of the Sligo. Seen through the pressurized window of an underwater condo, the stark wooden ribs of the 19th century schooner reach upwards towards the surface of Lake Ontario. To highlight the historic remains, the condo association could place lights around the bones of the Sligo so that at night residents can watch freshwater salmon schooling around this underwater landmark.

The Sligo is one of three visually dramatic shipwrecks that rest on the bottom of Lake Ontario, close to Toronto’s shoreline. Now only visited by scuba divers, breakthroughs in both building and air cleansing technologies, mean that one day, multiple dwelling habitats -- submerged condos – could be built within site of the lake bottom attractions.

Captain Kirk and the rest of the crew of the Enterprise called space the final frontier. It isn’t, the last frontier is those parts of the planet covered by water. There are currently more people living in space than living submerged in H20. More research dollars are spent on establishing habitats on the moon and Mars than underwater.

“ Why does everyone live on land anyway?” asks Canadian astronaut, Chris Hadfield. “ 3/4 of our planet is water, and yet mankind is clustered haphazardly on the land. From space you can easily see where people are congregated. You just look for the “Big Smear”, the bands of pollution that permanently surround our large cities.”

“ It is said that if we could handle the density of Manhattan, the whole population of North America could be placed in a state the size of Connecticut,” said Hadfield on a recent visit to the Ontario Science Centre. “ On land we have randomly chosen where we live. But in the water, there would have to be more order. Living underwater, like living in space has some challenges – breathable air, potable water, construction constraints and temperature – but there are advantages too. It would take housing pressures off agricultural land and allow (the city) to access underwater resources for cooling, insulation, electricity and of course water.”

Hadfield, like most other NASA astronauts, has spent time in the Aquarius permanent undersea laboratory. One of the world’s few underwater habitats the lab is 20 metres down, 5 kilometers east of the Florida Keys. The submerged building is owned by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and used for a wide range of underwater research projects.

“People live under-the-water today for very short periods of time – usually a week or less, but sometimes on extended periods of up to two to three weeks. But no one has ever lived undersea permanently – not one person in all of history,” said Florida based author, explorer and former Mission Commander for seven NASA underwater missions, Dennis Chamberland. “My group is planning to establish the first permanent civilian colony off central Florida in 2012 and for the first time ever, mankind will have a permanent address undersea. So it will happen in the next few years, not 30!”

Mr. Chamberland’s Atlantica project will be using a donated submarine (originally built to hunt for the Loch Ness Monster) to establish three manned undersea habitats over the next 5 years. If the construction of the underwater station goes as planned, people will begin living on the bottom beginning in 2012.

“Humankind is attracted to the beautiful and exotic places of our solar system. Just as men will be attracted to one day living on the cliff sides of the Valley of the Mariners on Mars, mankind will be attracted to live in the beauty of the underwater regions of our own planet,” he continued.

Michael Schutte, the VP of Engineering at U.S. Submarines doesn’t believe it will take as long as 30 years before people are living on the bottom of Lake Ontario. The Toronto born and raised, mega-yacht designer is now based in Oregon overseeing the construction of an underwater five star hotel that will be placed on the edge of a coral cliff in the South Pacific.

“Living underwater is not a new idea. Hell, people in their forties and fifties who are in charge of investment funds and brokerage houses and who grew up on Scientific American, and Popular Mechanics know that it is doable. And, these people have the money to make it happen. With (our clients) the budget for toys is almost unlimited.”

“The technology is already here,” he continued. “In essence I am building a luxury yacht to sink beside a Fijian reef. People are willing spend $30 million on a boat, so why not an underwater hotel? The overall structure is steel and the windows are transparent acrylic plastic. The materials I use in building yachts are well suited for a sub sea construction.”

The 45-year old designer is in the US overseeing the above water construction of the Poseidon Undersea Resort which upon completion will be taken to Fiji and placed on the bottom of a deep lagoon. There will be 24 undersea hotel suites and apartments covering 51 square meters anchored on the ocean floor 12 metres down. Although the hotel will have a fleet of small submarines, getting down to the luxury suites (rumoured to be priced at $15,000-per-person, per-week) won’t require getting wet– the building will be connected to the surface by elevators and airshafts.

“The only reason you haven’t seen any underwater condos in Toronto yet is that farm land is literally dirt cheap and underwater construction is super expensive,” said Schutte. “ If you build a unit that begins at the bottom of the lake and breaks the surface, you are in essence simply building a basement onto a houseboat. Given the price of waterfront land in Muskoka, as prices rise the houseboat with a 10-story cement basement has more and more appeal.”

A decade ago a research project involving the Canadian Navy’s CORMORRANT dive tender found little life on the floor of Lake Ontario around Toronto’s Harbourfront area. Her mini-submarine found thick layers of scum and a blanket of zebra mussels (an invading species) on the bottom but few if any samples of natural vegetation.

But, filling in sections of Lake Ontario, albeit in relatively small blocks, present more political problems than construction roadblocks. Would this current wave of interest in underwater construction convince civic and provincial authorities to allow building in the very lake where Toronto draws its drinking water?

Blame much of the current worldwide interest in underwater projects on Lloyd Godson, a young Australian scientist who may soon be one of Canada’s newest TV stars. Earlier this year Godson, with the backing of the Australian National Geographic Magazine, spent 12 days living in a yellow steel capsule submerged in a flooded gravel pit. He built and sunk "the world's first self-sufficient, self-sustaining underwater habitat”.

Using solar power sensors up on the surface and riding a stationary bicycle to produce additional electricity to keep his lights and computers working Godson lived independent of terra firma. The air that he breathed was purified and recycled by algae soaked in his own urine. His algae garden absorbed the carbon dioxide he exhaled, and released oxygen for breathing (he did have to supplement his air supply with air from scuba tanks).

“ The demand for information from the media took me by surprise when I was underwater. I had visits from Good Morning America, Jay Ingram’s Discovery Show and we were front page from England to Taiwan. I was going to cut off interviews when the Toronto Star contacted me the second last day of the experiment,” explained Godson. “ I thought there would be calls from the local press but not on a global scale. My experiment captured people’s imagination. It has always been the world’s dream … that future where you can live underwater.”

After emerging from his steel cocoon, Godson was besieged with offers from the media to fund and film future extreme adventures. He was in Toronto earlier this summer to shoot a pilot TV show for Canada’s Cineflix Productions who want to make a 13-part series following Godson’s future projects.

“My quarry project was done on a shoestring, but, it shows that soon people can live underwater and it can be done cheaply,” continued Godson. “ My habitat wasn’t luxurious and there would have to be a lot of improvements to be usable again. I was living underwater with contact with the surface. I had a bed, a computer, a phone, email, plants and a fishing rod, (I went fishing). I wasn’t living like a survivor, I was doing alright, but mate, it was a bit boring.”

“ I discovered there are social disadvantages to living underwater. The fresh water quarry I was in was very murky … I couldn’t see much, so I lacked visual stimulation. It didn’t take long before I began to miss feeling the elements -- the wind and the sun –- and face-to-face, not email, contact with people. There is no noise underwater. If I turned off all the pumps, it was almost completely silent. If you are a people person, an underwater home is not for you.”

Sidebar #1

Poseidon Undersea Resort is not the only underwater habitat in the works. Also proposed are:

• In Macau there is a new gambling complex in the works. Melco PBL Entertainment, one of Asia’s leading developers wants to build an underwater-themed casino and three luxurious hotels, including the Hard Rock Hotel as part of its “City of Dreams” project.

• In Dubai, Crescent Hydropolis wants to construct the first of many Oceanic Settlements. They say their Hydropolis project will be the world's first luxury underwater hotel. It will include 220 suites and a submarine leisure complex. The company says that it is one of the largest contemporary construction projects in the world, and will cover an area of 260 hectares.

• The Chinese Economic Review reports that Shanghai will be home to China’s first five-star underwater hotel in 2009 when Shimao Group opens the Shanghai Shimao Wonderland. Apparently the builders have taken over an unused quarry beside a lake and plans to construct a 300 room hotel above and below the water. The complex re will include shopping, entertainment and sports facilities.

Somewhere .... Beyond the lake -- Sidebar written for Star but not used

Artist's conception of Ventbase Alpha - Ken Brown Mondolithic

Side Bar # 2
The pressures of living in a futuristic condo

Living underwater, under pressure, can hurt. According to Phil Nuyyten, the owner of Vancouver based Nuytco Research Ltd. (and the publisher of Diver Magazine) the secret to living below the surface is to make sure that the air pressure inside a sunken condo is always at “one atmosphere”, the same ambient air pressure that you experience standing on land in Toronto.

“ We can’t go mountain climbing without clothes and we can't go in the ocean without breathable air. We – mankind – are designed to live in a primordial swamp and we can’t stray too far from that narrow band, be it up or down,” explained Phil Nuytten. “ If the human body is breathing air and exposed to pressures beyond one atmosphere there are major physiological changes in the body. For example at depth pressure forces nitrogen out of your blood stream and saturates the body’s tissues.”

Before returning to the surface a person has to “decompress” to allow that nitrogen to reenter the blood stream. Without doing this, the nitrogen will expand inside the body causing a very painful, and often fatal condition known as the “bends” – decompression sickness.

“Of course, you can’t decompress every time you leave the habitat, it just isn’t practical – who has the time. (To overcome this) the air inside the building has to be at the same pressure as on land,” continued Nuytten. If the building actually begins above the water and builds down to lakebed, surface air is continually pumped to the bottom of the building to maintain that surface pressure at all floor levels avoiding potential health problems.

“ If there is no direct link to the surface, that is a different matter. You have to generate breathable air (at one atmosphere), you have power requirements and you have to be able to get people in and out with relative ease,” he said. “The science is already there but at what price? We have been talking about the big “move” underwater for years. But, the costs are high.”

Nuytten, should know. His company is a world leader in the development and operation of undersea technology. Nuytco designs, builds and operates one atmosphere diving suits, submersibles and remotely operated vehicles. Nuytco has proposed Vent-based Alpha, a self-sustaining underwater habitat and mining colony that will one day be placed 2,000 metres underwater near fissures in the Earth’s crust on the floor of the North Pacific Ocean.

“Essentially, it will be like taking a cruise ship with several hundred people and parking it at the bottom of the ocean,” Nuytten likes to say. “After three or four generations, inhabitants will ask, are there really people who live on the surface?”

Who owns the lake bottom?

Artist conception of Dennis Chamberland's underwater habitat "Lions at the Gate"



By Stephen Weir

The layer of scum and muck that covers the bottom of Toronto’s harbour is thick, but, not as deep as the red tape a builder would have to wade through to construct an underwater condominium. Who owns the lakebed? Who controls the water and who would issue building permits are three important questions that don’t have definitive answers.

“By and large the city ends at the waterfront,” said Gary Wright, the city of Toronto’s Director of Community Planning. “ There are a few cases, notably in Etobicoke where landowners have Riparian land rights (land owner is entitled to use the water on or bordering his property), but we wouldn’t be in a position to issue building permits.”

Even though the city does police the lakefront, operates ferries through into it, has built piers and laid water pipes on the bottom, the actual ownership does not lie with the city. “ There isn’t a clear cut answer,” said Diane Chester, a water expert with the city. “ It is confusing, but basically the city feels that the lake bottom belongs to the Crown and in some cases the Province has control.”

In Ontario the province says it has ownership of the lakes and rivers. However, the Federal Government, under the Canadian Shipping Act, lays claim to all International Waterways including the St Lawrence River and the Great Lakes. The Shipping Act is one of the oldest Acts in Canada and supersedes any provincial ownership’s claim. However, the McGuinty Government, in early 2006 passed a Heritage Act giving the province jurisdiction over 4 shipwrecks (and the lakebed they lie on) including Lake Superior’s Edmund Fitzgerald and Lake Erie’s Hamilton and Scourge.

“This is a very murky area of law right now, with different interpretations in different states and provinces,” said Dave Knight, program manager with the Michigan based Great Lakes Commission. “It is our opinion, however, that jurisdiction of submerged bottomland in Lake Ontario off Toronto most likely rests with the Province of Ontario.”

That may be, but, many Federal Agencies feel that they would have a say. “ The Fisheries Act, specifically section 35 (1) would come into play,” explained Colleen O’Mara, a Burlington based Communications Officer with Fisheries and Oceans Canada.

“ That section is called HADD – Harmful Alteration and Destruction of Fish Habitats, and a builder would have to prove that construction would not harm fish stocks and spawning beds.”

An environmental impact hearing would have to be held and either level of government could be involved. Environment Canada is unsure if it has jurisdiction over Lake Ontario’s lake bottom and when contacted by the Star a spokesman opined that the issue really belonged in the Foreign Affairs Department’s court!

If during construction of a continuum an American shipwreck was found, there could also be ownership claims from south of the border. In recent years both the United States Navy and private salvaging companies have laid claims to Great Lakes shipwrecks found on the Canadian side of the border.

Government officials at all levels agree that lakebed ownership is as clear as the mud that covers it.