Inspired Infrastructure

The Clean Hub could bring solar electricity and basic sanitation to the world's slums

| May / June 2006

The United Nations' Millennium Development Goals call for significantly improving the lives of at least 100 million of the world's 1 billion slum dwellers by 2020, with an emphasis on providing access to safe drinking water and sanitation. Reaching those goals may seem beyond the ability of architects, but John Gavin Dwyer doesn't think so. He and his Minneapolis firm, Shelter Architecture, have designed a self-contained structure that would supply electricity, clean water, and toilet and bathing facilities to the people who need them the most.

Called the Clean Hub, the 10- by 20-foot unit has a V-shaped metal roof that collects rainwater and an adjustable array of 16 photovoltaic panels that can generate up to 2,640 watts of electricity. A reverse-osmosis system cleans water stored in a below-ground reservoir, where the gray water from showers and sinks is recycled. The toilets are waterless and self-composting. The building itself has impact-resistant stress-skin walls and secure entry doors, supported by a steel tube and a concrete-pier foundation that can adjust to sloped terrain and poor soil. The Clean Hub can serve temporary settlements such as refugee camps, but its 30-year life span makes it most suitable for semipermanent slums that lack basic infrastructure.

Servicing those global human settlements was the driving idea behind Dwyer's clever, compactly designed creation. After studying the work of a number of other architects, Dwyer realized that a new approach was necessary. 'Most were doing housing, when the real need was for infrastructure,' he says. So Dwyer developed the Clean Hub as a utility box that can be mass-produced and suit almost any site or climate. After consulting the Minnesota chapter of Architecture for Humanity, Dwyer 'sent 70 e-mails to various U.N. offices,' he says, 'and the one in Nairobi finally got back to me.' The office helped him connect with potential manufacturers, including General Electric, which worked with Dwyer to develop a business plan for the project. In the end, GE expressed an interest in manufacturing the Clean Hub, but not in financing or marketing it.

Dwyer doesn't seem deterred. 'The World Bank spends $15 billion a year on slum upgrades,' he notes, 'and for only $1 billion, we could build and deliver enough Clean Hubs to meet the U.N.'s Millennium Goal of improving 100 million lives.' Shelter Architecture is pursuing several grants to raise the $20,000 to $30,000 needed to build and test a prototype. In the meantime, Dwyer's efforts demonstrate what architects can do to make a difference in the world. 'At first, the U.N. wondered why an architect was interested in the subject,' he recalls. 'Architects can be proactive at a global level and articulate the value of doing things better.'

Thomas Fisher is an associate member of the American Institute of Architects. Reprinted from Architecture Minnesota (Jan./Feb. 2006). Subscriptions: $18/yr. (6 issues) from 275 Market St., Suite 54, Minneapolis, MN 55405;

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