Allow me to take you a few years back to 2018, the moments when I spent time in the city of Cape Town at the height of a severe drought. The sense of fear and uncertainty that gripped almost everyone around the city was overwhelming. Considering all our great technological human advancements, how did we run into an issue of this scale?

Thanks to the collective efforts of city citizens together with awareness campaigns and supportive action from various sectors of society, Day Zero – the day the city’s taps were expected to shut off; was prevented. I returned to the Netherlands with a feeling of vulnerability, arising from being so dependent on water. My experience in Cape Town led me to a research process, experimenting with what I would do if I didn’t have any water coming out of my tap.

I swiftly transformed into an urban water harvester. I went around my home and neighbourhood in search of spaces where water could potentially be found. Unexpected discoveries invited me to create quick tools to harvest the steam after a hot shower or collect condensed moisture from my windowsill on an autumn morning. As I was exploring, I kept thinking how could the city become more water sensitive? These experiments guided me when designing Aquatecture – a compact panel used to harvest water in the urban environment, providing a platform that allows buildings to embrace water.

Exploring building skins that can condense water vapour

Through my research process, the Namib Desert Beetle had everything to do with how I began perceiving water and its relationship to architecture. The beetle has been carefully designed to condense desert fog and sustain its own water needs. Similarly, air plants such as Tillandsia and Bromeliad Species fascinated me. These plants live without any roots or need for soil and are strategically designed to ‘harvest’ their own water and nutrients from the air. After studying the plant characteristics under the microscope at the Bio Art Laboratory in Eindhoven, the Netherlands, I designed a series of models interpreting how these plants could guide us in the way we construct or remodel our buildings to become self-sustaining water organisms in the city.

One example of this is the ‘Trichomic Wall’, which is inspired by the Tillandsia genus. Tiny trichomes (hairs on leaves) of Tillandsia help the plant attract and absorb moisture from the air. With this model, I suggested using hydrophilic material to create a hair-like facade in order to mimic Tillandsia trichomes. This will help cool the surface and assist in keeping enough moist air around the façade to facilitate condensation.

Another example is the ‘Wellbeing Wall’, inspired by the Bromeliaceae plant species. Some bromeliads have a built-in water tank, able to collect and store water for prolonged periods of time. The inner water tank becomes a host for other species to thrive in. Primarily, architectural walls have been used as a defence barrier between humans and the elements. In the design of the ‘Wellbeing Wall’, I hope to shift the focus of the human-nature relationship from anthropocentric to symbiotic. I designed extensions in the wall, allowing niches where water can ‘sit’. This provides an opportunity for other species, like birds, to drink water from. Walls can now not only be used for human protection but also for other organisms to thrive in. 

Full-scale pilot of Aquatecture installed at the V&A Waterfront

Apart from the speculative models exploring ways to harvest moisture, Aquatecture also extends to making use of technology to condense water vapour. Similar to the rain-harvesting panel, the condensation harvester is modular and uses thermodynamic principles to create the temperature differences required for condensation to occur. Moist air requires cooling to below dew point temperature to condense. This panel is currently in the prototype stage and further research is progressing to upscale the technology. The first full-scale pilot of Aquatecture installed at the V&A Waterfront, which is primarily being tested for harvesting rainwater, will also investigate passive condensation formation at various temperatures.

A great display of nature’s resilience and ability to heal is to see Cape Town’s dams reaching 100% capacity recently. This leaves us with much hope for a positive future. The current pandemic is unravelling its warnings and lessons, forcing us to regenerate our actions. Taking care of our planet as well as its resources is no longer an option; it is necessary for our collective survival on earth. This is a huge task that needs the support of every single individual, much like the way the residents of Cape Town united to avert Day Zero. Are we ready to engage in a homogeneous movement that fosters a sense of care for things other than just ourselves?

Photo Credit Nick Bookelaar

This article was published in partnership with Media Xpose.

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