architecture, community, drinking water, homeless, sanitation

Water and Toilets for Humans w/o Homes

On a recent trip to my hometown, I traveled two hours north to visit a close family member living on the streets. He is chronically homeless, and it deeply saddens me he is unable to accept housing assistance. Someone chronically homeless is an “individual with a disabling condition who has either been continually homeless for a year or more or who has had at least four episodes of homelessness in the past 3 years.” There were around 650 thousand people homeless one night and 1.59 million people spent one night in a shelter in 2010, and about 17 percent were chronically homeless. Reasons such as high unemployment and/or substance abuse problems contribute to homelessness, but people without homes still have basic human needs. Basic needs that include water for drinking and washing and toilets to pee and poop.

Before the trip, I gathered basic living provisions for Nate (pseud.): backpack , raincoat, shoes, water bottle, and soap. But I worried “where would he fill his water bottle?” and I wondered “where would he use his soap?” While buying him lunch, I gingerly asked if he ever uses shelters. He doesn’t. He echoed what numerous other people feel, “shelters are dirty, dangerous, and packed.” This older ethnographic report by Hill and Stamey found the same sentiment. Nate essentially has nowhere to get water, take a bath, or use the bathroom. I was distraught to probe further, and I didn’t want to insult his dignity. But I now wonder more than ever before. What are US communities doing to provide water and toilets for humans without homes?


Above Photo: Leroy Allen Skalstad on Wikimedia Commons

There are few water and toilet options for individuals experiencing homelessness. For water, folks may use a public drinking fountain [not always nearby], sinks in a public bathroom [not always nearby], drinking fountains at a shelter [often not open during daytime], sinks in a private bathroom [could be kicked out], or ponds and streams [possibly contaminated]. For toilets, folks may use a public toilet [not always nearby], a toilet in a shelter [often not open during daytime], a private toilet [could be kicked out], or go outside [could be arrested]. It’s a challenging situation for those on the streets. I didn’t tell him I noticed when we took him to lunch, but the first thing Nate did was use the restaurant bathroom.

US cities need to do a better job ensuring ample public drinking water, hand-washing, and toilet facilities for those experiencing homelessness. There are organizations and cities addressing the issue, but more research needs to be done to inventory, categorize, and prioritize options nationwide.

Here are a few brief examples. The I am Waters Foundation provides bottled water to shelters, missions, and community homeless organizations. Central Oregon Veterans Outreach gives 5-6 gallon containers to homeless camps and returns to fill them with water weekly. Some shelters such as this one in Arizona host bottled water drives during summer months. Portland built six innovative Portland Loos. Another organization in San Francisco is proposing similar small bathrooms except with toilets that separate solid from liquid wastes. Several cities like Grand Rapids and San Diego installed portable toilets in the past.

The handful of water and toilet projects listed above are steps in the right direction, but sadly few of these options are available in Nate’s town. In addition, some are short-term solutions to long-term problems. It gives me hope that one academic architecture program is realizing the importance of design for those without homes hosting a Rethinking Shelter event, but it’s up to all of us to better understand water and toilet options available for those without homes and to advocate for appropriate solutions. In conjunction with PHLUSH, we’ll compile more information on this issue in future posts.

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architecture, art, community, drinking water, international, water availability, water events

Water-Art Activism Hits New York City

It always strikes me how a small but creative idea can spread spurring people around it to see the world in a new way. Or its ability to influence individuals to engage in positive change. Word Above the Street is one such idea.

Mary Jordan wants to “draw attention to Water as a precious resource by transforming 300 rooftop water tanks in New York City into works of art”. These works of art will focus on bringing awareness to water scarcity and water sanctity around the world. Professional artists, emergent artists, and youth have been asked to submit art ideas for the tanks.


Above Photo: Word Above The Street

Positive effects of this art project will be far-reaching. Over 8.4 million NYC residents, 5 million tourists, and millions of virtual visitors will be able to see the exhibition during the summer of 2012. This may be the first time many of these people have thought about water as an important issue, and this project may inspire others to further create positive change. Right on Word Above the Street!

architecture, drinking water, general, international, sanitation, water treatment

‘A Different Kind of Water Torture’ on the Huffington Post

“With the onset of hot, humid weather and early monsoon rains, situations of water-borne diseases such as viral hepatitis (A&E), gastroenteritis, typhoid and paratyphoid fever, cholera, dysentery, E-coli diarrhoea, giardiasis and intestinal worms, malaria, dengue fever, poliomyelitis and rotavirus diarrhoea in infants – the second major cause of childhood deaths – is likely to get worse if effective prevention and control measures are not adopted religiously.”

The above was the headline from a recent edition of The News International, the second largest English language newspaper in Pakistan. This summer has shown a rampant rise of water-borne illness in Islamabad and Rawalpindi. And in Pakistan alone, each year over 1.2 people die of water-borne illnesses.

In this same vein, John Sauer of Water Advocates in Washington DC has informed me of his recent post on the Huffington Post entitled “A Different Kind of Water Torture”. As the name might suggest, this post discusses the need to increase sanitation and water conveyance projects worldwide.

architecture, audio, dam, drinking water, economy, energy, floods, general, international, sustainability, technology

Dammed if we do, dammed if we don’t.

A friend sent along these great videos of a coffer dam being breached in super-fast speed. This video has since circulated the Internet extensively, but in case you haven’t seen it yet…

Marmot Dam Removal – ‘largest dam removal in Oregon’

This video shows the intentional breaching of a coffer dam, the final phase in a process to return the Sandy River to a free-flowing state.

Just like the Marmot Dam, most dams are finally demolished because of significant upkeep costs and concerns for fish.

So, what is the shelf-life of a dam?

Many dams constructed in the early 20th century are beginning to age and show signs of disrepair. The Association of State Dam Safety Officials (ASDSO) is keeping a watchful eye over the dams in America. With over 79,000 dams in the United States, the ASDSO supposes there are thousands (3,316 to be exact) of dams susceptible to collapse.

…the number of dams identified as unsafe is increasing at a faster rate than those being repaired.
– ADSO

The possible failure of a dam is probably the most likely contender for its removal. But, many environmental, socio-economic, aesthetic, and cultural benefits also occur with the removal of dams.

We Build Them…

World’s Five Largest Dams by Volume (completed and proposed)


Source of Data: InfoPlease

And, then we take them down…

Three Largest Proposed Dam Removals in the World (so far)

  • If approved, four dams on the Klamath River in California and Oregon.
  • Two dams on the Elwha River are cited for removal in 2012.
  • Matilija Dam: Will this dam in Ventura County, California be removed?

American Rivers has compiled a list of dams removed from 1999 to 2007. They state around 713 dams have been removed, to date.

architecture, groundwater, india, international, rainwater, sustainability

Water from the Fissures: Conservation and Skyscrapers

The new Bank of America Building at One Bryant Park in New York City is often billed as the “greenest skyscraper” in the world. Modeled after Four Times Square, another sustainable structure in the vicinity, the Bank of America Building recycles waste, air, water, and energy. This sustainable concept will result in a 50 percent decrease in potable water required for the building, as well as a reduction in stormwater output by over 95 percent. No small feat for the second largest building in New York City (just below the Empire State Building) scheduled to open sometime this year.

The Durst Organization, developer of the project, states One Bryant Park will be the “world’s most environmentally responsible high-rise office building, focusing on sustainable sites, water efficiency, indoor environmental quality, and energy and atmosphere.”

Such sustainable development will greatly lower water consumption. To meet LEED Platinum designation, for which this project strives, many measures will be implemented that focus solely on water conservation.

A living roof used to retain water during rain events, eliminate the need for stormwater retention, and regulate temperature in the building naturally. Additionally, rainwater will be collected for storage in four locations. This water will be used for flush toilets and a cooling system. Greywater will be treated and re-used for maximum net benefits.

Inside the building, waterless urinals and low-flow fixtures will decrease use of this precious resource. The waterless urinals alone will save over 3 million gallons of water each year!

In the basement, there will be 44 ice-tanks (each as big as a room) filled with treated greywater and frozen at night. These over-sized ice-cubes are a low-cost way to cool the building during the day as they melt.

And, as contractors excavated a large portion of the ground to build a solid base for the 54-story building, pockets of water were found in fissures of the rock. Instead of the usual pumping and dumping of this “fissure-water”, they were connected to a storage system in the base of the building. This groundwater, combined with steam condensation and air-conditioning condensation, will be mildly treated for use with flush toilets and the cooling system.

Water-savings at One Bryant Park are huge!

The New York City Department of Environmental Protection agrees. Accordingly, they reduced water-fees for the Bank of America Building by 25 percent. Overall, the Durst Organization states the project has been economically reasonable, with payback to occur in less than five-years and considerable long-term savings in water and energy costs.

It gives me hope to see massive high-rises implementing such sustainable building techniques. It affirms that technology is available and economically viable. If humans can build sustainable structures over 1,200 feet (366 meters) tall, then certainly we can build sustainable small buildings and homes. This makes me happy.

One Bryant Park is not the only superstructure on Earth implementing “green-building” techniques with such progressive methods of water conservation. This informative web-blog post, 15 Greenest Buildings in the World, on Geek About highlights fourteen others. There are many quick contenders around the world including the India Tower and the Residence Antilla in Mumbai.

Some of the background for this article came from the great series on PBS, ‘design – e2: the economics of being environmentally conscious‘.