Low-Tech Solutions for Complex Demands: An Interview with Architect Henry Glogau

In October, the ArchDaily team spoke with Henry Glogau during his stay in London, where he was working on a number of projects. At only 26 years old, his resume includes an impressive amount of international awards, which he has received for the relevance of his work to issues both so basic and urgent for humanity: access to potable water, sanitation and quality of life. Born in New Zealand, Henry moved to Copenhagen in 2018 to study at the Royal Danish Academy and for the past two years has been working at the 3XN GXN office as an architect in their innovation unit, alongside a multidisciplinary team. Below, read the conversation we had about some of his projects, his beliefs about the role of architecture, and his views on our responsibility to the planet.

Eduardo Souza (ArchDaily): Can you talk about your background and your desire to develop projects with a social impact?

Henry Glogau: During my studies in Auckland, I felt that a lot of what we were doing within architecture was very directed to a few privileged people that could afford architecture and luxury, like a 1% industry. When I graduated I was interested in looking for more possibilities that architecture and design could have and how the skills that I learned could potentially be harnessed in different parts of the world. 

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Courtesy of Henry Glogau

So I found this really exciting master's program at the Royal Danish Academy called “Architecture and Extreme Environments”, that was taught by the professor David Garcia. I was drawn to it because it was taking a perspective of how we look at some of the current and future issues in different parts of the world. The program would go to different extreme environments (tropical climates, cold or extremely hot places) and, through active expeditions, spend time in these territories to really understand its environmental, social and political challenges. I felt that this was a really interesting way to think about how, through a research by design approach, you can use architecture to explore topics which you normally can’t from the comfort of an office or university in New Zealand.

So I really became fascinated in how the skills that I learned could actually be applied for social good. The program was very much about how you connect with people, how you learn about different environments and how you harness local knowledge and expertise to help in the form of architecture. I wanted to think about trying something different and being a little bit more open-minded to the architectural opportunities.

ES: I would like to start understanding your projects and your design process.

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Courtesy of Henry Glogau

HG: My initial project was the Solar Desalination Skylights, which was based in Antofagasta, Chile. I knew that I was going to Chile for 6 weeks as part of this architectural program and I didn't know anything about the context, the environment, so I had to do a really intensive research to understand some of the challenges that Chile faces. I reached out to an influential local NGO called TECHO Chile that helped me to start understanding some of the challenges, especially around the rising informal settlement communities happening around South America. I also researched about the environment and opportunities, and understood that Chile has an abundance of solar energy, but also of sea water, as it is a coastal community.

I started making mind maps of these ideas, looking at the challenges within informal settlements: the lack of access to electricity, sanitation and water; and also looking at its opportunities: sea water and sunlight. So I started to figure out how these could be intertwined in some way and I came up with this initial project where I tried to create a low-tech and passive system that just utilized the natural environments to create resources. Through the basic system of solar desalination, I knew I could create a fresh water source from the evaporation process. So this initial project was very much an experimentation, it was about using design as a tool to start to learn and research. I wasn't going there to say: “Hey look, I'm going to solve all your problems with one thing”. But I had this prototype which allowed me to create and establish a dialogue with the community, understand how their lives in informal settlements operate on a daily basis, but also see how this technology could perhaps be used for potential water sources. 

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Courtesy of Henry Glogau

But what I really wanted to focus on wasn't something that was a separate utility that just creates water, but on how it could become part of people's everyday life. So trying to find those connections between the social and also the technological parts was important. During the six weeks I spent at this informal settlement community called Nueva Esperanza, I learned a lot about the challenges of resource scarcity, like the fact that they need water trucks. But I also learned about the importance of creating resource autonomy within a community where governmental systems have turned a blind eye. With little support, self-sufficiency and working collectively as a community are essential to survive.

It was interesting how my initial idea evolved after my time in Nueva Esperanza. I took a step back and started to critique and revaluate my whole approach and strategy for creating a water source. I don't think the right idea is to create a product that you manufacture in Denmark, in a facility where you have vacuum forms and CNC technologies, and then just take it to a location and implement it on the roof. Although it has nice features and it does what it does, in my eyes there is no opportunity for scalability and replicability. If something went wrong with this design, how was the community going to fix it or how is it going to be understood in a simple way? It was very much a “short-term design”. 

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Courtesy of Henry Glogau

One of the most amazing things that I experienced was when we started the workshops with the community members, where we tried to create the same idea with materials they found locally available. I think some of the most incredible ingenuity that I saw came from people that have very little resources. That was super inspiring because they went off and found plastic bottles, cans, different tarps and materials and we worked together to create the same design out of waste fractions that they had available.

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Courtesy of Henry Glogau

That really inspired me to see how I could take local knowledge and expertise, add some of the design skills I've learned, and combine these together in a project that was more a recipe book than a finished product. That was something that had evolved through the Lexus Design Award Internship Program, where we managed to get some funding to turn this into the Portable Solar Distiller, with something completely open-source, encouraging the idea of “hackability”. So we could have a recipe book that would work in Chile, but also in India or other parts of the world, where you look at a design for distribution approach. When you open source the blueprints, then people can start to use their material and expertise to create new ideas. It is not a finished product but it's something that is co-created and it can be expanded anywhere in the world.

ES: Could you please explain how these systems work?

HG: Basically, you hand pump seawater or polluted water into a bowl. Throughout the day the energy from the sun heats up this water and, instead of evaporating into the atmosphere, it gets trapped in the top section. All the fresh water will then trickle down into this bottom basin and all the impurities of the salt and polluted water stay behind. You're going to have a left-over salt brine which is going to be a waste resource, but instead of throwing it away, this salt brine goes into the series of seawater batteries around the perimeter that can light a LED strip during the night. At night you can turn on the light and you get an energy source through the salt batteries. And during the day, this is like a skylight, bringing natural light to the interiors.

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Courtesy of Henry Glogau

The power of the sun is amazing, and I was trying to copy this hydrological cycle. It can kill 99% of dangerous pathogens, remove salt brine and reduce the need of having to boil your water. I am not necessarily reinventing the wheel; solar distillers have been around for a long time, but a lot of these systems are heavy, expensive to make and with very complicated designs. I wanted to think about one which could potentially be portable and simple to construct, made out of local materials and able to Achieve a higher yield of water.

This new design was exactly the same but at a large scale. We created a recipe book that is a step-by-step guide on how you can create this same design using bamboo and local work. It could be flat packed into a bag and deployed very simply and quickly and then attached to a bamboo structure which allows structural rigidity but also a community shaded spot, where you can produce around 18 liters of purified water everyday.

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Courtesy of Henry Glogau
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Courtesy of Henry Glogau

You can make it out with a product version, but you could also make the same system out of plastic bottles. The same process happens, you fill it with polluted water, it evaporates, condensates and then comes down into this inner basin, and you could also trap rainwater. You could potentially use it in the ground as a natural insulator or hang it between buildings so they can be used in many different ways.

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Courtesy of Henry Glogau

ES: How do you see the potential of these projects, its limitations, and what are the next phases?

HG: I think this is a really good question because, like anything, it also comes down to trust and the way that you work with several people and communities, keeping in mind that everyone has a different way of creating resources. There are a couple of projects in Northern Colombia with an indigenous community that is having issues with access to water at the moment. For me it's about actually going out there and really trying to understand and observe how people work with the design and how we can create the methodology for optimizing it.

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Courtesy of Henry Glogau

I think there are lots of challenges when it comes to most of the technical aspects of making things as simple as possible, and trying to reduce the amount of complication around it. So there needs to be a lot more design optimization. For me this is a small scale idea that can be replicated potentially at a larger scale.

In the Autonomous Informality project I tried to think about how this idea could potentially be expanded through an architectural masterplan. Based in Antofagasta, Chile, the proposal explores how to create a social housing eco-system that empowers communities to become self-sustaining through natural resource production. This proposal is a discovery of resource autonomy, provoking thought of alternative ways of living. It investigates how architecture can play an active role in merging resource production with living. So I developed a masterplan that included the idea of incremental houses, public spaces and public amenities that could benefit from a seawater distribution network, including food production and market places. I became really fascinated on how we can merge architecture with our everyday living environments.

I think we need to be more connected to our resources. We are so used to just turning on our tap and knowing we're going to have a water source or that the food supply system won’t break, and we're relying so heavily on formal systems that I personally believe that we need to become more self-sufficient, more aware of where we get our resources. In the near future, when more of these kinds of natural disasters start to occur, if we don't have a prepared plan to be proactively engaged with how we create our own resources, I think we're going to be in a lot of trouble.

So hence this project investigation was speculating into how it could be possible to create energy out of seawater or how do we integrate solar energy within housing, and how do we have that kind of social attachment to our resources. It starts at this small scale like you saw with the skylights and then I thought about those ideas and how they could be scaled into larger proposals.

ES: And, in your opinion, what is the impact of architecture, socially or environmentally?

HG: It's a really good question because I think architecture has the opportunity to really shape the way we live, our behavior. It can be a powerful tool that allows us to connect with one another, create collaboration, and comfortable places. From a social point of view, it's also a really powerful tool that can be harnessed in a productive way both from the physiological and psychological perspectives.

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Courtesy of Henry Glogau

I see the benefits of architecture not just for the 1% of population, like I mentioned before, but also as being harnessed to work in even lower socioeconomic ranges and other scales. Unfortunately I don't think there are enough designers and architects out there putting the energy towards communities and spaces. We have an obligation to not just look at our own bubble, but also learn how to act in different parts of the world and have a sense of responsibility with architecture. When you start looking at the climatic and environmental challenges, all the impact that construction industry has on global emissions, the way we are deteriorating our planet with raw extraction and overuse of resources, we have to take a long hard look at ourselves. We should start to realize that architecture has the opportunity to be an example of change in the future, but it needs to happen pretty urgently.

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Courtesy of Henry Glogau

I'm really focused on the fact that we’ll have, by 2050, 3 billion people that are going to be living in informal settlements. When we talk about these cities of the future, I don't necessarily think that it's just about densifying and creating high-rises in the city of London, for example; the cities of the future, in my eyes, are these ones that are dealing with an informal urban sprawl. I think we have to be engaged and be designers that can work in these spaces. Resources like water and electricity should be basic human rights, and design should help to democratize them, especially through simple and low-tech solutions.

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Courtesy of Henry Glogau

ES: It is interesting that you mention we should embrace the notion of informality for a possible future in cities. As humanity, we have achieved so many great things, but we are not able to provide basic things like water and sanitation for a great part of the population. 

HG: It is really amazing because obviously there are some incredible technologies out there. There are people doing amazing things when it comes to how we create our resources, but a lot of these systems are very high-tech, very expensive and again, they are mostly for the privileged few. But when you look at those who might actually need these resources, I don't always think that high-tech solutions are the answer. We need to go back to basics, look back in history at traditional architecture and design that uses local materials, that can harness systems which have been used for hundreds and hundreds of years in communities. Not to always try to reinvent the wheel, but find these ways of using local skills and systems that find unique ways of reintroducing them into our designs and our spaces. We have to look far back to see how indigenous populations live, the way that flora and fauna have survived and adapted in changing contexts. The answers are out there, we just have to look a little bit closer into them and try to pull those out and use them in our design inspirations. 

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Courtesy of Henry Glogau

Another really important thing to me is how do we start to learn to work with our ecosystems rather than trying to fight against them. People talk about resilient design, resilient architecture and fighting against the changing environments. But I actually think that we are going to see these changes occurring in the years to come and we will inevitably have to find ways of working with that change in a positive way. There are potential bad situations that will happen but we also have to see the potential opportunities within those changing environments.

Editor's Note: This article was originally published on 

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Cite: Eduardo Souza. "Low-Tech Solutions for Complex Demands: An Interview with Architect Henry Glogau" 14 Jan 2023. ArchDaily. Accessed . <https://www.archdaily.com/991072/low-tech-solutions-for-complex-demands-an-interview-with-henry-glogau> ISSN 0719-8884

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