Designing for a world without water

Nature knows more than we do about extreme constraints. What can we learn from it?

Just yesterday morning, I went out to receive a delivery on my porch and returned with my socks soaking from the heavy fog. I curse it all summer long, living as I do in San Francisco. Interesting, isn’t it, that while there is so much hand-wringing about our 30-year drought, we are at the same time literally surrounded by water.

Simply look up into the sky at a single cloud, on average that white pouf holds 8 million gallons of water — enough to sustain 100,000 people for a day. Yet the water we harvest has become so scarce, its cost is greater than the devices invented to catch and deliver it.

All around the city we see solar and wind energy systems, rooftop gardens, and most recently, fog catchers, becoming vogue architectural accessories. An extremely cheap, recyclable kit has turned collecting your local water supply into the latest home improvement craze.

For most of us, water still comes from a very expensive faucet. But people are starting to recognize that water is all around us if we really look.
How might we imagine new ways to collect water? How do we get it off my socks and into my coffee cup?

Follow the beetle.

Photo by Harry and Rowena Kennedy CC BY

6 a.m. Somewhere in the Namib Desert

Spindly legs scuttle across the sand and dart to the top of a small ridge.
The sun peeks over the heat distorted horizon, stirring up an eastward morning wind. Orange, red, and a burning hot yellow core of the desert sun glisten across a shiny, bumpy, black shell. The beetle carefully angles itself so that its shell is a precise 45 degrees facing the wind — the most efficient angle to maximize its surface exposure to the precious moisture-laden breeze. Spiny electrostatic bumps extract particles of moisture from the breeze, consolidating them into tiny droplets between the protective bumps. Thirty kilometer per hour winds gust and the small droplets start to buckle and deform, sticking like glue to the shell. Ten minutes later the surface tension of a droplet gives way, rolling down the beetle’s waxy hydrophobic troughs towards its mouth.

0.01ml of water collected in one of the most arid and water parched places on earth.

Ok, so we’re not exactly living in the desert yet.

But here’s an example from our own backyard. While I was walking to the Point Reyes lighthouse the other day, I noticed dripping moisture from the trees amidst a bone-dry road soaked in sunshine. Animals aren’t the only example of adaptation to extreme circumstances. We can learn from the redwoods, too.

Photo by Martin Jambon CC BY

10 p.m. Portola Redwoods

Winds sway the top of the canopy at 300-feet above ground. Small particles of water smash against the leaves of these towering trees. The transpiration of water creates a small pull on the adjacent water molecules, conducting water from the leaf stomate right down to the roots of the redwood.

As the day drew to a close nearly 500 gallons of water were collected.

My fog catcher is a redwood. It is a beetle. It’s inspired by million-year-old natural processes which we’ve adopted into our lives, and made automatic. As I write this, its percolating my morning brew.

Here’s a few pages from my sketchbook, so you can see how it came to be:

Sketch explorations of various roof panel fog catchers
Sketch explorations of expanding and kite fog catchers
Portable fog catcher kit
Detail of capture container and hydrophilic surface texture to capture water vapor
Large scale rooftop fog catcher
View of my rooftop panel fog catcher. Photo courtesy of sf environment

As you can see, I’ve got a range of fog catchers where I live. Large scale rooftop catchers for showers and irigation. Rooftop panels for catching enough water to flush the toilets, and a small window-mounted microcatcher for my morning brew.

Here’s my pal Scott, retrieving a fresh batch of condensed fog.

Scott waits for his fog catcher to spool up enough water for his morning cup of Joe

7 a.m. Bernal Heights San Francisco

The water vapor presses against the funnel and forms into droplets which drip steadily into the beaker. The hydrostatic surfaces of the spongy hydrophilic funnel draw the water from the outside in.

Unhitching the beaker from the crinkled plastic tubing, Scott pours the precious carafe of water into the percolator, places it on the stovetop, and watches it bubble away. The light-roast aroma makes the room feel warmer.

200ml of water collected.

The redwoods and the beetle have been refining water harvesting technology for a million years. They got a big head start on us. In the drought-free days of yore, our water supply was delivered by a system that used potable water for everything from drinking to flushing to watering the lawn. That left us very few options when the spigot ran dry.

I’m excited to see what other ways we can learn from nature to become more self-sufficient water harvesters in the days to come.

Gotta go, my fogerated coffee’s ready.

Contributors: Scott Paterson, Dav Rauch, Aaron Wanch and Francois Rybarczyk

This is part seven of Tomorrow in Progress. Tomorrow in Progress is a series that explores what the future of life in the Bay Area might be like in 10–15 years. It’s an outcome of Adventuring, a new capability we’re practicing, like Design Thinking, that examines futures, design fiction, and inhabitation.

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