In our society, we still use water to flush our waste and dirt away, just like we did in the Middle Ages.

No matter how much water you think you have, the inappropriate use of this precious resource is an issue that confronts us all. In the future, water should not be a vehicle for sewage and waste, but a closed circulatory system that emphasises its reuse and potential. That’s why one of our latest collaborations is with Austrian design office EOOS, grantees of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, to refine its revolutionary proposal for sanitation to ultimately function entirely off-grid.

I grew up in a village, in a house and garden next to a small river. There was always plenty of water, but even as kids we were aware that it must be used in the right way. In the fields near the river the frogs spawned in little ponds. When there was no rain, those pools dried out and thousands of eggs died. We would redirect water from the river to the fields, building little dams so that the eggs wouldn’t be washed away. We set up signs asking the farmers not to break the dams or contaminate the fields with liquid manure. We went to check on them every day. Thanks to our work, the frogs came back every year to the same spot where they were born and hatched from eggs. It’s a pity we stopped, but I can’t wait to share such a meaningful task with my six-month-old daughter.

Our family also had a 400-year-old holiday house in the Black Forest. My parents restored everything to the original layout, except for the bathrooms. They were turned from pit latrines into modern bathrooms using Luigi Colani’s suite in a curry colour, which was at the vanguard of the time (early 1980s), and still looks good today. A central feature of the house was a granite fountain, just outside in the garden. It would run 24/7, bringing fresh water straight from a spring. It produced a relaxing noise at night and we used it to cool drinks, as well as ourselves, in the summer months. We could play for entire days on the granite block that collected the water coming from a small metal spout right from the earth. Even today, I think it’s the most delicious water I’ve ever had.

Another time and place takes me to my university town of Freiburg in Germany, which has the most sophisticated medieval water-circulation system. Little creeks run around the city and were used to carry the dirt away. Today, it is an attraction for kids playing in the summer, and if you step into it and get your shoes wet by accident, it means you will marry a girl from Freiburg. It might not have the romantic legend, but living in São Paulo, I saw the same principle applied in the Tietê River, with water carrying away all kinds of waste. The same thing happened in Basel in the 1980s, when a huge chemical disaster filled the Rhine with pollution. Today, thousands of people swim in that river every day, which is surely still unthinkable in São Paulo anytime soon. Despite a boat sailing up and down the river all day long to clean it, after every heavy rainfall the water has this dirty dark-brown look, and smells disgusting again.

So, for most of my life I have lived in regions where water scarcity was not an issue, but rather the question was how to use this water. Today, with my colleagues at Laufen, we work a lot on ideas relating to efficiency, developing toilets, taps and showers that reduce water consumption. Yet still we have the same infrastructure systems as in the Middle Ages. We need a closed or semi-closed cycle to rescue water and use less energy for better waste-water treatment. We also need to reduce the impact of micropollutants and nitrate on our environment. Ultimately, our vision is for a completely off-grid sanitation solution that could operate anywhere.

To make this vision a reality, first of all it requires a change in vertically growing urban settings, in order to relax the pressure on horizontal infrastructure like sewage systems and water-treatment plants. Our project is focused not only on using less water but also minimising the contamination of the water, so it can be recycled more easily. With our friends at EOOS we are developing a toilet that is part of its engagement with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. This project’s overriding ambition is to improve conditions for the 4.5 billion people worldwide that currently don’t have access to safe, affordable sanitation.

In this collaboration we can not only contribute to achieve this, but also set a new standard for ecological sanitation. No matter how much you have on tap!

This article appeared in DAM69. Order your personal copy.