São Paulo, the largest city in the Southern Hemisphere with a population of nearly 12 million, has been rattled with one extreme weather event after another for the past several years: major flooding in early 2015 occurred in the middle of a severe drought. Over a single hour during a late February storm, nearly four inches of rain fell; roads soon became rivers, and the onrush of water swept cars away. But the flood failed to replenish the city’s reservoirs, and water levels stayed critically low even after the storm. A month later, another storm buried parts of the city in nearly 20 inches of water. Climate change is increasing the frequency and severity of weather events in São Paulo as much as it is in other areas of the globe—and many municipalities lack the resources or the funding to stave off the worst effects. Compounding the problem is that marginalized communities are often hit the hardest: São Paulo’s slums (also known as favelas), neglected by the government for decades and already vulnerable to state violence in the aftermath of the 2014 World Cup, witness a disproportionate amount of destruction when the flooding hits. Already lacking in water and waste infrastructure, favelas are faced with an increased threat when standing water isn’t drained away. Across Brazil, entire communities have been displaced when particularly strong storms rage across the country—but many people have nowhere else to go. The new forefront of environmental justice may indeed be marginalized communities in the Global South: the effective mitigation of climate change demands that those most impacted by natural disasters be safeguarded from future harm.
The key to combatting floods is not necessarily building levees—which are bound to break—or diverting rivers—which causes untold ecological damage—but making sure that citizens have safe, clean places where they can escape the high water. In São Paulo, ensuring the protection of the millions living in favelas is a daunting task, but it is one that students at the University of São Paulo are tackling with passion and determination. Led by Professor Lara Leite Barbosa at the College of Architecture and Urbanism, the students are designing portable bathrooms that can be shipped out across Brazil when flooding strikes.
The bathroom scheme, titled Project Apis, is named after the Latin word for bees. “The Apis Project bears this name because its biggest goal is to promote a boon for society that’s carried out in a collaborative way, from its conception to its construction,” says Dr. Barbosa. Her architecture students are not just sitting in classrooms mulling over blueprints, but venturing out to communities affected by the flooding and assessing human need. Rather than rely on a bureaucratic model of public service, students are using an experiential one.
The idea behind the bathrooms, explains Dr. Barbosa, is that there is a close relationship between physical movement and survival: the more mobile people are within a certain geographic space, the more capable they are of adapting to climatic conditions and settling into a new ecological niche. Dr. Barbosa, who studied the connection between nomadism and sustainability for her doctoral thesis, points out that when floods strike, getting people out of flooded areas and into shelter is essential. But shelters, too, quickly become unsanitary if there aren’t adequate facilities to service everyone. This is where the bathrooms come in. Professor Barbosa is challenging her students to design bathrooms that integrate “thoughtful use of material and energy resources” into their very structure, while maximizing social contribution: cumbersome, fixed-location bathrooms do little good when faced with sudden, sporadic floods. 21st-century disaster response in Brazil may yet incorporate ecological, human-centric design—in fact, these elements are necessary in order to bolster resiliency against the effects of climate change.
But favelas are not necessarily the most mobile environments. Roadways and transportation in the favelas are poor enough that many are not able to seek out shelter. That’s why it’s so important that the bathrooms themselves embody a kind of nomadic element, explains Marina Lima Medeiros, a student working on Project Apis. The bathrooms, she says, “can function independently of the existing urban infrastructure.”
Each bathroom contains single-sex showers, sinks, toilets, and dressing rooms. Designed to serve around 60 people per day, each bathroom functions as an independent unit and eliminates the need of connecting to municipal water or sewage systems. Therefore, says Dr. Barbosa, the bathrooms “reduce the spread of infectious diseases and other health problems due to lack of public health accommodations.”
Transportability is key to the project’s success, so the bathrooms are designed to be compact. They use built-in hydraulic and electric systems in order to operate away from the grid: solar panels on the units’ roofs heat water and produce electricity. (Energy generators provide backup power.) An “utrafiltration system,” meanwhile, collects water from the flooded area, then cleans the water to make it suitable for use in the showers and toilets. The bathrooms are inserted into shipping containers for ease of transportation.
Producing the bathrooms provides a windfall for the local economy, the students insist. Many materials inside the bathrooms are locally sourced: the partitions between the bathroom stalls are made of banana fiber, as is the exterior paneling. Banana fiber is abundant in São Paulo. “From a sustainability perspective,” explains Dr. Barbosa, “the use of local resources both diminishes the environmental impact of [the bathrooms] and facilitates the acceptance of banana fiber as a building material because it is culturally familiar for local people.” The more people see structures made of banana fiber, the more robust the local economy becomes.
The São Paulo students have partnered with several businesses to transform their designs into a functioning reality. Contain[it] is a construction company that builds the shipping containers for the bathrooms, while Imperveg—a company that produces polymers—donated all of the resin for the project, which is mixed with the banana fiber for construction purposes. Sociedade do Sol (Society of the Sun) is a local company that donated the solar panels, and another company, Sansuy, helped develop the flexible reservoirs for black water and gray water in the bathrooms. A company called Caldeplás, meanwhile, produced the reservoirs for cold water and hot water. If one thing is certain, building bathrooms is a dynamic process with the capability of engaging whole communities.
Students are working directly with the community of Eldorado, a municipality within the city of São Paulo with a population of 15,000. According to The Economist, Eldorado features one of the poorest and most violent of São Paulo’s slums—and the area has also been hit by successive flooding year after year. “Despite the fact that these floods have occurred periodically for many years now, it is still very difficult for the government to organize response teams in the aftermath of natural disasters,” notes Dr. Barbosa. “Each time we get a new mayor, we also get new officials, and that brings problems for the continuity of actions in the long term.” That’s where the bathrooms step in: the team at Project Apis hopes that once their working models are complete, they can turn over the bathrooms to the Ministry of Civil Defense, which can roll out the emergency units when strong storms strike the urban areas of Brazil.
Contained in these students’ work are profound lessons for community engagement as well as the human response to climate change. When human need is the central goal of design, an opportunity arises to respond to disaster in a way that regenerates places and communities.
In the words of Ms. Medeiros, one of the students involved in Apis, “Architects need to organize together with affected communities to collaborate in multidisciplinary teams. First and foremost, architects need to listen to the people who are suffering from natural disasters, because many times the local people suggest solutions that are most efficient and appropriate for the areas where these storm events occur, since they live there and know the risk areas very well.”
By listening, architects’ work becomes more like that of bees: a communal process of construction wherein each individual is nourished.