Your browser is no longer supported

For the best possible experience using our website we recommend you upgrade to a newer version or another browser.

Your browser appears to have cookies disabled. For the best experience of this website, please enable cookies in your browser

We use cookies to personalise your experience; learn more in our Privacy and Cookie Policy. You can opt out of some cookies by adjusting your browser settings; see the cookie policy for details. By using this site, you agree to our use of cookies.

World of Watercraft: the future of dryland ecosystems


As climate change intensifies, architects must become fluent in critical reasoning around water’s relationship to social, political and economic power

On the face of it, the term ‘watercraft’ conjures up images of boat construction. And considering the challenges presented by climate change and its impact on the hydrologic cycle, ark-building is a skill architects might conceivably want to cultivate. Here, however, watercraft refers to a set of abilities, a proficiency of both skill and artistry. Like stagecraft, tradecraft, statecraft or witchcraft, watercraft can be seen as a required body of knowledge and techniques, essential to designers working to achieve intended water, and societal, outcomes in drylands around the globe. Drylands (areas with an aridity index of less than 0.65) cover about 40 per cent of the world’s land area and support two billion people. Approximately one billion rely directly on dryland ecosystems for their livelihoods and another billion live in some of the world’s biggest cities, including Cairo, Mexico City and New Delhi. Around 90 per cent of those two billion are in developing nations. 

‘Distributed water is like distributed power, only 50 years behind’

While the amount of water in the planet’s hydrosphere remains constant, the means by which a warming atmosphere delivers that water is changing dramatically. The primary manifestation of global warming – increasing variability in precipitation – is already observable: longer, hotter dry periods, less reliable snowpack, earlier snowmelt, infrequent but intensive rainfall. In most drylands, this amounts to a significant reduction in renewable surface water and groundwater resources, exacerbating competition for water among agriculture, ecosystems, settlements, industry and energy production. In turn, this impacts on regional water, energy and food security. According to the UN, by 2025, 1.8 billion people will be living in absolute water scarcity, and as much as two-thirds of the world’s population could be living under water stress. 



Source: Sean Smith/Guardian News and Media

An indigenous Mazahua woman ‘defender of the water’ in Mexico City

In a rapidly urbanising world, action in urban centres is essential to successful global climate-change adaptation. That action is not limited to policy or technology fixes. New approaches to the built environment will have major implications for stabilising water supply, improving water quality and ensuring access. The inverse is also true: water supply, quality and access will have major implications for the design of the built environment. Urban centres are moving away from an over-dependence on energy-intensive transfers of snowmelt from remote watersheds, and working to reinforce local supplies through the collection and reuse of wastewater, grey water, stormwater and rain water. The result will be cities perforated with massively distributed water systems.  

Distributed water is like distributed power, only 50 years behind. Just as millions of rooftop photovoltaic panels, networked in batches, clusters and micro-grids, at times tying into larger utility-scale municipal systems and at times standing alone, offset dependence on obsolete energy sources, so localised water capture, storage and conveyance will occur at the basin, neighbourhood and building scale, offsetting provision from obsolete (carbon-intensive) infrastructures delivering remote (and increasingly variable) snow- melt from distant watersheds. A massively distributed water system is the equivalent of a diversified portfolio: it hedges your bets.

Investing in watercraft – synthesising greater fluency with science, policy and the histories and cultures of water systems and water management – will enable design professionals to make more substantive (and more radical) contributions, as water systems and the social relations around them are redrawn into the surfaces of everyday life. What is watercraft? And how do we build capacity for generations of skilful, sly and effective practitioners? It might be helpful to think of watercraft in three buckets: hardware, software and an animating spirit.  

150 first place

150 first place

Source: Perkins+Will

New digital mapping and design tools enable enhanced capture of stormwater run-off

The hardware of watercraft is, for architects, the simplest to apprehend. As communities, whether industrialised or developing, urban or rural, adopt more aggressive targets for conserving industrial, agricultural and domestic water, harvesting stormwater, recycling wastewater and replenishing groundwater, buildings will increasingly be required to serve infrastructural functions. Building form, materials, systems and assembly methods will continue to evolve to incorporate ever-more-precise water functions. As the need for low-carbon water systems is increasingly understood and mandated, and gravity is embraced as a carbon-free driver of water’s path through architectural membranes and conduits, roofs will continue to (re-)evolve as catchment surfaces. Gravity-fed distribution will inform parti and section, and foundations will incorporate filtration and storage. Building-integrated technologies will not only shape water’s path and containment, they will also shape human behaviours with visible architectural-scale metering, providing meaningful supply/demand feedback that supports a disciplined response to a variable resource.

The software of watercraft is more difficult to define because it is extra-disciplinary. For complex distributed water networks to operate successfully, architects need to be able to visualise, analyse and implement precise infrastructural functions for individual buildings in the context of watershed function, an already built-out urban fabric, overlapping and/or contradictory jurisdictional boundaries, and competing investment priorities. Impacts of distributed small-scale water infrastructures are not well understood, and in a landscape dotted with both natural and man-made risks and uncertainties, from fault lines and liquefaction zones to subsurface contamination sites and uneven investment zones, blanket policies can be counterproductive. How, at a parcel scale, do you assess the intertwined behaviours of urban water, energy, ecosystem and social processes to make design decisions in the interests of the greater good? How, at a planning scale, do you prioritise key green infrastructure projects for public investment? With the support of the American Institute of Architects, the Arid Lands Institute has been working with Perkins+Will, the Los Angeles Bureau of Engineering, and the Nature Conservancy to produce digital tools to facilitate decision-making across scales, accelerate scenario-based design processes, and generate cost-benefit and risk analyses. The tool, called Hazel (after the traditional divining rod), provides high-resolution data (accurate to 30m2) linking surface and subsurface conditions to identify suitable and unsuitable infiltration, storage and capture/convey sites, and provide economic and environmental metrics tied to design scenarios. 



Source: Mutus Liber. Published in France, 1677

Dew harvesting in the 17th century to collect water for use in alchemy 

To practise watercraft, however, software isn’t limited to data, analytics, best practice and prioritisation. The software of hydrologic thinking will require architects to be conversant with policy and finance. The unconventional Swiss cheese of hydrologic zones that make up a truly absorbent city – a built environment that accurately reflects, responds to and enhances the biophysical realities of hydrologic function – will be difficult to visualise, implement and manage, and even more difficult to finance. New tools for attracting private investment into green infrastructure development – stormwater credit trading markets, for example – offer promising pathways for accelerating distributed water systems. However enticing, architects should be equipped to address questions of equity and access; who benefits, and how exactly?

As has always been the case, design with water involves design with power. Water generates power, it embodies power, it bestows, limits and amplifies power. It depends on power. Power directs water; channels, delivers, denies and withholds water. Power depends on water. To redesign water systems is to rearrange power, to reallocate it, to redraw the water-power relationship. Control of water is control of power; sharing of water is the sharing of power.  

‘We need to build a design profession fluent in critical reasoning around water’s relationship to social, political and economic power.’

To practise watercraft, software that increases velocity and precision (and risks accelerating mere instrumental reason) won’t suffice. We need to build a design profession fluent in critical reasoning around water’s relationship to social, political and economic power. The best place to look for an expanded narrative of water as an instrument of power – and architecture’s role in enabling it – is, of course, history. Dur-Sharrukin. Masada. Nabataean Petra. Yazd. Chan Chan. The Alhambra. Baroque Rome. Tenochtitlán. Snaketown. Los Angeles. We could do a better job of equipping young architects with a critical reading of architecture’s role as an infrastructure of water and power. 

That critical awareness of, and resistance to, the role architecture can play in the service of its overlords, might animate the practice of watercraft, serve as its deus ex machina – the surprising or hidden mechanism interrupting a (seemingly ineluctable) narrative of global capital, saturated data and atmospheric rivers.

Ca proof 002 b

Ca proof 002 b

Source: Mustafah Abdulaziz

The absurdity of a well-watered golf course in the middle of California’s Palm Desert 

Maybe you emerge from that reading of history with an animating spirit that is cunningly subversive – your inner Robin Hood, or a Cold War double agent, practising watercraft as tradecraft. A stroke of sly deception and deft opportunism, an artful redirection of water and power away from dominant actors and into vulnerable, and also capable, hands. Maybe the animating spirit is deliberately a sleight of hand, a kind of watercraft as witchcraft. After all, a water witch is a dowser, divining, seeking hidden water pockets, interpreting signs, part oracle, part enchantress. Maybe the animating spirit of the watercraft you practise was handed to you from the Qu’ran, that all blessings, water included, belong to no one as of right, but are bestowed insha’Allah, as God wills. Or maybe your animating spirit is more secular – from Lewis Mumford perhaps, and his theory that good city form grew from ceremony not utility, a web of nested vessels from the tombs of the dead to baskets of seeds, from pots and jars to pit houses and villages, cisterns and fonts. Maybe it is a belief not in markets but commons.

Regardless, a spirit, a habit of mind, must permeate and operate the ones-and-zeros of your hardware and software calculations, and it’s best to own up to it, whatever it may be. To pretend otherwise is disingenuous capitulation. In the end, however watercraft is practised – at the artisanal scale of tiny small-batch water co-ops (watercraft as handicraft?) or in a shared-resource international border zone (watercraft as extrastatecraft?) – there is an opportunity. Not necessarily to turn climate change around, or to derail the forces of consumerism that drive it; but to decide who we are going to be – as individuals, as collaborators, as a trade – in the face of the titanic dislocations to come.

Lead Image: Domed water storage tanks in Yadz, the most arid city in Iran, cooled by traditional windcatcher towers

This piece is featured in the AR’s June 2017 issue on water – click here to purchase a copy