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Shaakira Jassat graduated from the Design Academy Eindhoven with her project Aquatecture, a compact and aesthetic water harvesting panel which fits in denser urban spaces. It can be installed as a facade panel on buildings or as free standing elements in open spaces. Motivated by the droughts of 2017 in her home city of Cape Town, where the taps were expected to run dry. For Jassat, it was clear that her work should focus on the lack of water and how architecture can be readapted to embrace water. Aquatecture does just this, through a visualisation of water in the urban environment that helps to create a new relationship between people and water. After the first life size pilot installation for Aquatecture located in Cape Town, we caught up with Jassat to talk Namib Desert Beetle's and Bromeliad plants as the ultimate inspiration, and how we might create a symbiosis with nature through architecture.

Can you tell us about the process from an idea, to graduation project, to pilot scheme in South Africa?

During my study at the Design Academy Eindhoven, I have always been intrigued by water as a material in my projects. When I was busy with my ceramic minor at the end of 2017, Cape Town was experiencing a major drought and news reports were flooded with scenes of drying dams and dead fish due to no rain over a few years prior. It was natural that my work from that point on focused on the lack of water. I spent time in Cape Town at the height of the drought when the city was on the verge of Day Zero, the day the taps were expected to run dry. From investigating the hidden water footprint in a cup of tea to thinking about how architecture can be readapted to embrace water, I started to look around me and see where and how I could harvest water without turning open my tap.

What if we shared the rent with moss?

This research combined with looking at some great examples in nature like the Namib Desert Beetle inspired the Aquatecture project. The beetle lives in the desert and has been designed to condense water vapor through the bumps on its back. Similar to the beetle, I imagined our cities becoming self sufficient ecosystems, where each building could be responsible for its own consumption.

Image by Jazeed Hothey

During graduation, the main goal was to create a water harvester that would fit in dense urban spheres through its compactness, visual identity and ability to integrate into architecture. The work was exhibited as part of the GS19 Show at Campina during Dutch Design Week 2019 as well as new research steps on water friendly architecture, exhibited at Bio Art Laboratory that same year. It was well received by visitors and the media and I had many emails with questions after the show. From that point on, I saw the need to develop the panels further and have them implemented in reality. I shared the work with various contacts in South Africa. Mark Noble, development director at the V&A Waterfront in Cape Town was happy to facilitate the first pilot. Together with a great team and willing sponsorships from all parties this pilot has just been realized at the end of 2020 and we are now entering the monitoring phase.

How do you plan to use the data collected from the pilot scheme?

The pilot in South Africa has been set up to test the efficiency and durability of the panels. It will be closely monitored and data will be harvested so that the design and engineering of the panel can be developed further with improvements where necessary. The data will provide insight into whether material choices, ways of installation and openings on the panel itself, etc have been correctly made thus far and will be able to inform the onward development of the product. I am also keen to see how surrounding people and elements of nature interact with the installation. We have installed a weather station to monitor weather data too.

Image by Jazeed Hothey

How do you envision the implementation of the project on a wider scale?

It would be great to have Aquatecture implemented in places where water can become scarce. Bearing that in mind, I do think it is interesting to note that the Netherlands is known to be a water rich country and can also experience the issue of flash flooding at times. Aquatecture can help ease urban drainage systems in periods of floods by collecting rain as it falls from the sky, before it reaches the ground.

Aquatecture can help ease urban drainage systems in periods of floods by collecting rain as it falls from the sky, before it reaches the ground

With this in mind, I have just kicked off a project to realize the second pilot installation of Aquatecture in Eindhoven, supported by Cultuur Eindhoven. In order to strengthen product development for a wider application, and realize a final design that can be implemented easily in urban areas, I believe it is important to test Aquatecture in various climates. Once the R&D phase has been completed, my vision is to make Aquatecture available for installation on urban buildings or in open public spaces worldwide.

What do you need to scale this?

Right now funding seems to be the primary issue I face with the development of my work. Aquatecture is a large scale project and involves a multidisciplinary team who supports the project from engineering to manufacturing to installation. Due to this it can become difficult to realize the full potential of the project alone. I was lucky to have great support from South Africa and now also the Netherlands to help realize the first pilots, and now I am searching for development partners who are willing to contribute towards the project with funds and/or expertise.

Image by Jazeed Hothey

Can you say something about the design choices when creating the facade?

My goal from the onset was to have a panel that is compact, aesthetic and easily integrated in architecture. The functionality of the panel also played a role in the overall design choices and the patterns were chosen based on prototyping and testing. During my graduation, an in depth pattern research was conducted in collaboration with Japanese graphic designer Aya Kawasaki, prior to optimizing the final design of the openings. Prototypes of these were made and then tested with a real shower of water flowing slowly over them to emulate the rain as best as possible. Once I tested the patterns, I selected the most efficient design and modified it till I was satisfied with the combined effectiveness and aesthetics. Stainless steel was chosen for its durability in water applications. The pilot in South Africa is being tested in aluminum. Part of the pilot studies will be to see which material is best suited as well as tracking the embodied carbon of the materials and ensuring as least wastage of material in manufacturing as possible.

Image by Ronald Smits

How does your architectural background inform your design?

I worked as an interior architect in South Africa for around 7 years. Having this background and experience in architecture has taught me a lot about how buildings function and provides an overview of urban infrastructures. It makes it a bit easier to understand complex issues like water management. I do feel that till now architecture has not built much of a symbiosis with nature, it has been built mainly surrounding human needs.

I do feel that till now architecture has not built much of a symbiosis with nature, it has been built mainly surrounding human needs

With this background knowledge and a focus on creating and sustaining relationships with human and more than human life, I see myself in a unique position of trying to build new bridges in this area. The switch over to nature inclusive cities with care for our resources becoming central is a gradual process, needing time, care and dedication.

Image by Nick Bookelaar

What kind of relationship with nature does Aquatecture create?

Traditionally rain water is diverted away from buildings whereas Aquatecture provides a platform for water in architecture. Buildings are now able to receive the rain and collect and use it directly where it is needed. The harvested water could be pumped into the buildings grey water system and used to flush toilets. This would eliminate the use of fresh drinking water for these activities. Aquatecture also visualises water in the urban environment and helps to create a new relationship between people and water.

Buildings could use these natural principles to manage water and form a cooperative bond with surrounding ecosystems, if not enhance them

The ongoing research on embracing water in the urban environment also looks beyond just water harvesting. This research is inspired by Tillandsia and Bromeliad plants and these plants can harvest their own moisture and nutrients from the air. They often have symbiotic relationships with their surroundings. I studied these plants under the microscope at the Bio Art Laboratory and thereafter looked at similar ways that buildings could use these natural principles to manage water and form a cooperative bond with surrounding ecosystems, if not enhance them. A good example of this is one of the research maquette’s inspired by the tank like structure of a Bromeliad plant. It exhibits a facade which has protruding catchment leaves, allowing it to hold water for birds to drink from.

Image by Nick Bookelaar

What other potential do you see in the urban space, nature and design?

I do believe that there is a lot more potential to uncover when it comes to how we can live with water in our cities. Water is both calming and cleansing yet at the same time it can be a dangerous element. As a designer, I would like to spend more time gaining understanding of these elements better when attempting future designs with and for natural elements and humans. Lately my work has brought me to question the purpose of dwellings and if they could be viewed differently to what they are used for right now. I ask questions like: What if our buildings lasted as long as seasons do? What if I could bake my bread and my bricks in my kitchen? - What if we shared the rent with moss?

What if our buildings lasted as long as seasons do?

These questions inspire my process and push me out of the periphery into a new way of thinking and doing. It is within this space where possible innovations are born. For a more symbiotic relationship between urban space and nature, design does play a vital role as I see design becoming more responsible with each passing day. The urban space needs to redefine its relationship with ecology in order to display care for resources.

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What is the social responsibility of design?

Design has the ability to make things easier for people to experience and understand. It also has the power to create awareness. In my work, I try to package the complexity and depth of the topics and research that I undertake into an installation, or outcome that is relatable to people. I have always felt that design should have a purpose and be meaningful for humans and the earth, perhaps this is a feeling that came about whilst growing up in South Africa. I grew up in a young democracy and my grandparents came to South Africa as indentured laborers at the time of colonization.

I am conscious of the connection between decolonization and ecology

Having this lineage and growing up witnessing social divide and attempts at rebuilding a democracy surely has an effect on my work. More lately, I am conscious of the connection between decolonization and ecology. Natures cycles are affected by social systems. I hope to learn more about these causes and effects through my own personal process of decolonization in the coming year.

What other projects are you (planning to) work on now?

After the uncertainty experienced in 2020, I try to take things day by day. Apart from continuing my current projects, I have begun a new research of which I have shown the first steps at Dutch Design Week Virtual last year. I plan to continue this work in progress and remain curious as to where it would lead. The project is called ShellDwell and the fascination began with the egg. Isn’t the egg an amazing piece of architecture? - A hard protective shell with life contained within.

As we were forced to work from home since last year, I began using my kitchen as a research lab and experimenting with the potential of eggshells and other waste. In this project the intimacy of food, the kitchen space and waste start to form a relationship and all three are connected to us on a daily basis. Can this relationship influence the urban space of the future? Thus far, there have been some promising material outcomes, yet at the same time the research is expanding and exciting insights are starting to show up. To follow the next steps on this project, readers are welcome to follow @studio_sway on Instagram.

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