Water is a basic human need. Yet according to Unicef, 768 million people globally do not have access to a safe, clean source. While other organizations put that number higher (some say a billion people, or one in seven) all watchdog groups agree that water scarcity is a growing global problem. Designers David Turnbull and Jane Harrison of PITCHAfrica answer back with their Waterbank School. Lauded as the Greenest School on Earth by USGBC, the design recently received recognition and awards from the Buckminster Fuller Institute and Interface.
“Water insecurity brings myriad issues with it, from poor nutrition and health to gender inequality and the threat of conflict,” says David Turnbull, professor of architecture at New York’s The Cooper Union, and design director for PITCHAfrica. Such is the case in arid swaths of Africa where people face two choices: Drink from contaminated rivers or draw from bored wells. Well water seems the obvious choice at first, but this technology presents its own problems. Sixty percent of boreholes break within the first two years and there aren’t enough engineers available to service them. Even when they work, the water is often too saline or outright toxic, containing 200 times more than the acceptable level of fluoride.
This insecurity brings a social cost as well. Foraging for water is considered girls’ work, which keeps young women out of school. Neighboring tribes often fight over clean water but any victory is temporary, as groundwater remains a finite resource.
PITCHAfrica suggests a new paradigm, one that harvests rain while educating people. “Traditional building types are designed to shed water,” explains Jane Harrison, executive director, PITCHAfrica. The former Princeton professor of design feels this is a waste of the nearly two feet of water that falls on semi-arid Africa over the course of a year. “What if a building could harvest, filter and store that water?”
The first Waterbank School in Laikipia, Kenya, does just that. During two rainy seasons the school’s underground reservoir fills with approximately 150,000 liters of water. That water is filtered and pumped to a holding tank with a spigot to provide drinking water on demand. The 60-student, barracks-style Waterbank School costs $60,000 to build, about the same cost as a traditional schoolhouse.
PITCHAfrica’s ultimate goal is to create water independence. “We don’t want to lock up the knowledge in the building,” says Harrison. To that end the school acts as a community center and teaching tool. “Students see and hear the rain falling and watch it fill the tank when they pump it,” says Turnbull. Each of the four classrooms looks out onto a community garden that is irrigated with grey water from hand washing. A perimeter wall protects the crops from wildlife while a central courtyard serves as a theater.
But that is only the beginning according to Turnbull. “To develop rainwater harvesting further you need to provide a variety of tools at different price points to communities with different levels of need,” he insists. PITCHAfrica’s scalable approach includes repurposed military parachutes (called rainchutes) that for a few dollars provide water to a single family, to high-yield rainwater harvesting dorms, latrines and sports fields (aka Pitches) that can bring safe water to whole communities. The team’s flagship project PITCHKenya, will house international soccer star Samuel Eto’s SoccerAcademy and features a pitch that holds 1.5 million liters of water.
While Harrison and Turnbull presently focus on Africa because the need is palpable, they acknowledge that Waterbank technology could easily be adapted anywhere, provided they aren’t hampered by restrictions. “We did a small scale Waterbank in Palm Springs to prove we could,” says Harrison, “but innovations take longer in our culture.”
The pair is heartened by changes in Western attitudes about the viability of rainwater harvesting. “Five years ago the idea of using rain as a potable supply was out of the question,” says Turnbull. Perhaps the Living Building Challenge was a catalyst for the change. Winner of last year’s Buckminster Fuller award, the Living Building Challenge demands that a structure capture and reuse 100% of its potable water. To date a handful of buildings have met that challenge, and more are in the pipeline.
Because of its innovation and simplicity, the Waterbank School was a finalist in the prestigious Buckminster Fuller Challenge, sponsored by Interface in 2013. Waterbank didn’t win the Challenge—that honor went to Ecovative, a company that turns mushrooms into a replacement for Styrofoam – but Interface chose to give a second award and grant to PITCHAfrica and the Waterbank School project.
Interface’s partnership with BFI honors the synergies between the profoundly relevant legacies of its founder Ray Anderson and Buckminster Fuller. “We are thrilled to have an additional entrant recognized and supported in this year’s Challenge,” says Elizabeth Thompson, BFI’s executive director, “Our mission is to support as many whole-systems approaches as we can, and Interface joined us as dedicated contributors in the field.” Interface will work with Waterbank School to determine how to best leverage the company’s expertise in support of the groundbreaking project’s growth over a six-month period of time.
“The Waterbank School’s simple design is an elegant and practical way of addressing sanitation, health, and education,” said Dan Hendrix, chairman and CEO of Interface, Inc. “As Ray Anderson would have said, it is so right, so smart. Turning business as usual on its head is something we at Interface not only applaud, but attempt to practice. We’re pleased to support Waterbank School by providing funding and access to experts who will help them expand Waterbank Schools throughout the developing world.”