Sunday, June 8, 2008

Rainwater Catchment

We are working on a prototype for a rainwater catchment system at the school on site one. We located it there after talking with several volunteers. The idea is to showcase one of our studio's key site-wide principles--the catchment and reuse of rainwater--through the highly visible and communal program of the school. Also, a mock-up of a retrofitted water-catchment system at the school would hopefully bridge site one and site two, building momentum around both projects. Construction on site one is still underway, but some families are already starting to move into their homes.

Like a home, a school is more than a discrete object. If it is truly part of a system in which environmental, social, and economic factors must all be weighed carefully, then the design of any one individual object often has to defer to the overall system. And so, after visiting several hardware stores in Granada and beyond, we stopped designing the gutter itself. Ultimately, rather than fuss with the actual construction and cost of a GSD-designed gutter, we went with an off-the-shelf model that we could tweak. Sure, we fell in live with the zinc panels and the idea of folding them in a simple and clean way to channel water. But for a retrofit project, even the act of folding and connecting the sheets proved to be much more costly and labor intensive than the white vinyl store model. In the end, our modifications to the gutter amount to creating a rain chain and extending the gutter on the south side to create a long singular shoot of water into the cluster of barrels below and surrounding gardens and swales. Downspouts are common here, rain chains aren't. The simple and cheap addition will make visible the water from roof to barrel to garden. Total cost of the gutter for a 16-meter plus facade and several barrels is about $200 (USD). (See photo below of the crew picking up the gutter from the hardware store here.) Total cost of the plants--ranging from eucalyptus and thyme to star fruit and papaya--is expected to be just over $300 (USD). We´re picking up the plants from a Caterina-based nursery first thing tomorrow.

We also continued the search for barriles--Spanish for tin barrels--that we started a couple of days ago. Initially, we looked in Granada and then traveled just outside of Managua to scope out elements for our water catchment system, combining that trip with other research into materials and plants. Containers come in many forms, but in the end, we decided against a big plastic cistern (ranging from $250 to $500 USD for a 2500-liter tank). Instead, we opted for the old used barriles at 190 cordoba each, which is just under $10 USD. Clustered together, these recycled old barriles can be beautiful and functional.
Of course, how the barriles sit in the landscape and relate to each other is also part of the design. Tomorrow, we'll actually start clustering them on site. Also, hearing that another school eventually would likely be built on the site, we diagrammed the area with an extension to the existing building. It´s speculative, sure, but it helps us think about potential next moves for this communal space.

While there is clearly a need for cisterns for potable water, we view this first project as a modest prototype for what´s possible. The cost for a cistern for potable water is considerably more and requires a certain level of maintenance to go with it. Also, there´s the outstanding idea of having a cluster of families build a communal cistern as a first gesture on the site and excuse for participation. For now, the modest containers at the school are simply for irrigation and laundry purposes as well as construction, while it´s still going on. One of the volunteers expressed the other day how helpful it would be to have a supply of water on site for all of the ongoing building. And given our limited time here, we felt it was valuable to make the simple but powerful connection between water catchment and edible gardens. With the rise of global food shortages, promoting and supporting local food cultivation is becoming increasingly important. Apparently, Nicaraguans rely on exports for some 60% of their daily food, accordingly to Chris Shanks, co-director of Project Bona Fide, the nonprofit that runs the 43-acre cooperative farm that we visited last week in Ometepe. Fundamentally, this project is about water management and food security.

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