4 young architects are going against the tide to solve the global water crisis

The architecture industry is largely failing to address a growing global problem—water scarcity—but a new generation is taking up the cause.

Global water solutions wave

Matt Alderton

January 13, 2022

min read
  • As the population increases and the effects of climate change intensify, 3.5 billion people are expected to experience water scarcity by 2025.

  • Communities that lack access to safe water have higher disease and mortality rates.

  • From a bridge that adapts to water levels to concrete tiles that can capture condensation, four architecture students completed research on ways to solve the water crisis.

Water covers 70% of the earth’s surface, constitutes three-quarters of the human body, and is essential for everything from sanitation to agriculture. Water is critical—and it’s in crisis.

According to global nonprofit Water.org, 844 million people lack access to safe water. Repercussions include higher disease and mortality rates in communities without sufficient water, poor education outcomes in communities where children miss school to collect water for their families, and increased poverty in communities where adults have to choose between finding work and finding water.

The problem is only growing, according to the World Resources Institute: As many as 3.5 billion people could experience water scarcity by 2025, due to increasing pollution and climate change. Global solutions are urgently needed, and architects have the unique opportunity to make a positive impact as built environments are intrinsically linked to water resources.

Four architecture students from the Institute for Advanced Architecture of Catalonia (IaaC) in Barcelona, Spain, are doing exactly that. As participants in the residency program at the Autodesk Technology Center in Boston, each fellow executed an architectural research project for which water was a major theme. Collectively, these future architects are showing new paths to harness and protect this invaluable resource.

A bridge to the future

Flexible footbridge prototype:  a cell unit capable of absorbing horizontal forces
Flexible footbridge prototype: a cell unit capable of absorbing horizontal forces. Courtesy of Lars Erik Elseth.

IaaC student Lars Erik Elseth has seen firsthand how new approaches in architecture can adapt to changing water needs. Originally from Scandinavia, Elseth grew up visiting his family’s cabin in rural Norway. The inspiration for his research project was a decades-old footbridge he and his family traversed to reach the cabin, crossing a river that swells each spring with snowmelt.

Flexible footbridge prototype: cell with replaceable silicone parts
Flexible footbridge prototype: cell with replaceable silicone parts. Courtesy of Lars Erik Elseth. 

“Over the years, the bridge had been damaged from blocks of ice maneuvering their way downstream,” Elseth says. “The structural performance of the bridge decreased so much that it finally collapsed a couple of years ago.”

To replace it, Elseth conceived a flexible footbridge with soft silicone joints between dimensional lumber, which are assembled into an auxetic system: a system of joints that become wider when stretched and thinner when compressed, allowing the bridge to bend in response to rising water levels.

Flexible footbridge prototype: bridge segment with structural cell units and other detailing
Flexible footbridge prototype: bridge segment with structural cell units and other detailing. Courtesy of Lars Erik Elseth.

Elseth used Autodesk Fusion 360 to simulate the joints’ performance and improve his design, using a small prototype he constructed using a CNC machine. “Traditionally, water has been something you tried to escape or protect yourself against,” he says. “Instead of working with water, you’d isolate yourself from it or make everything waterproof. In my case, I’m using water as a force to generate the flexible movement in my bridge.”

A plastic disaster solution

A wood-and-silicone mold used to form tiles from shredded plastic
A wood-and-silicone mold used to form tiles from shredded plastic. Courtesy of Gabriele Jureviciute. 

More than 8 million tons of plastic are dumped into the world’s oceans every year, according to Plastic Oceans International. The Ocean Conservancy says this debris threatens marine life and can leach harmful chemicals into surrounding waters.

Tile mold, filled with shredded plastic
Tile mold, filled with shredded plastic. Courtesy of Gabriele Jureviciute. 

Gabriele Liuda Jureviciute is a Lithuanian IaaC student who designed a solution that encourages recycling plastic into architectural elements to improve livability in areas affected by mismanaged plastic waste. Her process begins with collecting, cleaning, and sorting plastic waste; shredding it with a shredder from Precious Plastic (a global community that designs and builds open-source machines for plastic recycling); and, finally, melting the plastic and assembling by local communities. The approach intends to involve citizens in the recycling process, generating new value for the material as well as building social and environmental capital.

Furniture constructed with twice-recycled plastic
Furniture constructed with twice-recycled plastic. Courtesy of Gabriele Jureviciute.

“What I found is that if you end up with a tile that’s at least 1 centimeter thick, it can withstand an amount of pressure higher than 900 kilopascals, allowing the design of a durable tile system for housing,” says Jureviciute, who spent her summer in Boston testing ways to manufacture and install the tiles. She’s applying her design toward emergency housing in Indonesia: sustainable shelters built with bamboo scaffolding, clad in recycled-plastic tiles. The shelters are low-cost, accessible, and secure, intended to house people displaced by natural disasters. Once they’ve served their temporary purpose, the tiles can be recycled again into architecture or other long-lasting items such as furniture. “Once you can afford a proper house, you can still use the tiles,” Jureviciute says.

Wastewater for biodiversity

A vascular-inspired lattice cladding system
A vascular-inspired lattice cladding system. Courtesy of Elliott Santos.

The average person consumes—and wastes—a lot of water. (According to the US Geological Survey, people in the United States use an average of 80 to 100 gallons per day.) Consider the water that runs down shower drains, washes dishes and clothes, and irrigates lawns. Although it ultimately ends up back in streams, rivers, lakes, and wetlands, it takes along harmful chemicals from soaps, detergents, fertilizers, and other pollutants.

Another view of a vascular-inspired lattice cladding system
Another view of a vascular-inspired lattice cladding system. Courtesy of Elliott Santos.

During his residency, IaaC student Elliott Santos developed a novel cladding system that could be applied to building facades to provide passive wastewater treatment. “We don’t realize the things we’re actually putting into our water,” Santos says. “In places like Canada, where I’m from, our roads are salted so much during the winter that all the water runoff becomes super salty. That affects not only the water but also the soil.”

Another view of a vascular-inspired lattice cladding system
Another view of a vascular-inspired lattice cladding system. Courtesy of Elliott Santos.

Santos’s solution is biological: He’s developed a vascular-inspired system of lattice structures 3D printed with a biodegradable filament, then injected with a cellulose composite gel mixed with fungal spores. The resulting fungal growth naturally filters wastewater as it flows through the system from green roofs on buildings to waterways on the ground. And when the system eventually biodegrades, it becomes food for insects, which become food for birds, creating a chain of biodiversity—and cleaner waterways.

“In urban areas especially, there’s a huge gap of space and habitat for wildlife to thrive in,” Santos says. “My idea is to fill this gap by creating stepping stones that help species move through the city.”

Harvesting blue gold

A sketch demonstrates concrete tiles with channels
A sketch demonstrates concrete tiles with channels. Courtesy of Yasmina El Helou.

IaaC scholar Yasmina El Helou is a Lebanese architecture student who grew up in the arid Middle East, where blue gold (water) is almost as precious as black gold (oil). “For me, water is very personal,” El Helou says. “Water scarcity is an issue I’ve lived with my whole life. It’s important to me that people understand it’s a real problem. Even if you don’t see it every day where you live, it’s happening. We cannot live without water.”

Another view of a sketch demonstrating concrete tiles with channels
Another view of a sketch demonstrating concrete tiles with channels. Courtesy of Yasmina El Helou.

El Helou developed her project with dry urban landscapes in mind, focused on harvesting water in specific areas where it only exists as fog or mist. “I was inspired by the cactus and other plants that survive in dry environments,” El Helou says. Her vision is to create porous concrete tiles that can capture condensation from fog and funnel it into storage tanks for use in bathrooms and gardens. With help from the wind, water is driven from the tile to wires that will lead it to the building’s tanks.

Another view of a sketch demonstrating concrete tiles with channels
Another view of a sketch demonstrating concrete tiles with channels. Courtesy of Yasmina El Helou.

Although she’s still experimenting with tile shapes and concrete blends, the project already has demonstrated what’s possible when architects think as much about function as they do about form. “Architecture now is about more than building a house or a mall,” El Helou says. “It’s about designing something for people that can help them in the long term. I’m not a scientist, but I have so many tools at my disposal that I can design something that helps scientists do scientific things. I believe that is our responsibility.”

Global water crisis FAQ

What is the water crisis?

The water crisis is the lack of access to safe water and sanitation affecting the lives of millions of people. Only about 3% of earth’s water is fresh, and less than half of that is currently available for use. As the population grows, the demand for water is expected to increase 20%–30% per year by 2050. According to Water.org, one in 10 people lack access to safe water and one in four lack access to a toilet currently.

What are some factors causing the global water crisis?

Some of the biggest stressors on safe, available water include climate change, natural disasters, a rising population driving an increase in power generation and agriculture, and water waste.

This article has been updated. It was originally published in October 2019.

Matt Alderton

About Matt Alderton

Matt Alderton is a Chicago-based freelance writer specializing in business, design, food, travel, and technology. A graduate of Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism, his past subjects have included everything from Beanie Babies and mega bridges to robots and chicken sandwiches. He may be reached via his website, MattAlderton.com.

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