Rainwater management in civic spaces and building exteriors

What if every expansive surface on a building could be optimized to control how water behaves? Depending on how much it has rained or snowed, buildings might want to adapt dynamically to how they react to water. If rain has been sporadic, perhaps a building would want to capture the water and store it for internal use. Maybe the roof and gutters could mechanically expand or unfurl, similar to a morphing wing, to collect more water. On the other hand, if it has been raining normally or perhaps excessively, roof materials would be designed to shed the water quickly by increasing the hydrophobicity to minimize leaks. Wall surfaces could repel water and dirt and never need cleaning; subway stations and underpasses could be lower maintenance and (mostly) graffiti-free. Indoors, some of the most reviled rooms could also be lower maintenance or even maintenance free, such as the bathroom.

Building interior spaces and water management

Imagine maintenance-free bathroom surfaces for showers, tubs, sinks, and even toilets! By maintenance-free, I mean surfaces that would not need to be scrubbed: vertical surfaces or tiles would be manufactured with hydrophobic microtextures to deter water minerals, soap, and other residue from collecting. Other banes such as tile grout mildew would have a harder time growing if these surfaces would dry more easily on their own. Toilets and sinks could maintain their clean appearance with less water use to clean them. Think about what it would mean for our health and watershed if we could drastically cut down on the harsh chemistry and water required to clean a bathroom.

Shower floors would present a slightly different challenge. A shower floor would need simultaneous or changeable properties — the ability to shed water on one hand, but also provide grip for safety. By rearranging the microtexture of the floor, grip level might be something that could “turn on” the same way you turn on the hot water or the lights. Perhaps the floor’s “grip mode” would activate when a sensor detected a person in the shower space.

Because these textures are so small and invisible, how would a designer communicate the presence of these attributes? Although advanced additive manufacturing will be able to custom texture materials to control these performance qualities, the designer’s task in this case would be to communicate that grip is “on” or “off.” Rather than using an obvious indicator like a red light to communicate that a floor is slippery, how could a programmable material communicate physically that it is slippery even if you cannot “see” slipperiness?

Similar programmable intelligent materials with on-off modes could find practical applications in the kitchen. Consider, for example, the design of dishware, flatware, and cookware that is often cleaned in dishwashers. Many types of plastic, metal, and ceramics (such as ceramic tile in the shower) retain residual water on their surfaces. After a dishwasher cycle is complete these products sometimes need to be hand dried, which could be a time-consuming extra step. Commercial chemical rinse agents such as Jet-Dry solve this issue but have not been tested conclusively for toxicity. In the age of intelligent matter, this variable of hydrophobicity or water dispersal might be able to be tuned in or turned on, and design decisions will have to be made to balance or find the right places to do this. If placed on the outside of a bowl, water could disperse, but the designer might not want to coat the inside of the bowl in order to avoid liquid foods such as soup or cereal sloshing out and making a mess. Perhaps a dishwasher might be able to activate a hydrophobic texture in a wash cycle using a magnetic field, which would allow residue to disperse in the washer without interfering with the eating experience during mealtime.

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