2008 Next Generation Winner: The Pleated Bucket

A young architect uses a high-tech material to solve a chronic problem: the transportation of clean water.

As an elementary school student in Las Vegas, Eric Olsen rou­tinely reviewed the basics of desert survival: First, always carry water. Second, bring along a few rudimentary objects such as plastic sheeting and a small cup. Third, should you find yourself without hydration, dig a pit in the sand, fill it with cactus, place the cup in the pit, cover the pit with the plastic, top it off with a rock, and wait (and wait) for condensation to drip down. Though Olsen tried this procedure in his backyard without success, the San Francisco–based architect learned an indelible lesson: “Water, even when I was a kid, and more so now, was part of the ethic of how we lived in Las Vegas. We knew it was finite.”

Which makes it especially fitting that Olsen is the winner of this year’s Metropolis Next Generation Design Competition on the theme of water. Guidelines for addressing this theme were broad—entrants were asked to consider uses, reuses, controls, management, efficiency, and conservation. Olsen’s design is called the Solar Water Disinfecting Tar­paulin, a flexible, adaptable vessel to render it simpler and more effective for both carrying water and making it safe to drink. Next Generation runners-up include a housing project powered by rain­water, a synthetic ice floe for use by endangered animals, a solar- and wind-powered aquaponic food-growing system, a water-­purification system using seeds from the moringa tree, and a thermally conductive water condenser.

Olsen’s pleated tarpaulin, constructed from clear laser-cut LDPE and reflective rubberized nylon, is designed to hold up to 20 liters of water (it contains an integrated filling tube) and can be rolled into a bundle or worn as a shawl-like kanga for carrying. It can be laid across a rooftop, spread on the ground, or hung vertically to allow passive solar heat and ultraviolet radiation to disinfect the water (a World Health Organization–approved purification method that takes only five hours). The tarpaulin is designed for use in a wide variety of settings—from urban disaster sites to remote villages in the Third World. “You can imagine that in post-Katrina New Orleans something like this would have been useful as an alternative to the energy required to transport clean water to some other site,” Olsen says. “It’s really applicable anywhere there isn’t a functioning water infrastructure. Whatever your situation is, ideally it can be incorporated into it.”

Olsen began thinking seriously about water issues during a fellowship at the University of Michigan Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning from 2006 to 2007. He was inspired by his work with architect Sheila Kennedy, his former professor at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design and a principal in the Boston firm Kennedy & Violich Architecture.

Olsen says Kennedy’s Portable Light Prototype—a small, lightweight mat containing solid-state lighting and solar cells—proved especially influential. The mat absorbs the sun’s rays during the day and provides illumination for up to eight hours at night. Kennedy tested the light with the nomadic Huichol community in Mexico, which used it for nighttime reading and weaving. Though he did not work on the project, Olsen has studied it closely. “It was a beautiful project,” he says. “The tarpaulin wasn’t a response to that project specifically, but the way that the office worked got me thinking about how designers and architects can begin to think about new embodiments for technology that aren’t necessarily linked to traditional notions of building. That was where the water came from.”

Kennedy’s project also informed Olsen’s thoughts about scale. “It opened my eyes to some of the possibilities of pico-infrastructure,” he says. “Rather than trying to consolidate infrastructure into big buildings where you collect all the water, all the energy, in one place and then you distribute it, I began thinking about how you can provide people with how much they need. So it’s kind of individual servings of infrastructure.”

As he began to conceive of his own project, Olsen focused first on transport issues. “I was interested in the carrying because it’s something that’s so dictated by the technology that people have available, more than anything,” he says. “You think of the proverbial clay-pot-on-the-head kind of thing, and I wondered if there was a way to transport water more efficiently. How do you make something that’s more comfortable and has some sort of relevance to people, to the way that they use the things around them, use their tools?” Eventually he realized that it was impossible to think about transport without thinking about sanitation. According to the W.H.O., nearly 1.1 billion people worldwide do not have access to clean water. Every year, approximately two million people die from diarrheal illnesses, most of them children under five years old. “It just seemed like the problems were so closely linked that the problem of getting water and getting clean water were one and the same for so many people,” Olsen says.

In seeking to address this two-fold challenge, Olsen drew on the interdisciplinary atmosphere at California College of the Arts, where he is an instructor. Regular interaction with students and colleagues in fashion and industrial design, as well as the school’s extensive materials library, prompted him to think beyond traditional arch­itectural solutions. The resulting multifaceted approach greatly contributed to the project’s appeal, says Lance Hosey, a director of William McDonough + Partners and one of the Next Generation judges. “When you glance at it, it’s clear what it does. But it does so many dif­­ferent things at once that it’s hard to categorize. It’s displayed as a water vessel, as a shawl, even as roofing. It’s a weird design in that it crosses all these lines at once—graphic design, archi­tec­ture, and clothing at the same time. Sustainability needs more interdisciplinary solutions, and this is a great exam­ple.”

Hosey says he has seen other designs that address the dual problems of transporting and purifying water, but those usually offer a variation on an existing tool—an inflatable version of the “Oxfam bucket,” a vessel with a controlled nozzle for water sanitization that is widely used by relief agencies, for example. “Eric’s design is really brilliant because it starts from scratch,” Hosey says. “Instead of making a better bucket, he reduces the challenge to its essence—how to get safe water. A new type came out of looking at the basic problem rather than looking at the problems with existing solutions.”

In starting from scratch, Olsen says he thought back to the place where his interest in water began. The accordion-style construction of the tarpaulin is inspired by the saguaro cactus, which expands and contracts depending on the amount of moisture it contains. “I knew the technology that I wanted the project to engage,” he says. “I thought the device shouldn’t be stiff like an Evian bottle. It should be flexible, people should be able to wrap it and wear it. So I was interested in pleating, and looking for these examples in nature, that’s where the saguaro was important to me. It’s nature’s application of pleating.”

Olsen says simplicity was also paramount. This meant eschewing any computerized or other push-button solutions. “To most of the world’s population, what we describe as high-tech, the electrified technology, people don’t know what it is and don’t know how to use it,” he says. “I read lots and lots about water and the problems of clean water in the world, and one problem was simply communicating to people why water wasn’t clean. People don’t understand things as simple as you can get sick from water if that water is near where you keep your livestock. Part of the efficacy is in making it as easy to use as possible and kind of intuitive.”

Fiona Cousins, a mechanical engineer and principal at Arup and a Next Generation judge, agrees. “It’s very high-tech material, but it’s a low-tech problem that he’s solved,” she says. “One of the things that was nice about what Eric did is that it’s got no moving parts, there’s no electricity, no special controls. It’s actually a very static device. Its level of operational sophistication is about right for what it does.”

This foregrounding of function underlies Olsen’s work. Last year he was a Next Generation runner-up for his Electro-Conductive Gypsum Wallboard, which embeds flat-wire technology into a gypsum surface. Electrical objects can then be plugged directly into the wall—no outlet necessary. Olsen says both projects stem from the same fundamental concept. “Their relationship lies in the fact that they’re both new translations of things that are conventionally very fixed infrastructures in buildings,” he says. “The most profound changes in our built world come about not as a result of material aesthetics but more as a result of material invention. They’re like the most banal things that change and have such implications for the world.” Consider the wall outlet, he says. “There’s nothing about the wall outlet’s design visually, but it’s still part of our visual realm,” he says. “They’re so ubiquitous that they’re invisible to us. We don’t see them anymore. I’m interested in making these things that we don’t see anymore visible.”

A patent is currently pending for the wall board, and Olsen is negotiating a licensing agreement with a major building-materials manufacturer. He plans to install a prototype wall board in a house in Las Vegas this summer. The next step for Olsen will be to use the prize money to craft prototypes and begin testing, with a particular focus on the materials and the shape. While the tarpaulin was presented in the competition as a rectangular object resembling a swimming-pool raft, Olsen predicts it will ultimately take many different guises, which its simple design fluidly enables. “It’s more like a garment than it is like a building material in that it’s cut from a pattern, and that pattern can be easily modified.”

Olsen has been working on a slate of traditional projects lately (with the notable exception of an inflatable art gallery). But he says he envisions his future practice increasingly focusing on projects like the tarpaulin and the wall board—objects that are utilitarian in design and potentially monumental in impact. “I’m not interested in how we can make materials sparkle and glimmer and make them visually spectacular, but how we can make them performatively spectacular.”

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