Lets get Dirty

We are the microbial systems and live in a microbial world,  our survival as individuals, communities and as a species depend on it ! In the movie “War of The Worlds”, Steven Spielberg attributed the success of humans in surviving the aliens invasion, to our immune systems evolutionary adaptation  to withstand our microbial environment. Heres a look at how this could impact our design thinking from The Dirt

Designing Cities for Healthier Microbiomes

Artistic rendering of the human microbiome / The Why Files

Humans are essentially super-organisms or holobionts made up of both human cells and those of micro-organisms, such as viruses, bacteria, archea, protists, and fungi. Researchers now know the human body hosts a comprehensive ecosystem, largely established by age three, in which non-human cells vastly outnumber human cells. The latest study from the American Academy of Microbiology estimates each human ecosystem contains around 100 trillion cells of micro-organisms and just 37 trillion human cells.

But while rainforest or prairie ecosystems are now well-understood, the human ecosystem is less so. As researchers make new discoveries, there is a growing group of scientists who argue our microbiomes are deeply connected with our physical and mental health. The increased number of prebiotics and probiotics supplements on the shelf in drug stores and supermarkets, and availability of fresh pickles and kimchi in local farmers markets, are perhaps testaments to this increasingly-widespread belief.

The question at the Environmental Design Research Association (EDRA) conference in Oklahoma City was: Can we design cities to better support our microbiomes and in turn our overall health?

Through urban farming and gardening — or just plain playing in the dirt — humans can also increase their exposure to healthy microbes found in soils. A group of scientists and advocates argue that greater exposure could help fight depression and anxiety and reduce rates of asthma and allergies in both kids and adults.

The incredible increase of allergies among Western populations may be caused by our “sterile, germ-free environments” that cause our immune systems to over-react to everything from nuts to mold and pollen. Dr. Brett Finlay and Marie-Claire Arrieta even wrote a book exploring this: Let Them Eat Dirt: Saving Your Child from an Over-sanitized World.

Wener said we have created cities that reflect our fear of bacteria; instead we must create microbial-inclusive cities that improve our health. “Most microbes in our bodies have co-evolved with us. They are important to our vital functions. The future of urban planning and design should support healthy microbes.”

As part of this vision, landscape architects could design parks and plazas to be filled with accessible garden plots and soil-based play areas that let both adults and kids get dirty. We could design for holobionts instead of just people, boosting the health of the collective urban microbiome in the process.

Wener’s colleage at NYU — Elizabeth Henaff — is leading much of this research. Learn about her artful experiments. Read this article from Michael Pollan in The New York Times outlining the connections between our microbiome and health, and this Q&A from The Guardian.

Read the full article



From Jason King’s Landscape+Urbanism site



“Rendering of Houston wetland channel showing ecological wetland, conservation areas, and recreation trails” p. 90-91

An amazing resource posted on ASLA’s The Dirt (here) focuses on Design Guidelines for Urban Wetlands, specifically what shapes are optimal for performance. Using simulations and physical testing to investigate hydraulic performance the team from the Norman B. Leventhal Center for Advanced Urbanism (LCAU) at MIT. Led by Heidi Nepf, Alan Berger and Celina Balderas Guzman along with a team including Tyler Swingle, Waishan Qiu, Manoel Xavier, Samantha Cohen, and Jonah Susskind, the project aims to have a practice application in design guidance informed by research. From their site:js_plan_typical-01

“Although constructed wetlands and detention basins have been built for stormwater management for a long time, their design has been largely driven by hydrologic performance. Bringing together fluid dynamics, landscape architecture, and urban planning, this research project explored how these natural treatment systems can be designed as multi-functional urban infrastructure to manage flooding, improve water quality, enhance biodiversity, and create amenities in cities.”
Starting in the beginning by outlining ‘The Stormwater Imperative’, the above goal is explained in more depth, and issues with how we’ve tackled these problems are also discussed, such as civil-focused problem solving or lack of scalability, but also explore the potential for how, through intentional design, these systems “can create novel urban ecosystems that offer recreation, aesthetic, and ecological benefits.” (1)


The evolution that has resulted in destruction of wetlands through urbanization, coupled with deficient infrastructure leads to issues like flooding, water pollution due to the loss of the natural holding and filtering capacity of these systems and the increased flows. However, as pointed out by the authors, this can be an opportunity, as constructed wetlands “can partially restore some lost ecosystem services, especially in locations where wetlands do not currently exist.” (5)

The modeled flow patterns are also interesting, showing the differentiation from fast, regular, slow flows, along with any Eddy’s that were shown in dye testing using the flumes.

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Check it out and see what you think.  The report is available as a online version via ISSUU or via PDF download from the LCAU site, where there are also some additional resources.  All images in this post are from these reports and should be credited to the LCAU team.


Landscaping in post Day Zero Cape Town

BY  Kay Montgomery From SALI  South African Landscapers Institute

Planting with species that thrive on less than 500mm of winter rainfall a year is the new reality for landscaping in Cape Town.   

The politicians may have done away with the Day Zero concept, but the realities of the water situation in the Western Cape remains dire.

Water restrictions and the price of potable water have encouraged a new landscaping reality. The foundation of this reality is based on landscaping with plants that thrive with less than 500mm of winter rainfall. And in our current era of climate change, coping with dramatically wet years – followed by dramatically dry years.

Highs and lows

With an average rainfall of 464mm per annum, South Africa remains a water scarce country. In years gone by, Cape Town’s average rainfall was 820mm per annum. In 2013 and 2014, Cape Town’s annual rainfall exceeded this average with two dramatically wet years.

The winds of change arrived in 2015.  Over the past three years, the rainfall received in Cape Town has swung way below the average:  549mm in 2015, 634mm in 2016 and 499mm in 2017 – the driest year since observations began in 1921.

Resilient landscaping

Against this backdrop, landscapers are practising the art of resilient landscaping. “We need green spaces in our cities”, says Norah de Wet, Chairperson of the South African Landscapers’ Institute (SALI). “Professional landscapers are at the forefront of securing the intrinsic value of properties across the Western Cape by refitting, rehabilitating, restoring and installing resilient landscapes”.

Planting for resilience

“Choosing plants that can thrive in a winter rainfall area with less that 500mm a year of rainfall is key to the concept of resilient landscaping in the Western Cape”, says Deon van Eeden from Vula Environmental Services.  “Only with a sound knowledge of fynbos flora, can one succeed in designing water wise, ecologically sound, resilient landscapes for the winter rainfall area”, he adds.


What happened here ? Cape Town’s failed water supply?

Awaiting Day Zero: Cape Town Faces an Uncertain Water Future


After Cape Town restricted water use in February to 13 gallons per day per person, city residents now wait in increasingly long lines to collect water from the city’s natural springs.  AP PHOTO/BRAM JANSSEN 

South Africa’s second-largest city has pushed back the day when its taps are expected to run dry. But with its population growing and the climate warming, Cape Town, like many cities in semi-arid regions, must take decisive measures to meet its future water needs.

Backed by the iconic Table Mountain, Cape Town, South Africa’s second-largest metropolis, seduces increasing numbers of international travelers. Its charismatic neighborhoods, bright beaches, and breathtaking natural landscapes garner shelves-full of tourism awards and terabytes of glowing Instagram posts.

Recently, Cape Town also has become infamous as the home of “Day Zero,” the day when most of the city’s taps are predicted to run dry. With its major, rain-fed supply dams dangerously low after three years of drought, most of the city’s 4 million-plus residents — some rich, many desperately poor — have been facing the prospect of lining up at emergency water distribution points to collect a daily ration of just 6.6 gallons per person sometime before June or July. That’s when winter rains normally begin filling the reservoirs of this Southern Hemisphere city.

Now, largely thanks to radical conservation efforts — in January, the average Cape Town resident’s daily water quota was just one-third the amount used by the typical Californian at the height of that state’s 2016 drought — the city has reduced water consumption by 57 percent. Day Zero has been pushed back to July 9. And if the citizens of Cape Town (myself among them) continue to save as we have been, we should make it to the winter rainy season without having to line up for water.

So, disaster averted? Nothing to see here anymore? Far from it. The city’s efforts on the supply side of the water equation have been far less successful than its work on consumption. Even if the drought comes to an end in 2018 — and few experts are willing to predict that — the effects of this water crisis will be felt for years, possibly decades.

How did Cape Town, one of the best-managed and wealthiest cities in Africa, find itself on the brink of running dry?

Cape Town’s predicament provides a global warning about the difficulty of ensuring water resilience in a warming world, even if, as with Cape Town, climate change is firmly on the agenda of city managers. Most climate models predict that the Cape Town region will become not only warmer, but drier, which bodes ill for a metropolitan area whose population has roughly doubled to 4 million in the past three decades and continues to grow at 1 to 2 percent annually.

And Cape Town’s rushed efforts to boost water supply by tapping into aquifers, including some in national parks and provincial nature reserves, are damaging valuable ecosystems and putting rare species at risk of extinction. The agricultural sector, including the Cape region’s world-renowned wine industry, has been forced to sharply cut back on irrigation, which is reducing production and leaving tens of thousands of people out of work.

So how did Cape Town, one of the best-managed and wealthiest cities in Africa, find itself on the brink of running dry? The city has, after all, won awards for its work on climate change. South Africa has some of the world’s most detailed, progressive water laws and deep expertise in water science and management, climate science, and meteorology. The city has mapped projected sea level rise and convened countless climate change adaptation planning sessions. Last year, Cape Town’s mayor said, “We cannot plan anything without factoring in the impact of climate change.”

People wait to collect water from a natural spring in the Cape Town suburb of St. James in January 2018.

People wait to collect water from a natural spring in the Cape Town suburb of St. James in January 2018. RODGER BOSCH/AFP/GETTY IMAGES

A simple (and perhaps simplistic) answer to the cause of the current crisis is that rainfall was well below average for three years in a row, that no one could have or did predict that, and thus serious action to reduce water consumption — which should have begun in 2016 — came too late.  The crisis has exposed significant weaknesses in scientists’ ability to forecast weather on a seasonal scale, which is when it matters to city managers and farmers, and predict rainfall on an annual or decadal scale, which is when it matters to developers of large-scale infrastructure, such as raising dam heights and building desalination plants.

The southwestern part of South Africa has a Mediterranean climate much like the central coast of California, with hot, dry summers and cool, rainy winters (June through August.) The winter rains fill the six large dams around the city that form the core of the Western Cape Water Supply System (WCWSS), which services the vast majority of the city’s residential and industrial water users, as well as farming areas and smaller towns nearby.

The winter rains are generally very reliable. Using historical rainfall data, Piotr Wolski of the Climate Systems Analysis Group at the University of Cape Town has determined that a multi-year drought as severe as the current one would only be expected once every few hundred years, perhaps less than once in a millennium. The ongoing drought in the catchments of the WCWSS dams, he writes, “is indeed very, very rare, and thus very, very severe.” The historical rainfall record indicates that, having had two poor rainfall years in a row (2015 and 2016), the chances of a third bad year – especially one as bad as 2017 – were extremely remote.

In addition to historical data pointing to the extremely low likelihood of 2017’s winter being dry, the South African Weather Service modeled a three-month seasonal forecast for the winter of 2017 that predicted higher than average rainfall.Notwithstanding that seasonal rainfall forecasts for the Cape region are notoriously unreliable, it appears that officials were left feeling less urgency to impose hugely unpopular water restrictions or push forward with expensive water infrastructure projects early in the year.

Experts have long warned that Cape Town would find itself in a water crisis caused by converging drought, population growth, and the failure to secure new water resources. But because of uncertainties in water consumption rates and in weather and climate prediction, it’s been hard to fix a date.

The city’s water consumption has fallen from 317 million gallons per day in early 2015 to about 137 million gallons per day.

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What is one thing every ecologist should know about urban ecology?

An ecology for the Anthropocene


The High Line in New York City. Photo: David Maddox

Urban ecology has expanded in the last couple decades as a major, global, interdisciplinary field that advances biodiversity, sustainability, and fundamental ecological research in the context of cities and urbanization. With all this accumulated learning, has urban ecology made its mark in the field of ecology more generally?
In some of the most important peer-reviewed ecology journals, and on social media, it seems even the most basic of urban ecology concepts have yet to be appreciated or incorporated in the broader ecology discipline. For example, it’s been 25 years since Humans as Components of Ecosystems was published, and yet many ecologists still don’t see humans as part of how we define and study nature—despite the fact that every ecosystem on earth is affected by, and has effects on, people.

The High Line in New York City. Photo: David Maddox
In November 2017, Nature Ecology and Evolution published a major review of the field of ecology, titled “100 articles every ecologist should read” (behind a paywall, unfortunately). It must be noted that the list was a product of a extensive survey of ecologists. Nevertheless, many ecologists around the world took exception to the lack of gender and racial diversity, and its general lack of inclusivity (see here, here, and here). Notably lacking from these academic discussions has been a recognition of core contributions from urban ecology to how we understand, manage, and plan ecosystems on our urban planet.

It begs the question: what would a reading list be for the discipline of ecology in the Anthropecene? But we are getting ahead of ourselves.

No one disputes that the 100 papers listed by Nature Ecology and Evolution are important in the history of ecology. Indeed, everyone should read these papers. But is this the right list of 100 papers to understand ecology today? There are other papers that should make a reading list for a complete understanding of modern ecology. An alternative version of a “key reading” prompt could be this: what are the 100 papers that every ecologist must read to understand ecology today, in the Anthropocene? Social ecology, biophilia, justice, poverty, gender, values, the Global South, design, climate change, policy; these are just some of the topics that are core material for understanding the broad science of ecology today, These topics are largely missing from the 100 papers list.

And also missing, of course, is urban ecology.

As it happens, urban ecology routinely includes the aforementioned list of additional topics: social ecology, biophilia, justice, policy, and so on. How does urban ecology advance the state of the art in ecology more generally? It advances our understanding of how our current world works, how it might work better, and it lays foundations to turn that learning towards pressing Anthropocene challenges, both urban and non-urban.

We asked a diverse group to help our non-urban ecological colleagues understand some of the most important contributions from urban ecology for advancing the field of ecology. We asked them this question: What is one thing every ecologist should know about urban ecology? (We asked them to suggest a reading also—a start on a reading list.)

Along the way, let’s expand the idea of “ecology”.

via What is one thing every ecologist should know about urban ecology? – The Nature of Cities

The New Science of Designing for Humans

via The New Science of Designing for Humans | Stanford Social Innovation Review

Beyond Human Centred Design methodologies using behavioural science is proposed as more rigorous way to extend solution based design

The days of privileging creativity over science in design thinking are over. The rise of behavioral science and impact evaluation has created a new way for engineering programs and human interactions—a methodology called behavioral design.

(Illustration by Mike Austin)

Today the design of things that involve human interaction, such as programs, product delivery, and services, is more art than science. Here is how it typically works: We use our creativity to brainstorm a few big ideas, experts decide which one they like, and then investors bet on the winner, often with billions of dollars at stake.

This way of design thinking should be replaced by a superior method that can enable us to innovate with more success and less risk. Specifically, we can use scientific insights to generate new ideas and then systematically test and iterate on them to arrive at one that works.

Advances in two academic fields afford this opportunity. The first is behavioral science, which gives us empirical insights into how people interact with their environment and each other under different conditions. Behavioral science encompasses decades of research from various fields, including psychology, marketing, neuroscience, and, most recently, behavioral economics. For example, studies reveal that shorter deadlines lead to greater responsiveness than longer ones,1 that too much choice leads people to choose nothing,2 and many more observations, often counterintuitive, about how people react to specific elements of their context.

The second academic field is impact evaluation. Economists have used randomized controlled trials (RCTs) and other experimental methods to measure the impact of programs and policies. Such impact evaluations are becoming more and more common in the social sectorand in government. These methods allow us to test whether an innovation actually achieves the outcomes that the designer sought.

Taking a scientific approach also solves another common problem: Sometimes we do not even realize that there is something in need of rigorous, thoughtful design. When we look carefully, the success of most of what we design for people depends as much, if not more, on the human interaction as on the physical product. For example, the first iPhone offered essentially the same functions (phone, calendar, address book, etc.) as a BlackBerry, but it totally changed the experience of using those functions.

In the social and public sectors, programs and services are made up largely of human interactions. And yet anything involving human interaction can be designed more scientifically, and more successfully, when behavioral science and impact evaluation are applied. For instance, a vaccine is a technological product, but how and when parents get their children vaccinated, and how they are reminded to do so, is as much a part of the innovation as the vaccine itself. Poorly designed interactions make products less successful and can also underlie serious social problems.3

By putting behavioral science and impact evaluation together—a methodology we call behavioral design—we can design more like engineers than like artists. We can use behavioral science to develop ideas that are much more likely to work than those relying entirely on intuition. And we can rigorously test those ideas to determine which ones truly work. Following the model of engineering and scientific progress, we can build on prior success to make enormous advances that, under previous approaches, would not be possible.

A Better Methodology

At ideas42, the behavioral science innovation lab I co-lead, we encounter many different approaches to innovation among our partners. I have also spent considerable time comparing notes with experts in design thinking, attending design workshops, and reading about design methodologies. The typical approaches for innovation range from quickly brainstorming some ideas in a boardroom to using some version of human-centered design (HCD). Fundamentally, all of these approaches aim to generate “big ideas” that appeal to the intuition of a few decision makers considered experts in the area where the idea is to be implemented.

HCD appears to be the methodology of choice for a significant, and growing, number of organizations. The most advanced version begins with defining the problem or design mandate, and then conducts qualitative research with potential users and proceeds through a series of structured exercises to promote creative thinking. The design team may also test some crude prototypes to get feedback along the way. This approach is called “human-centered” because it focuses on users’ and other stakeholders’ needs and preferences.

In the qualitative research phase, designers use ethnographic techniques such as qualitative interviewing and observation. They not only interview potential users but also may talk to others, such as program administrators and front-line staff involved in delivering a program or product. In the design phase, HCD employs several techniques to enhance creativity (which remain useful in the next-generation behavioral design methodology as well). Finally, HCD ends with trying a few prototypes with a handful of potential users. Some ethnographic research methods are incorporated into HCD, but on the whole the approach is still much closer to an art than a science.

It is time to build on HCD with a better method. Let us begin our investigation by comparing how engineers invent new technology. Two features stand out. First, engineers rely on a rich set of insights from science to develop new ideas. Every invention builds on countless previous attempts. For example, the Wright brothers are credited with inventing the airplane, but the key parts of their design leaned on previous inventions. The wing was based on science that went back to 1738, when Daniel Bernoulli discovered his principle about the relationship between pressure and the speed with which a fluid is moving. The engine design was borrowed from automotive engines invented more than 25 years earlier. They were able to test model wings in a wind tunnel thanks to Frank H. Wenham, who had invented that critical apparatus 30 years before that, in 1871.4

Second, contrary to popular belief, inventions do not come simply from a single flash of insight, but rather from painstaking refinement in small steps. Sir James Dyson, the famous vacuum cleaner tycoon, went through 5,126 failed iterations of his new wind tunnel design to separate dirt from air before he landed on the right one.5 Inventors sometimes iterate only on particular components before working on the complete invention. For example, the Wright brothers tested some 200 wing designs in a wind tunnel before settling on the right one.

Why do engineers work so differently from those of us who are designing for human interactions? Until recently, we did not have a sufficiently large body of scientific insights that describes how humans interact with their environment, and each other, under different conditions. True, the field of user-experience design offers some insights, but it is very new and is still restricted to certain elements of digital interactions such as Web-page layout and font size. Direct marketers within for-profit businesses have experimented with letters and phone scripts for years, but those findings also cover a very narrow set of interactions and are often not public.

The second engineering feature—experimenting and iterating—is also hard to replicate, because measuring whether something “works” in this case is more complex than simply turning on a piece of technology and playing with it. We must first clearly define what outcomes we want from the design, devise a way to measure them, and finally run a test that reliably tells us whether our design is achieving them

More Rigorous Testing of Ideas

The problem with HCD and similar approaches to innovation is that they depend too much on intuition. Research has repeatedly shown that our intuitions about human beings are often wrong. Take the commonsensical idea that penalties always help prevent people from engaging in bad behaviors; this notion may have intuitive appeal, but it has proven false. For example, in a study of Israeli day-care centers that sanctioned parents for being late to pick up their children, researchers found that penalties made parents even more likely to be late.6 This is because they viewed the penalty as a cheap price for the option to be late, versus feeling bound by a social obligation to be timely.

Not only do the social and behavioral sciences give us better starting points, but it also enables us to prototype and test ideas more readily, because we can measure if they are working using impact evaluation methods as well as lab testing procedures from experimental psychology. We can then iterate and improve on the idea until we have a solution ready for implementation.

The behavioral design methodology incorporates HCD’s fundamental approach of being human centered and thoughtful, but adds scientific insights and iterative testing to advance HCD in three significant ways. First, it applies observations about people from experimental academic research. HCD’s reliance solely on self-reported and intuitive insights presents a risk, since so much human behavior is unconscious and not transparent. Also, psychology research shows that people’s self-perception is biased in several ways.7 When we do supplement academic insights with qualitative research, we can use behavioral science to make the latter less vulnerable to bias. For example, we can get more unvarnished answers by asking subjects what their peers typically do rather than what they themselves do. When asked about themselves, subjects may be embarrassed to admit to certain behaviors or may feel compelled to give what they assume the interviewer thinks is the “right” answer.

Second, behavioral design can enhance HCD in the design phase. The behavioral science literature can contribute ideas for solutions based on previously tested interventions. As behavioral design becomes more widely used, more and more data will become available on what designs work and under what conditions. In filtering ideas, we can use behavioral science to anticipate which solutions are likely to suffer from behavioral problems such as low adoption by participants or misperception of choices.

Third, this new approach improves upon HCD by adding more rigorous testing. Many HCD practitioners do test their ideas in prototype with users. While helpful, and part of behavioral design as well, quick user testing cannot tell us whether a solution works. Behavioral design leverages experimental methods to go much further without necessarily adding considerable cost or delay.

Using this approach, we test whether something works—whether it triggers a desired behavioral result—rather than whether the subject thinks something works. We can also test a single component of more complex designs, such as whether a particular piece of information included on a Web page makes a difference, in a lab setting with subjects from our target audience. This is analogous to aeronautical engineers testing wing designs in wind tunnels. By testing and iterating in the field, we do not need to bet on an untested big idea but instead can systematically develop one that we know works. Testing is also what makes it possible, in the design phase, to build on previous successful ideas.

ideas42’s work includes many examples of using behavioral design to invent solutions to tough social problems. For example, we recently worked with Arizona State University (ASU) to encourage more eligible students to apply for a special federal work-study program called SEED. In fall 2014, before we started working with ASU, only 11 percent of eligible students were applying for SEED jobs, leaving nearly $700,000 in financial aid funds unused. ASU wanted our help to increase this proportion.

Diagnosing the problem through a behavioral lens, and interviewing students and staff, we learned that students mistakenly believed that SEED jobs were menial and low-wage. Some thought that a work-study job would interfere with their education rather than complement it. Others intended to apply but missed the deadline or failed even to open the e-mail announcing the program. We designed a series of 12 e-mails to attempt to mitigate all of these barriers. The e-mails dispelled the misperceptions about workstudy jobs by stating the correct facts. They made the deadline more salient by reminding students how many dollars of aid they stood to lose. Behavioral research shows that losses loom larger than gains, so the loss framing promised to be more impactful than telling students how much they stood to gain. The e-mails asked students to make a specific plan for when they would complete the work-study job application to reduce the chance that they would forget or procrastinate past the deadline. These behaviorally informed e-mails were compared against a control group of 12 e-mails that contained only basic information about how to apply to the SEED program.

With the redesigned e-mails, which ASU has now adopted, 28 percent more students applied for jobs, and the number of total applications increased by 56 percent. As we were sending 12 e-mails, we used the opportunity to test 12 different subject lines to try to maximize the number of students who opened the e-mail. In five out of the 12 cases, the rate of opening increased by 50 percent or more, relative to a typical subject line. A subject line that increased the open rate from 37 percent to 64 percent made students feel special: “You have something other freshmen don’t.” The control in this case was commonly used language to remind the recipient of impending deadlines: “Apply now! SEED jobs close Thursday.”

The Behavioral Design Methodology

Efforts like this one may sound like nothing more than trial and error, but a systematic and scientific process underlies them that tracks the success of engineering or medicine more closely than HCD. It begins with defining a clear problem, diagnosing it, designing solutions, testing and refining the effectiveness of those ideas, and then scaling the solutions.8 It also starts from a body of knowledge from behavioral science, rather than intuition and guesswork, so that the solutions tried are more likely to succeed.

Let us take a closer look at these steps:

1. Define. The first step is to define the problem carefully to ensure that no assumptions for causes or solutions are implied and that the desired outcome is clear. For example, organizations we serve commonly ask: “How do we help our clients understand the value of our program?” In this formulation, the ultimate outcome is not explicitly defined, and there is an assumption that the best way to secure the outcome is the program (or product) in question. Say the relevant program is a financial education workshop. In this case, we do not know what behaviors the workshop is trying to encourage and whether classroom education is the best solution. We must define the problem only in terms of what behaviors we are trying to encourage (or discourage), such as getting people to save more.

2. Diagnose. This intensive phase generates hypotheses for behavioral reasons why the problem may be occurring. To identify potential behavioral hurdles, this approach draws insights from the behavioral science literature and what we know about the particular situation. For example, in the ASU work-study project, we hypothesized that many students intended to apply but failed to follow through because they procrastinated past the deadline or simply forgot it. Both are common behavioral underpinnings for such an intention-action gap.

After generating some initial hypotheses, the next step is to conduct qualitative research and data analysis to probe which behavioral barriers may be most prevalent and what features of the context may be triggering them. Here, “context” refers to any element of the physical environment, and any and all experiences that the consumer or program’s beneficiary is undergoing, even her physical or mental state in the moment.

Qualitative research usually includes observation, mystery shopping (purchasing a product or experiencing a program incognito to study it firsthand), and in-depth interviews. Unlike typical qualitative research that asks many “why” questions, the behavioral approach focuses on “how” questions, since people’s post-hoc perceptions of why they did something are likely to be inaccurate.

3. Design. Having filtered down and prioritized the list of possible behavioral barriers via the diagnosis phase, we can generate ideas for solutions. Here many of the structured creativity techniques of HCD prove useful. When possible, it is best to test a few ideas rather than to guess which solution seems best. Solutions also change during their journey from the whiteboard to the field, as numerous operational, financial, legal, and other constraints invariably crop up. Such adaptations are critical to making them scalable.

4. Test. We can then test our ideas using RCTs, in which we compare outcomes for a randomly selected treatment group vis-à-vis those for a control group that receives no treatment or the usual treatment. Although RCTs in academic research are often ambitious, multiyear undertakings, we can run much shorter trials to secure results. An RCT run for academic purposes may need to measure several long-term and indirect outcomes from a treatment. Such measurement typically requires extensive surveys that add time and cost. For iterating on a design, by contrast, we may only measure proximate indicators for the outcomes we are seeking. These are usually available from administrative data (such as response to an e-mail campaign), so we can measure them within days or weeks rather than years. We measure long-term outcomes as a final check only after we have settled on a final solution.

When RCTs are impossible to run even for early indicators, solutions can be tested that approximate experimental designs. A more detailed description of these other methods is outside the scope of this article but is available through the academic literature on program evaluation and experimental design.

If the solution is complex, we first test a crude prototype with a small sample of users to refine the design.9 We can also test components of the design in a lab first, in the way that engineers test wing designs in a wind tunnel. For example, if we are designing a new product and want to refine how we communicate features to potential users, we can test different versions in a lab to measure which one is easiest to understand.

5. Scale. Strictly speaking, innovation could end at testing. However, scaling is often not straightforward, so it is included in the methodology. This step also has parallels with engineering physical products, in that designing how affordably to manufacture a working prototype is, in itself, an invention challenge. Sometimes engineers must design entirely new machines just for large-scale manufacturing.

Scaling could first involve lowering the cost of delivering the solution without compromising its quality. On the surface, this step would be a matter of process optimization and technology, but as behavioral solutions are highly dependent on the details of delivery, we must design such optimization with a knowledge of behavioral principles. For example, some solutions rely on building a trusted relationship between frontline staff and customers, so we would not be able to achieve a cost reduction by digitizing that interface. The second part of scaling is encouraging adoption of an idea among providers and individuals, which itself could benefit from a scientific, experimental process of innovation.

A Closer Look at the Methodology

To be fair, it is sometimes impossible to go through the full, in-depth behavioral design process. But even in these cases, an abridged version drawing on scientific insights rather than creativity alone is always feasible. Notice that the define, diagnose, and design stages of the behavioral design process apply the scientific method in two ways: They draw on insights from the scientific literature to develop hypotheses, and they collect data to refine those hypotheses as much as possible. The first of these steps can be accomplished even in a few hours by a behavioral designer with sufficient expertise. The second component of data collection and analysis takes more time but can be shortened while still preserving a scientific foundation for the diagnosis and design. Field testing with a large sample can be the most time-consuming, but lab tests can be completed within days if time is constrained.

Two sorts of hurdles typically confront the full behavioral design process: lack of time and difficulty measuring outcomes. In our experience, time constraints are rarely generated by the problem being addressed. More often, they have to do with the challenges of complex organizations, such as budget cycles, limited windows to make changes to programs or policies, or impatience among the leadership. If organizations begin to allocate budgets for innovation, these artificial time constraints will disappear.

To better understand working under a time constraint, consider ideas42’s work with South Africa’s Western Cape to reduce road deaths during the region’s alcohol-fueled annual holiday period. The provincial government had a small budget left in the current year for a marketing campaign and only a few weeks until the holiday season began. The ideas42 team had to design a simple solution fast; there was no time to set up an RCT with a region-wide marketing campaign. The team instead used an abridged version of the first three stages to design a solution grounded in behavioral science. Quick diagnosis revealed that people were not thinking about safe driving any more than usual during the holidays, despite the higher risk from drunk driving. To make safe driving more salient, ideas42 designed a lottery in which car owners were automatically registered to win but would lose their chance if they were caught for any traffic violations. That design used two behavioral principles coming out of Prospect Theory,10 which tells us that people tend to overestimate small probabilities when they have something to gain, and that losses feel about twice as bad as the equivalent gain feels good.

Applying the first principle, we used a lottery, a small chance of winning big, rather than a small incentive given to everyone. Using the second, we gave people a lottery ticket and then threatened to take it away. Since an RCT was not feasible, we measured results by comparing road fatalities in the treatment period with road fatalities in the same month of the previous year; this showed a 40 percent reduction in road fatalities. There were no known changes in enforcement or any other policies. While ideas42 was not able to continue to collect data in subsequent years, because its contract ended, the program saw success in subsequent years as well, according to our contacts in government.

Adopting Behavioral Design

If you were convinced of behavioral design’s value and wanted to take the leap, how would you do it? There are resources available, and many more are still in the works. Behavioral insights are not yet readily available in one place for practitioners to access, but are instead spread out over a vast literature spanning many academic disciplines, including psychology, economics, neuroscience, marketing, political science, and law. Results from applications of behavioral science are even more distributed because many are self-published by institutions such as think tanks, impact evaluation firms, and innovation consultancies.

To mitigate this problem, ideas42, in partnership with major universities and institutions that practice behavioral design in some form, is building an easily searchable Web-based resource as well as a blog that will make it possible to find ready-to-use behavioral insights in one place. In the meantime, some of these organizations, including ideas42, also offer classes that teach elements of behavioral design as well as some key insights from behavioral science that practitioners would need in order to do behavioral design. As the practice of behavioral design is adopted more widely, and its use generates more insights, it will become more powerful. Like technology, it will be able to continue to build on previous discoveries.

Organizations and funders would also do well to adopt the behavioral design approach in their thinking more generally. Whenever someone proposes a new approach for innovation, people scour the methodology for the secret sauce that will transform them into creative geniuses. In this case, the methodology applications of behavioral science, in themselves, do have a lot to offer. But even more potential lies in changing organizational cultures and funding models to support a scientific, evidence-based approach to designing interventions. Here are three suggestions about how organizations can adopt behavior design:

Fund a process (and people good at it), not ideas. | Today’s model for funding innovation typically begins with a solution, not a problem. Funders look to finance the testing or scaling up of a new big idea, which by definition means there is no room for scientifically analyzing the problem and then, after testing, developing a solution. Funders should reject this approach and instead begin with the problem and finance a process, and people they deem competent, to crack that problem scientifically. To follow this path, funders must also become comfortable with larger investments in innovation. The behavioral design approach costs a lot more than whiteboards, sticky notes, and flip charts—the typical HCD tools—but the investment is worth it.

Embrace failure. | In a world where ideas are judged on expert opinion and outcomes are not carefully measured, solutions have no way of failing once they leave the sticky-note phase and get implemented. In a new world where ideas must demonstrably work to be successful, failure is built into the process, and the lessons learned from these failures are critical to that process. In fact, the failure rate can serve as a measure of the innovation team’s competence and their bonafide progress. To be really innovative, a certain amount of risk and courting failure is necessary. Adopting a process that includes failures can be hard to accept for many organizations, and for the managers within those organizations who do not want their careers to stall; but as in engineering and science, this is the only way to advance.

Rethink competitions. | The first XPRIZE for building a reusable spacecraft rekindled the excitement for competitions, which have now become common even outside the technology industry. However, competitions to invent new technology are fundamentally different: With a spacecraft, it is relatively easy to pick the winner by test-flying each entry. In the social sector, by contrast, competitions have judging panels that decide which idea wins. This represents a big-idea approach that fails to motivate people to generate and test ideas until they find one that demonstrably works well, rather than one that impresses judges. Staged competitions could work much better by following a behavioral-design approach. The first round could focus on identifying, or even putting together, the teams with the best mix of experience and knowledge in behavioral design and in the domain of the competition. Subsequent rounds could fund a few teams to develop their ideas iteratively. The teams whose solutions achieved some threshold of impact in a field test would win. Innovation charity Nesta’s Challenge Prize Centre has been using a similar approach successfully, as has the Robin Hood Foundation, with the help of ideas42.

Revolutionizing how we innovate presents a huge opportunity for improving existing programs, products, and policies. There is already sufficient scientific research and techniques to begin making the change, and we are learning more about how to better devise things for human interactions every day. The more we use a scientific approach to innovate, and construct platforms to capture findings, the more science we will have to build on. This immense promise of progress depends on changing organizational cultures and funding models. Funders can and must start to bet not on the right “big ideas” but on the right process for solving challenges and on the people who are experts in that process. They must also not just expect failures, but embrace them as the tried and true means for achieving innovation.

Continue reading


via Contact – Cape Resilient Landscaping Forum

As the City of Cape Town has just implemented water rationing, this media release  informs why we need  need to maintain resilient urban landscapes and gardens.



Wild green belt / city parkland. (Marijke Honig)

The water crisis is a major cause for concern and poses a serious threat to some businesses and people’s livelihoods.

On the positive side it has raised public awareness about the value of water, and highlighted the bad practice of using potable water for irrigation.

A workshop was held in August called ‘Water restrictions as an agent of positive change: how to create a resilient green industry’, attended by landscape architects, contractors, growers, compost and irrigation suppliers, retailers and others. One of the issues identified was the urgent need to educate people about the importance of the urban ecosystem and clear up confusion about the use of borehole water. Here is a communication from the newly formed Cape Resilient Landscaping Forum:



Low maintenance road verge with no irrigation. (Marijke Honig)


ALL green areas – whether planted landscapes, wild areas, or a road verge with weeds – contribute to the urban ecosystem. They are vital to our well-being: green areas produce air for us to breathe, they filter pollution, absorb storm water and reduce flooding, purify water and maintain a pleasant temperature. Without sufficient planted areas and infiltration – due to the many tarred and paved areas, and reflective surfaces – the city heats up. This is known as the urban heat island effect: pollution levels rise and our quality of life decreases. On summer days, especially when there is no wind, the raised temperature is already evident in the City Bowl, which is a few degrees hotter than the suburbs.

Gardens form an important part of the urban ecosystem and are not a luxury: they are a necessity. Green areas provide habitat for wildlife and are good for our well-being. Please do not feel guilty about gardening! We encourage anyone with access to alternative water sources, such as borehole or grey water, to use it responsibly to help maintain the urban ecosystem. Furthermore help spread awareness of its value and the importance of permeable surfaces for infiltration of rain. This will make a positive difference


Trees reduce air pollution in the urban environment, absorb CO2 and shade roads to decrease heat sink aspects. (Clare Burgess)

Some simple ways you can help preserve the urban ecosystem:

  1. Do not remove successful plants.Consider valuing plants for their resilience and ecological function, in addition to personal preference. A thriving common or weedy plant is better than nothing green at all!
  2. Mulch all planted areaswith a 5 to 10cm thick layer of mulch. This dramatically reduces water loss from the soil surface and keeps it cool. Organic mulches such as chipped wood and leaves are best, as they feed the soil and your plants.
  3. Keep areas planted, not paved. Consider how important it is for rainwater to infiltrate the soil: this is important for recharging groundwater (and good for trees) and keeps the ambient temperature down. Avoid hard surfaces where possible and usepermeable paving when a hard durable surface is required.
  4. If you do have a borehole, water deeply and infrequently. Mimic a good rainfall event of say 50mm and really saturate an area, with water penetrating at least 50-60cm into the soil. You may only need to do this every 3 to 4 weeks.

Two local resilient plants species – Hermannia pinnata and Senecio crassulifolius. (Marijke Honig)


For more information on resilient landscaping and an educational quizz ‘How water-wise are you?’ please visit https://resilientlandscaping.wordpress.com/

Text by Marijke Honig


Architects, Freeways, Rivers, Landscapes / Plantscaping & Politics

A current proposal by architect Michael Maltzan Michael Maltzan Envisions the Future of LA’s Infrastructure  in Archinect  showing copious planting overlaid on the 134 freeway in Los Angeles illustrates what has been a trend with architects c0-operating with engineers , in this case ARUP, to envision what infrastructural interventions in the urban fabric might become in terms of making more use of them and reducing their ecological footprint through green building, carbon reduction  interventions and by covering them in photoshop planting, led me to these thoughts that are here combined  with excerpts from a recent conference paper I gave at the ILASA Conference 2016 in Pretoria: jgq850aroyn9vzt9

View from above of Michael Maltzan’s proposed Arroyo Seco bridge overlay. Image: Michael Maltzan Architecture



Section Perspective. Image: Michael Maltzan Architecture

With impressive design diagrams and pictorial renderings the viewer is challenged to engage with a seeming reality that ignores or subsumes most of the actors emergent realities that these behemoths that they are trying to  camouflage, represent: The unsustainable and incoherent consumerism that underpins the way engineering and architectural solutions generally ignore the real environmental pickle that cities are in:

9k2me7d9w9kyzc1pGreen cruising: the view of the proposed overlay through a vehicle. Image: Michael Maltzan Architecture

In a lecture at the Harvard University Graduate School of Design, Bruno Latour posed the following question:
When we ponder how the global world could be made habitable – a question especially important for architects and designers – we now mean habitable for billions of humans and trillions of other creatures that no longer form a nature or, of course, a society, but rather, to use my term, a possible collective… But why has the world been made uninhabitable in the first place? More precisely, why has it not been conceived as if the question of its habitability was the only question worth asking? I am more and more convinced that the answer lies in this extremely short formula: lack of space” (Latour, B. 2009. Spheres and Networks: Two Ways to Reinterpret Globalization, Harvard Design Magazine Spring/Summer, 30 pp. 138-144, ).
Maybe this lack of space is why we need to rethink how we live together in the world. As human actors that have so dramatically altered the world, it is said that we have entered the Anthropocene. Latour continues by answering the question posed above:
As is now well known, the notion of environment began to occupy public consciousness precisely when it was realized that no human action could count on an outside environment anymore: There is no reserve outside which the unwanted consequences of our collective actions could be allowed to linger and disappear from view. Literally there is no outside, no décharge where we could discharge the refuse of our activity” (Latour 2009 p.3).
It is now widely accepted that cities are the primary source of this problem.  With more than 50% of the world’s population being urbanised, cities must become resilient in the face of the uncertainties of climate, economy and politics. Various attempts have been made to quantify the resource imbalances of cities’ consumption and waste in the form of: ecological footprints , urban metabolism and urban political ecology . These quantifications are needed so that the extent of the problems become visible. Research may lead to solutions to limit ongoing damage to the environment and may also redress this imbalance by making cities more sustainable and resilient for the survival of all their occupants, human and non-human, both now and in the future.

The smart cities and engineered solutions of architects and engineers fall far short of this goal in their version of “greenscaping” with aesthetically beautiful structures in verdant “nature” with scattered people looking on in wonder at their grand creations.

elijj3frik4jv5nrRendering for the new Sixth Street Bridge. Image: Michael Maltzan Architecture

Maltzan describes his proposal

Well, the proposal for the 134 freeway, the reason I got extremely excited about the 134 is the piece of infrastructure that we would take on, it could carry so many different pieces of the larger puzzle—not only in how you change infrastructure’s role in the city but how you change all of the pieces of the environmental portfolio of benefit. In our proposal, we’re dealing with sounds, lessening the negative acoustic impacts that extend way beyond the freeway. We’re talking about miles of effect that any piece of the freeway has because of how far sound travels. We were looking at a collection of water because It’s a little like a menu: you can pick and choose which pieces you useyou have a significant amount of acreage that the top of the bridge or any piece of the highway creates. We were looking at solar and electricity generation for exactly the same reason: it’s very difficult to find large places to put solar farms in a dense urban environment. And one of the most underutilized pieces of land literally are the air rights over any of the highways, whether they’re elevated or sunken or a bridge. And then the greening of the sides of the bridge to work from an environmental standpoint, and just aesthetically for the visual environment of where that bridge goes through. And then finally the catalytic roof that we’re proposing, that takes the emissions from the cars and converts it, because of the way UV reacts to these titanium dioxide crates, and that acts as a catalytic converter.”

Section Detail. Image: Michael Maltzan Architecture

While I am sure that their intentions are laudable and their goal is to stimulate large scale public works to counter the past and present environmental and social crisis, it is unlikely that the results of their visions will improve anyone except a select fews lives into city.

Maltzan continues:

All of these pieces don’t have to be in play for every mile of the highway all combined. It’s a little like a menu: you can pick and choose which pieces you use or you employ depending on what the different characteristics of the freeway are, and if it’s elevated or sunken down or at grade. I think that if you begin to take this and other ideas that could be added to the laundry list, and started to look at the highway network as a real positive and begin to retrofit pieces of it (especially when it goes through and affects different neighborhoods), I think it could be one of the largest transformative urban projects of any city, for any place on the planet.

CalTrans used to dream at that scale. The highways, when they were being built, coming out of post-World War II, were seen as one of the most progressive civic governmental projects that was being done any place on the planet. There were all these positive things that were meant to come from that. And I think it’s possible for an agency like CalTrans to reinvigorate the benefit of the highways. I think they’re going to be under more and more pressure to do that, especially as you start looking at the realities of autonomous cars and other means of transportation. That’s going to start to minimize or reduce traffic on the freeways, or at least the traffic footprint. I think it’s going to open up more and more space for the highways to perform in a very different way.”

The proposal, although on grand scale and while attacking many problems of the inefficient metabolism of cites, largely ignores the underlying causes of this problem: the unsustainable  consumerism that architects, engineers and city planners are dependent on for their livelihood – yes folks we have created the problem, through our designs, but designs alone, however smart they are, will not be enough to solve these problems

Overcoming these limitations requires a rethinking of the current development design process both by the relevant authorities, bureaucracies and by the design professions, the two entities who appear to be in cahoots in this process and who benefit the most by the exclusion of significant others from participating in the development agenda. They, the authorities and design professionals, have in, Latour’s terminology, “black-boxed” this process i.e. hidden its working from view  and any attempts by politicians or others to disentangle it or make its workings transparent seem doomed to failure . Some local examples of how this process results in urban “white elephants” in our local South African context are the Cape Town Stadium and Green Point Urban Park, built for the Soccer World Cup 2010, the Cape Town BRT system and the Gautrain, all of which are in my opinion examples of vested interests gaining control of huge public budgets to facilitate their own economic or political agendas. While admitting that the large-scale improvements in public spaces related to the stadiums generated an awareness of the importance of public space improvement and management, Edgar Pieterse  head of the African Centre for Cities criticises the results of these public space enhancements that were carried out in this process, as not having achieved the potential they might have. He writes;

It [the design of the public spaces] remains predominately an imaginary infused with middle class café culture expectations, replete with Lavazza cappuccinos and generous pedestrian orientated pavements. To be sure these are elements that greatly enhance the public realm but at the same time reinforce the dramatic bifurcation of public life for the rich and poor.” (Pieterse 2012 ).


Cape Town Stadium  Source Wikipedia

I believe that a political engagement is required to ignite a renewed interest in re-imaging the roles of the built environments’ participants, ecological environmentalists, social activists and those seeking a future for themselves and their offspring. It seems we should change from thinking about ourselves alone and think rather, for everyone as a whole, thereby supporting this process of change to more equitable and liveable settlements and cities. This applies especially to the “have-nots” who, if not catered for, will topple the entire structure with their neediness, frightening the “haves” with their greediness.
Pieterse suggests that in order to realise more dynamic and original public spaces, we need a more inclusive approach, one that encompasses and incorporates more of who we really are as a South African public:

….such sensibility calls for a [landscape?] architectural agenda, design approach, urban aesthetic and built fabric that opens up opportunities for frank engagements across lines of difference and privilege in order to induce the necessary discomfort and untidiness that can lead to the thorny conversations about who we are, and how we represent ourselves in space and where we may be going as cities and distinctive cultures” (Pieterse 2012 p.87).

The situation that ~Pieterse criticizes in the context of the South Africa is equally relevant to LA as was highlighted at the ILASA conference by landscape architect Astrid Sykes from Mia Lehrer Associates who are based in LA right next toto the river, in presenting their work of the last 20 years on the LA River  and a 2007 study done by a large multidisciplinary team for the city of Los Angeles on the future of the river that MLA were part of. While very positive in achieving consultation and buy-in from residents and the Mayor, it seems that this has been subverted by the City now 8 years later in appointing Frank Gehry’s  office to do a project on the future of the river that teemingly ignores the previous work and as yet shows no signs of the public participation and co-design the earlier project was tasked with. It remains to be seen if this is an extension earlier work or more “green sky” City Brand building that Gehry is famous for with his Bilboa Effect.



In the same newsletter of Archinect that the Michael Maltzan project featured above comes from is a post Archinect presents Next Up: The L.A. River, at the A+D Museum on Saturday, October 29!  Quoting from the newsletter

For the latest installment of Archinect’s live podcasting series, Next Up, we’re focusing on the L.A. River, and the wide swath of urbanist concerns within its ongoing master planning efforts.


It could be the project that makes, or breaks, Los Angeles. With a complex historical legacy and an often-misunderstood ecology, the L.A. River’s 51-mile stretch is at once a huge urban opportunity, and to many, an even bigger eyesore. Thirty years ago, nonprofit Friends of the Los Angeles River was founded to protect and advocate for the river, and shortly after, the City of L.A. began looking at ways to take better advantage of the immense resource. Since then, many more communities and stakeholders have joined the conversation, raising concerns of ecology, sustainability, gentrification, public space, affordable housing, social equity—a wealth of complexities that testifies to what a lightning rod of urbanist discourse the River has become.

While conversations about the L.A. River’s future have been percolating for decades, not until only a few years ago did the plans become a divisive topic for the general public—in no small part due to the appointment of Frank Gehry’s office as a leader in the city’s master planning initiative. Reporting on the public’s first peek at the firm’s plans, Christopher Hawthorne, architecture critic for the Los Angeles Times, wrote, “as the river takes on new shades of economic and political meaning—becoming a magnet for attention and investment after decades of near invisibility—the race to reimagine it is growing more crowded.”

This engagement with the physical infrastructure, social dynamics and politics of the city  might seem far from Landscape Architectures usual verdant concerns. To paraphrase the words of Brenner, Latour, Pieterse and Swyngedouw, “everything is political now” and if we wish our discipline to survive in this sea of change, we must become political and design and proselytize our own future place in this new cyborg or assemblage. Research is needed on how to create a transdisciplinary environment that can facilitate higher levels of engagement, participation and co-learning by politicians, publics, professionals and authorities alike, and is something that seems to be lacking in much of the current design process.

From the examples quoted above, it seems that large scale infrastructure is the very place to focus this engagement and to get out of the office, away from the computer and to get involved in a river, freeway proposal or  public space project near you now!

With my apologies to Michael Maltzan Architecture, Frank Gehry and ARUP .

Donovan Gillman

19 October 2016

This Onsite Pop-up Plant Turns Excavation Waste into Building Material

A promising new applications technology and innovative thinking reblogged from ARCHDAILY  
This Onsite Pop-up Plant Turns Excavation Waste into Building Material, Courtesy of Watershed Materials
Courtesy of Watershed Materials

Excavation is usually a bane for real estate developers. To make way for new buildings, truckloads of excavated waste are removed from site in a noisy, time-consuming and gas-guzzling process. Exploring a more sustainable solution, the California-based company Watershed Materials have developed an onsite pop-up plant which repurposes excavated material right at the job site to create concrete masonry units (CMUs) used in the development. By eliminating truck traffic, reusing waste and reducing imported materials, the result is a win for the environment.

The machine is shown here at Watershed Materials’ pilot block factory and research lab in Napa, California. Image Courtesy of Watershed Materials

The machine is shown here at Watershed Materials’ pilot block factory and research lab in Napa, California. Image Courtesy of Watershed Materials

The pop-up plant itself works by applying ultra-high compression to loose excavation spoils, transforming it into a sustainable CMU. The pressure turns the mineral grains into a sort of sedimentary rock, mimicking the natural geological process of lithification. This unique manufacturing technology is the brainchild of Watershed Materials, who previously developed the compression technique in order to reduce the amount of cement used in concrete blocks by 50%.

Sample structural masonry block produced by Watershed Materials using excavated soil samples from the Kirkham site. Image Courtesy of Watershed Materials

Sample structural masonry block produced by Watershed Materials using excavated soil samples from the Kirkham site. Image Courtesy of Watershed Materials

As the founder of the sustainable building materials startup David Easton points out: “There’s absolutely nothing new about building masonry structures from local materials. Some of the oldest and best-known architecture in the world has been constructed from stone and clay sourced directly on site.” But according to Easton, “what is new and absolutely groundbreaking is that with upgraded technology and improved material science, a construction waste product the developer had to pay to dispose of can now become an asset and provides environmental benefits as well.”

The Kirkham Project Community Plaza, a one-quarter acre accessible open space in the center of the development, provides excellent opportunities for installation of Watershed Materials blocks as pavers and landscaping features. Image Courtesy of Watershed Materials

The Kirkham Project Community Plaza, a one-quarter acre accessible open space in the center of the development, provides excellent opportunities for installation of Watershed Materials blocks as pavers and landscaping features. Image Courtesy of Watershed Materials

The pop-up plant was born when Naomi Porat, development manager of Alpha Group and part of the team working on the Kirkham Project, approached the startup to bring their technology straight to the construction site. The Kirkham Project is an urban infill redevelopment in San Francisco spanning across 445 new housing units, community plazas and gardens. While addressing the city’s need for additional housing, neighbors expressed concern over construction traffic, making it the perfect place to explore this onsite approach.

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