David Hertz, FAIA, has made sustainability central to his practice since the 1980s, and his eponymous firm aims for the highest sustainability standards in both residential and commercial projects. More recently, he started considering issues of resilience as they relate to water, and what he—and other architects—can do about it. In 2018, Hertz and a team of collaborators won $1.5 million in the Water Abundance XPrize, sponsored by the Tata Group and Australian Aid. The two-year competition aims to alleviate the global water crisis with energy-efficient technologies that harvest fresh water from artificial clouds.

In Los Angeles, where I’ve been practicing, we’ve had six years of sustained drought. I became more and more aware of how our buildings respond to water, how they collect it, and how they conserve it. There’s about six times more water vapor in the planet’s atmosphere than all the rivers combined, and it renews itself on a weekly basis. I began to think about abundance rather than scarcity. There’s the same amount of water there’s always been—it might be getting dirtier, but it’s just moving around in different states. How can we capture water vapor efficiently in terms of energy?

Is water a fundamental human right? Or should it be privatized and sold to us in little plastic bottles? The XPrize looked at an international challenge to address water; specifically, at amassing technology for water accumulation. The challenge was, who can make 2,000 liters of water in 24 hours, from air, using 100% renewable energy at a cost of less than 2 cents per liter? There were more than 100 teams that competed from 27 countries. What I invented was a process that mimics the way clouds are formed: it takes in warm air, which hits cold air and forms droplets of condensation that can be used as pure drinking water. A simple way to think of it is a tropical rainforest in a box.

What we developed can be rapidly deployed to communities around the world that face water scarcity or don’t have infrastructure, and it’s antithetical to large systems that are subject to failure. So if we’re talking about more extreme events like hurricanes or earthquakes, as we’ve seen in Puerto Rico, it’s inherently more resilient to have multiple systems that are local. It’s about decentralization; it’s about giving communities control over their own utilities. We have a resilience lab as part of my architecture firm that is focusing on systems solutions to develop nascent technologies in the face of these global challenges. We’re very interested in the model of being ready for a much more extreme future.

It’s interesting because other architects will say, “I don’t understand how water is part of architecture.” I think architects are uniquely well-suited to be creative problem solvers. — As told to Katherine Flynn