Taking home the Most Innovative project prize at the recent Flux Emerging Architects Design Competition, two Carnegie Mellon students have stimulated dialogue on waste and efficiency thanks to their reverse-engineered architectural project that puts water pipes on the outside of a building. With this unique method, the pair hope to remind citizens of the critical role of water pipes in urban infrastructure – an element often disregarded for the simple fact that it’s hidden – and to create intrinsic awareness of how much of the precious resource we use every day.

exposed water pipes outside building echoscool

Ecoschool site model.

“We wanted to create beautiful and austere environments, but at the same time promote honesty through the pipe networks to show that these systems can be made beautiful,” the project’s co-creator Sinan Goral tells CityLab. As the outdated American water and waste system begin to collapse, most notoriously and recently resulting in the ongoing Flint Water Crisis, the two students are urging city planners, architects and residents alike to consider wastewater as deeply as bricks and mortar. The project presented at Flux is for an educational facility dubbed EcoSchool which also integrates an on-site wastewater-processing system. Meanwhile, water from the exposed pipes can also be funneled off to water indoor plants.

Having water pipes on the exterior of a building of course also makes repairs and maintenance simpler and more efficient as often, problems in piping are discovered a little too late. This is not the first ‘reverse-engineered’ building the world has seen, however, as the now-iconic Centre Pompidou in Paris, France, has all its internal infrastructure, including water pipes, exposed and color-coded. Designed by a pan-European team of architects, the building was described as having “turned the architecture world upside down” by the New York Times in 2007.

While this kind of architecture might be new and inspiring to the USA, others are more skeptical on the difference it can really make in increasing awareness and preempting what can be dangerous disintegration of water systems. Speaking to progrss, Egyptian architect and urbanist Tamer Aly explained that visibility is not enough. “Although I believe that visual exposure can play a critical role in informing users about different elements and systems in the building environment, I doubt that by just exposing water pipes anything would change. In Cairo, water and waste pipes are almost always exposed. Actually, leaking pipes are exposed, though not by design. However, this has not changed people’s views or behavior regarding water conservation,” he says. “However, integrating the waste pipes into the waste processing in public space is very interesting and might very well work.”