With the challenges we will face in the near future, we need resilient and autonomous resource infrastructure for democratised access. Resource production can, and should, be symbiotic with our living environments. When we are designing something for everyday use, we also need to consider how it relates to areas other than basic utility – people’s social and emotional needs are just as important. The purpose of thinking more holistically about the design is to encourage people to engage with resource production in an approachable and understandable manner. User experience is therefore fundamental to its success. I wanted to showcase a low-tech and open-source approach, but perhaps along the way inspire new and better ideas.

Global urbanization has created a complexity of challenges, including rapid population growth and inequities within infrastructure and economic development. By 2050, it is predicted that 3 billion people will be living within informal settlements, which fall outside of government regulation. These communities are excluded from accessing the benefits of urban development and essential public services like water and electricity. They are the first to face the impact of the country’s worst water shortage in 60 years. Chile currently has around 110,000 families living in 800 of these settlements. Paying for overpriced water trucks or hacking into the grid has been their only option.

The Solar Desalination Skylight is a multifunctional fixture that aims to provide a holistic approach to resource production within Chile's coastal informal settlements. The design takes advantage of the abundant solar energy and seawater to generate drinking water, light and electrical energy. Through collaboration with a local Chilean NGO, called TECHO, the Skylight was installed and tested in an informal settlement community called ‘New Hope’ in Mejillones. Its biomimetic surface, emulating leaf venation networks and micro grooves, optimises the channelling of condensed water to increase collected yield. Over a 12-hour period, the Skylight could produce 540 ml of purified water, with a reduction of salinity from 36,000 parts per million (ppm) down to 20 ppm. Salt brine waste from the evaporation process is used to create energy chemically when placed in tubes holding copper and zinc. These 12 salt batteries power a LED light at night. Rather than being only highly utilitarian, it draws on the familiar by being embedded within everyday living environments as a formidable feature of the house. The diffused natural lighting provides a well-lit workspace and social area for the family.

A workshop was also organised with the community and TECHO to set up their first shared garden, implementing methods of solar desalination. The ideas and processes from the initial design were translated into low-tech versions using materials and construction methods that were readily accessible such as recycled bottles, cans, knives and tape.

The Portable Solar Distiller follows this line of thought and merges local resource production with community architecture. It provides freshwater and a shaded gathering space. Employing a lightweight modular system, the system can be constructed in different materials and configurations based on context and user needs. Designed with adaptability and accessibility in mind, anyone anywhere in the world can create their own solar distiller using available resources.

Informality within cities needs to be urgently addressed for the creation of safe, sustainable, and prosperous communities. With the inevitable future challenges of resource scarcity, we must explore autonomous processes which work with our eco-systems rather than against them. 

Henry Glogau is a New Zealander who recently graduated from the Royal Danish Academy in Copenhagen, Denmark. His master’s degree specialized in Architecture and Extreme Environments, where he explored present and future global challenges in expeditions to diverse locations. Henry is now working as an Architect at GXN, the green innovation unit of 3XN. The Portable Solar Distiller won the Lexus Design Award 2021 Grand Prix.