Centre for Architecture Theory Criticism History
School of Architecture

Water + House Architectural Design of Water Infrastructure in Urban Dwellings

  • Marika Neustupny

Daily use of water in the home is of political interest since the effects of global warming have been apparent and population continues to rise. However, in order to realise any political intentions of resource management, it is not only the top-down thinking through of policy and technicalities surrounding the issue that is vital. Attitudes to water in everyday life have enormous impact. Elizabeth Shove has dissected this from a social point of view in Comfort, Cleanliness and Convenience (2003); this thesis investigates both everyday attitudes to water and how these might change, through architectural observation and design. Specific architectural strategies and techniques are explored via investigating water equipment such as pipe runs and faucets and how they intersect with spatial ideas.

The contemporary norm is to treat water as an unquestioned given, but the aim of this project is to search for ways to make architecture in tune with the qualities offered by water, and at the same time raise user awareness of water’s role in the house. Contemporary houses in Melbourne, Australia, show signs of increasing water use and separation of household members whilst engaging in water related activities. For example, provision of multiple ensuites means that each household member can have free reign of bathing, and never needs to negotiate time or space with anyone else. Although the extended amount of water used is also of importance in this example, this thesis argues that the concurrent increasing provision of pipes and faucets at will doesn’t support an essential nature of water. It may be possible to find a set of water conscious architectural techniques by uncovering the potential of the city’s natural landfall in relation to the provision of water services and their impact on housing typology, as well as understanding the gravitational and hydraulic principles of pipes and taps. Being able to manipulate basin, pipe and tap is key to effective designing of water in the residential sphere.

Basin, pipe and tap are termed water mediators for this thesis, and they are studied through observation of selected precedents, and design of relevant houses. The precedents are termed challenge-precedents in this instance, because they have been chosen for their capacity to disrupt Melbourne’s contemporary status quo in that they respond to the characteristics of water in various ways. They include elaboration of staying at Bittangabee campground, cottages and terrace houses from early colonial life in Melbourne, and both traditional minka and architectural houses of Kazuo Shinohara and SANAA / Kazuyo Sejima / Ryue Nishizawa focussing on houses in Tokyo. The Japanese vernacular house typologies include an earthen floored space known as doma, and the architect designed houses abstract this space – the earth floor is utilised for watershed / drainage and accommodates multiple wet activities. The Australian camping and historical challenge-precedents also centre wet areas on the ground in various ways, and an analysis of how each precedent deals with water and ground is one of the keys to interacting ideas from these examples with the design process.

As well as observation of challenge-precedents, this thesis examines issues and techniques of domestic water use through understanding basin-pipe-tap in the design of three houses by Melbourne architectural firm NMBW. The researcher is a partner in the practice and is jointly responsible for the designs, all of which were in at least some stage of progress during the candidacy. Through these design studies it was possible to scrutinise contemporary conditions and learn from challenge-precedents to make residential designs that are plausible in the real world. Knowledge implicit in practice has been documented and made explicit demonstrating that it is possible to combine design research and a negotiation with other practical concerns to challenge the status quo, piece by piece. The research outcomes have significance in the potential they demonstrate for improving contemporary norms of water use yet concurrently allowing for more integral relationships between design conceptualisation and the essential nature of water services. There is further significance in applying the method of this thesis to other building services as they relate to architectural design.

Daily practices engaging with water use are inherently social. In The Practice of Everyday Life (1984), Michel de Certeau compares the figure of the walker to linguistic terms that ‘initiate, maintain, or interrupt contact, such as “hello,” “well, well” etc.’[1] This thesis posits that similarly, water activities are always open to here-there relationships. Further, water cannot escape its own substance, nor the materiality of its surroundings. Contemporary social theorists such as Jane Bennett and Elizabeth Grosz discuss the material nature of habitual actions, including water activities. Water in daily life includes a semi-conscious component of experience, inextricably linked to the way it encloses human senses. So theoretically, water in the house can potentially set up social relations and engage with human perception. This thesis sets out to see what this means in the real world of commissioned design work. The methodology can be seen as an application of Henri Lefebvre’s proposal for countering the alienation of modernism, which is to be ‘resolved on the level of everyday life – by a new consciousness of that life, by the transformation of that life.’