A Response to Turnbull by Kristy Chiu

PITCH_Africa: Design Considerations that Made a Difference

What does the developed world have to learn from developing countries such as Kenya? During Cooper Union professor and PITCH_Africa co-director David Turnbull’s presentation on September 24, 2012, he discussed his recent work on addressing water access in Africa, which could potentially change the approach to design in the United States, Europe, and other parts of the developed world. He is working with various organizations and the local people on multiple projects, including the Waterbank School in Laipikia, Kenya. This structure serves as a reservoir, a school, and a recreational center among many other things that are crucial to the community’s development. As an architecture student, I found PITCH_Africa’s innovative thinking inspiring, not only in the significant impact on people’s lives in Africa, but in the potential to impact lives worldwide.

PITCH_Africa, founded by Jane Harrison, is a non-profit organization based in the United States which addresses global environmental issues through design. Most recently, Harrison and Turnbull focused on finding an alternative solution to drilling into non-renewable aquifers to access water in Africa. Women and children walk miles to fetch water from these wells, which are often contaminated, dried up, or broken. In Africa, 60% of these wells are broken. Despite the difficulties involved in accessing water, rainfall is abundant, with about “13 times the amount of rain falling on the African continent than is needed by the population.” With this in mind, Harrison and Turnbull attended the 2007 Homeless World Cup in Copenhagen, where they witnessed how sports brought a community together while raising awareness of issues such as homelessness, HIV/AIDS, and drug addiction. They realized soccer fields not only created communal participation, but with such large surface areas, they could potentially harvest great amounts of rainwater in places such as Kenya.

The Waterbank School features a simply-constructed soccer stadium with storage space for water underneath the field’s porous surface and classrooms underneath the seating. This project was successful because PITCH_Africa focuses on decentralized infrastructures and advocates the use of local materials and methods to create a sustainable space which could easily be replicated for smaller scales and lower costs. Instead of using modern, expensive systems for purifying the collected water, the school uses filtering pots made with ancient principles. The organization Potters for Peace based in Central America makes the $20 pots by firing a mixture of clay and sawdust together, which filters the water, and dipping them in colloidal silver, which disinfects the water. In addition, PITCH_Africa is developing ways of harvesting rainwater on domestic scales, such as the “Rainchute,” which uses 1966 ex-Vietnam parachutes mounted on poles, a construction technique borrowed from the ethnic group Maasai. PITCH_Africa’s strength lies in this willingness to learn from the locals and to adopt local methods in their design, rather than getting caught up in the latest high technology. Locals accept the project as their own, rather than something imposed on them.

It is extraordinary that a single structure which includes a 15,000 liter reservoir with water filtration, a school, a clinic, gardens, and a courtyard cost approximately $50,000. The project’s resourcefulness definitely sheds a light on the way the developed world spends money. Cooper Union’s own building at 41 Cooper Square was the first academic building in New York City to get a LEED Platinum rating from the U.S. Green Building Council, certifying that the building is overall, highly sustainable. Yet, it cost approximately $115 million. While I agree that PITCH_Africa offers valuable design models for the developed world, I wonder how receptive the developed world would be. Although Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) ratings promote sustainable buildings, sustainability in the developed world seems rooted in high technology, such as using solar panels and photovoltaic cells, which increase energy efficiency, but are extremely costly. Even the production of such high technology requires materials and energy to transport, manufacture, assemble, and install. Would the developed world be willing to use low technology such as the filtering pots used in the Waterbank School? Although low technology is cheaper, the developed world is accustomed to its higher living standards, and may be less willing to adopt these innovations. However, with 7 billion people on the Earth and an ever-growing population, any actions to reduce the strain on the Earth’s limited resources are necessary and will ultimately benefit everyone.


Turnbull, David. “Design and Social Innovation.” The Cooper Union, 41 Cooper Square, New York, NY. 24 September 2012. Guest Presentation for the course S318: The Cooper Union World Forum.
Mwandia, Eric. “Mixing Water with Football.” EA Flyer Aug. 2012. Print.
41 Cooper Square in the Daily News. Cooper Union, 17 May 2012. Web. 14 Oct. 2012. ‹http://cooper.edu/about/news/41-cooper-square-daily-news›.
Cooper Union Board of Trustees. “Cooper Union’s Financial Challenges.” 7 Nov. 2010. PDF file.