By Robert Barnes
The American Pavilion was designed by University of Washington students to be a sustainable house. They designed the building, travelled to Auroville, and built the pavilion in six months. It is a very well designed building, a little rough around the edges (it is, afterall, basically a prototype), and almost self-sufficient.
The pavilion is almost entirely off the electrical grid. Solar panels collect energy from the sun and store it in batteries which can last several days depending upon use. The limit to the solar electrical system is 2,000W, which severely limits the use of heavy draw equipment like washers, hair dryers, and blenders (anything that draws a lot of electricity to start or function). There are outlets in the bathroom, connected to the city electrical grid, that can handle heavy draw electronics. There are limitations on even this, however. The city currently cuts power twice a day for two hours each time, during which these outlets don’t receive power. For daily life electronics, such as computers and fans, the electricity cuts are never noticed.
The bathroom was originally designed with a composting toilet, a toilet that converts non-liquid bodily waste into compost and filters liquid bodily waste. These were designed as two separate sit down toilet seats. A person can poop in one and pee in the other, but doing both at one toilet seat breaks the system. There is also a splashing problem due to the shallow bowl design of the liquid waste section of the toilet. The people running the pavilion adapted the compost sit down toilet to the traditional Indian squat toilet. The benefits of this toilet is that changing toilet seats is not necessary, there is a small ridge that separates the two sections of the toilet so the waste does not mix. This is the first time I’ve seen a squat toilet more convenient to use than a sit down toilet. To “flush” either toilet, a scoop of sawdust is poured into the solid waste hole to cover things and a spray hose is used to wash down everything else. While it is traditional in India for people to use the hose to clean themselves after using the toilet, the compost system is able to handle toilet paper and tissue. About the only solid thing related to bodily waste it cannot handle is tampons that have plastic in them, these have to be burned.
The potable water system is self-contained. Rain water is collected and stored for later use for drinking and washing. The potable water from this system is notably free from bacteria and parasites that plague many travelers in India. The showers and washing machine use only unheated water and is usually cold, though on hot days it can be on the cool side instead of cold. There is one faucet that has hot water. This is because a lot of water is wasted waiting for the hot water to come out after turning the knob, so the hot water faucet for the building was situated directly below the water reservoir to minimize waste while waiting for the water to turn hot. Waste water, including liquid waste from the bathroom, goes through a marsh filtration system before being used to grow crops. The marsh system used here is similar to the one used by the cities of Martinez and Arcata in California state. The marsh plants and habitat, either manmade or natural, filters nitrates, nitrites, toxins, and metals out of the water and it becomes clean enough to drink. Environmental and food regulations in California prohibit the use of reclaimed water like this from being used for humans or crops to be eaten by humans, though humans can eat animals that eat crops watered with this water. There doesn’t seem to be any regulations regarding this in India. The reclaim water is used for crops after it goes through the marsh. Besides the natural (and cheap) filtration of this system, it also provides habitat for animals and plants as well as being able to help restore lost or damaged marsh and wetlands.
Crops are grown on site using the reclaim water after it’s filtered through the marsh. These crops provide a notable portion of the food consumed in the pavilion, though actual figures for this have been rather elusive so far. Coming after the crops are cows. There are many cows in the area, and they just kind of wander and eat whatever is tasty for them, which can often be what the poor humans find tasty as well. The pavilion’s answer to this are two dogs that live on site. The dogs’ primary responsibility is to keep the cows away from the crops as well as away from the roads. A secondary job they do is to bark at trespassers (it often seems like anything that moves). I’ve never seen one of the dogs actually bite a person, but I’ve seen them climb to an elevated position and bark constantly at someone until they eventually leave. A little tidbit regarding the dogs is that if you run towards the gate, the dogs will run after you and then end up in a wrestling match with each other.
The roof design for the pavilion is rather odd, but functional and economical. It’s also rather intriguing or attractive to those who like innovative architectural designs. Each of the buildings (four bedrooms and bathroom) have their own separate roof. Above all these buildings is a larger megaroof that covers everything but leaves a significant amount of space between the individual building roofs and the site roof. The megaroof provides shade over the entire site and the gap between building and site roofs provides for cool air circulation, keeping the rooms noticeably cooler than the surroundings.
While a lot of sustainable or renewable materials were used in the construction of the American Pavilion by the University of Washington students, the people here at the site have decided to build another sustainable house based upon the design of the American Pavilion but using a lot more sustainable or renewable material than the original building. The new building is a good example of how a prototype build by an outside group can be adapted by local people with more daily life knowledge of the environment and resources and a superior structure or object can be created that would have been beyond the capabilities of either group by themselves.