Inspired Infrastructure

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;
www.aia-mn.org.

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